Monday, September 12, 2016

Fall 2016

I haven't updated the lab blog since February.  Geez.

So what have we been up to since then?

We have added a new lab member-- Heather Williams joined the lab as an M.S. student.  Heather was previously working in Dr. Tim Grabowski's fisheries laboratory; however, after he relocated to Hawaii (aloha, Tim!), we took her in.  Heather's project examines the effects of disturbance on Guadalupe bass ecology in central Texas.  She's doing some really neat work with prey items (bugs!), too, so we are excited to adopt her.

Britt has been wrapping up data collection for his dissertation.  He also recently successfully completed his oral and written comprehensive exams, and is now a Ph.D. candidate.  Go Britt!

Jonathan and Neil have been working on getting their projects going at the Valles Caldera National Preserve.  Both are asking interesting questions about the ecology of insects and fire at the site, and I am excited to see their data.

Last spring, I taught NRM 3323-- Prescribed Burning and my students had lots of opportunities to burn with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.  I am also so extremely grateful for these collaborations, as they provide safe real-world environments in which students can learn and refine skills.

We also sent a crew to burn with Florida State Parks crews in May 2016.  I can't thank Mike Melnechuk and his team enough for the opportunity.  The students LOVED the chance to burn in new ecosystems, see new fire behavior, and spend some time seeing the diversity of Florida habitats.

(C) Verble Fire Ecology Lab 2016.

This fall, I am teaching NRM 4304-- Fire Ecology and Management and NRM 1300-- Environmental Science as a Social Pursuit.  NRM 1300 recruits students outside our department and serves our freshman students.  I am loving the opportunity to get to know our incoming student population and get them introduced to the social issues that surround environmental management.

We're looking forward to a productive and fun semester!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Meet Neil!

The following is a guest blog by Neil Estes, an M.S. student in the Verble Fire Ecology Lab.

Hello, my name is Neil Estes and I am a graduate student in Dr. Verble’s lab. I have a B.S. in Range Science from Texas Tech which I completed in 2015. This is my second undergraduate degree. My first was in design communication completed in 2001. After finishing that first degree I worked in advertising in the Dallas area for 7 years. During those years I became hooked on training dogs to work livestock. 

After so many years in Dallas it all started to come together. By this time Advertising had run its course. I was looking for a big change. I had been in contact with a rancher in Oregon for some time and decided to take my love of dog training and level of livestock experience to the next level. I accepted a position as a shepherd and my dog and I headed northwest. I worked for a year in the northeastern part of Oregon.  I consider this dramatic change in my life the best decision I ever made. I even met my wife there. This experience-- more than any other-- led me to natural resource management, and I haven’t looked back since.  I believe there is no substitute for life experience. 

My research project focuses on thistle abundance and distribution as well as thistle-insect communities in the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico.  I have always loved the higher elevations in the mountains and have spent a lot of time bagging peaks in Colorado. This opportunity to work in the high country in New Mexico is simply amazing and I can’t wait for my first field season!

Contact Neil for more information about his work at TTU.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Meet Jonathan!

First, let me introduce myself.  I'm Jonathan Knudsen, one of Dr. Verble's new graduate students in the Fire Ecology Lab at Texas Tech.  I hail from the great state of Nebraska, Go Big Red!, where I completed my B.S. in Biology, focusing on ecology and zoology, from Doane University (formerly Doane College).  After graduation I took a summer field technician position with the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, where I conducted wetland assessments and frog call surveys.  I moved to east Tennessee at the end of the summer and promptly found work in a moonshine distillery!  During the next three years I was fortunate to work in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains and take in all that they offered.  I picked up fly fishing and often spent my free time seeking out remote stretches of stream in search of brook trout.  During the spring of 2013, I took a three month internship at the Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, helping to implement their sea turtle nest monitoring program.  Three months on a tropical island in the South China Sea with crystal clear blue water and coral reef just off the beach, let me tell you, it was just as bad as it sounds.  I joined the lab in early October, after a whirl-wind of a month finishing a field technician position in south-central Tennessee, quickly packing, and finding a place to live.  I have settled into Lubbock, and have been using my time here to get a jump start on my project before classes begin. 

Clear skies and clear waters

My research project focuses on evaluating the impact of wildfire on ant communities in the Valles Caldera National Preserve, another picturesque field site.  My research interests center around the effects of habitat management and restoration on arthropod and amphibian communities.  Specifically the use of fire in managing and restoring habitats, and the impact of recreational use on arthropod and amphibian communities.  Currently, along with two terrific undergraduates, Zac and Maria, I am sorting through the back catalog of samples from Valles Caldera.  Samples are collected from pitfall traps, a container buried flush with the ground and partially filled with preservative, and sorted by morphospecies.  Once sorted, a representative from each morphospecies is pinned and given a unique code for identifying which pitfall trap it was from and the dates the trap was left open.  After pinning, the specimens are identified to species, when possible, and that data is recorded for analysis.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Fall 2015 Round-up

The Fall 2015 academic semester has ended at Texas Tech University, and students are on their way back to the places from which they will be from (to paraphrase an excellent Semisonic ballad).  I have submitted final grades and am spending some time working on neglected manuscripts and new proposals.

This semester saw the addition of two B.S.students-- Zac Tatum and Maria Gracias-Hernandez and two M.S. students to the lab-- Neil Estes and Jonathan Knudsen.  They have brought renewed energy and enthusiasm as they formulate ideas and proposals.  Britt Smith completed his dissertation proposal (woo hoo!) and is working on sorting hundreds of insect samples that he collected this summer.

The lab attended the Association for Fire Ecology's 6th Fire Congress in San Antonio, Texas.  I presented my work on fire effects on ant populations, communities, and body condition in a special session on fire effects on animals led by Dr. Derek Scasta (U. Wyoming).  Britt Smith presented a project on Google Trends during the poster session.  We also managed to check out a few cool places along the Riverwalk while we were there.

L-R, Neil Estes, Britt Smith, Jonathan Knudsen begrudgingly pose for a photo by a bridge

I'm already looking forward to Spring 2016-- Prescribed burning class (always a blast!), new exciting projects at the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico, Southwestern Branch of the Entomological Society of American meetings in February, and the International Association for Wildland Fire 5th Annual Fire Behavior and Fuels conference in Portland, Oregon in April.  

I hope all of you have a safe and wonderful winter break and a happy holiday season!

Wildland fire search terms: trends and patterns

The following is a guest blog by Ph.D. student, Britt Smith.  Britt presented this research at the Association for Fire Ecology fire congress in San Antonio, Texas in November 2015.  For more information or questions about the project, you can contact him directly via e-mail.

Search engines can provide insight into how interested and engaged the public are about issues surrounding wildland fire.  Public interest in wildland fire can be influenced by several sources such as media, social networks, and peers.  News outlets often report on destructive wildfires, while often underreporting the use of prescribed fire (Jacobson et al. 2001).  With many people living in the wildland-urban interface, educating the public on wildland fire management and mitigation practices is an important goal.  Trends in search term use can help gauge public engagement of wildland fire knowledge.  Analysis of search terms can help us identify seasonal patterns of term interest.  Using search terms as indicators of interest provides another metric to examine public outreach and education efforts, and estimate future need.

We explored trends in five wildland fire search terms over the past decade and discerned existing patterns. 

We obtained search results from Google Trends using the terms: prescribed fire, prescribed burn, controlled burn, wildfire, and wildland fire.  Our search results were georestricted to the United States.  Search results were limited to the time frame of January 2004 (the earliest possible date) and December 2014.  The results from Google Tends are standardized from 0-100, with 100 being considered greater interest.  Google also excludes low volume searches, as well as duplicate searches from an individual.  We truncated search term results containing zero interest to the month following zero interest. We used a linear model to determine the trend of each search term.

The search terms prescribed fire and wildland fire show significant negative trends when truncated to exclude zero search interest.  The term controlled burn showed a positive trend when truncated.  This decrease in search term interest may be related to a reduction in the growth prescribed fire use in the southeastern United States (Kobziar et al. 2015).

Seasonality was apparent with all search terms.  Controlled burn, prescribed burn, and prescribed fire all show increased interest in the spring, which is likely related to application patterns.  Wildland fire and wildfire show increases in the summer months when wildfires are typical in the western United States.

Data Source: Google Trends (

Jacobson, S. K., M. C. Monroe, and S. Marynowski (2001). Fire at the wildland interface: The influence of experience and mass media on public knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions. Wildlife Society Bulletin (1973-2006) 29:929–937.

Kobziar, L., D. Godwin, L. Taylor, and A. Watts (2015). Perspectives on trends, effectiveness, and impediments to prescribed burning in the southern U.S. Forests 6:561–580.