Thursday, August 28, 2014

Back to School 2014!

Its the first official week of classes at Texas Tech this week!  Undergraduate students have returned from internships and summer vacations.  Graduate students have returned from field sites.  Everything generally feels back to normal.

It has been an exciting summer for our lab!

Tabea Malinowski completed her MS thesis on thermal profiles and predators of Texas horned lizards and graduated at the beginning of August.  Congratulations, Tabea!  For now, Tabea has returned home to Germany, but she is pursuing Ph.D. programs to continue her education.

Tabea looking excited next to her PowerPoint presentation during her defense

Clara Frasconi-Wendt also successfully defended her MS thesis on thermal physiology and behavior in fire ants and harvester ants.  Though she's all finished up, she won't officially graduate until December.  Clara has also returned to Germany to finish the remaining portion of her Arid Lands Studies program.  I can't believe I didn't get a photo of Clara at her defense!  She did such a great job!

Bradley Barker, former prescribed burning student, took a position on a burn crew with The Nature Conservancy of Arkansas this fall.  We wish him all the best as he starts his career as a wildland firefighter!

At the end of July, the Texas Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Unit celebrated its 25th year in Lubbock with a poster session and meeting.  This was a great opportunity for NRM students to showcase their work and meet successful professionals from Texas Parks and Wildlife, the United States Geological Survey, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies across the state.  Three students from our lab presented their work-- Rachel Granberg, Nick Goforth, and Clara Frasconi-Wendt.

Rachel Granberg discusses her poster with Dr. Richard Stevens

Clara Frasconi-Wendt's poster 

Nick Goforth's poster

In addition, I have been fortunate enough to have some time to see the awesome research other graduate students and land managers have been doing in Texas.  Here's a photo of Tabea at Lubbock Lake Landmark.  We spent a few hours looking at sites there were burned this year and cruising for lizards.  Matt McEwen was gracious  enough to be our host.

Tabea holding a Texas horned lizard at Lubbock Lake Landmark

Kristen Linner, an M.S. student in Dr. Clint Boal's lab let me and Seth Pearson tag along on a juvenile kestrel banding trip at Reese Air Force Base.  Kristen's thesis work centers on how wind energy and land use changes influence kestrel and other avian populations.

Juvenile male and female kestrels at Reese Air Force Base (Photo credit:  Kristen Linner)

Theo Sumnicht, a doctoral candidate from the University of Utah, invited me along for some ant collecting in central Texas.  We spent the day in Brown County at the Muse Wildlife Management Area.  After he processed and identified specimens (the real legwork of any ant collecting trip), we were pleasantly surprised to discover that our trip had produced several new county records.  Theo's travels elsewhere in the state also yielded several new collection records.

Theo Sumnicht at the Muse Wildlife Management Area during a collecting trip

This semester, I'm teaching Fire Ecology and Management and Environmental Science as a Social Pursuit.  Rachel is working toward a December graduation, and Anna and Nick are finishing data analysis in preparation for May 2015 graduation dates.  Vanessa Torres is back working as an Undergraduate Research Fellow in the laboratory, and Britt Smith has his hands full with lots of insect samples that he collected at Texas ranches during his summer field season.

Here's looking forward to an exciting Fall 2014 semester!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Help get Jessica some new legs!

Texas Tech Fire Ecology Lab MS student, Nick Goforth, and his fiancee, Jessica Smith have endured huge challenges in their young relationship.  In 2013, Jessica survived a blood infection that cost her both legs and parts of five fingers.   Nick has kept me up to date on Jessica's progress toward recovery.  One of the things that impresses me most is her attitude and approach to this process.  She has persevered and endured extreme trauma and come out on the other side with a sunny disposition and positive outlook.  

Jessica graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a B.S. in Biology.  She has always dreamed of attending graduate school for a degree in marine biology.  In order to meet the demands of a field-based program, she needs prosthetic legs with smart ankles that will respond to terrain.  These prosthetics cost upwards of $50,000 and are not covered by insurance.  

Click here to read more about Jessica's story.

And now, click here to donate toward her new legs.  Every little bit helps!

Nick and Jessica at home (C) Nick Goforth 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Guest Blog: I don’t think we’re in Texas anymore

The following is a guest blog by MS student Rachel Granberg.  Rachel is currently working in central Texas on a horned lizard habitat suitability project.  

As I was wrapping up my second week in the field today, I stumbled upon two Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) just across the tall game fence.  The mating pair seemed curious at my presence, often stepping closer to get a better look at my ATV.   As I quietly snapped pictures, a common eland (Taurotragus oryx) approached, obviously looking for handouts.  Within an hour, a herd of 6 impala (Aepyceros melampus) wandered onto the same patch of grass.

The native range of the Grevy’s zebra once covered much of the Horn of Africa.  They are now restricted to small areas within Kenya and Ethiopia.

For readers not familiar with African ungulates, this particular species of zebra is listed as endangered with the IUCN.  With approximately 750 mature individuals left in the wild, the range of this species is restricted to the Horn of Africa (Moehlman et al. 2013).  Although current population trends suggest growth in Kenya and Ethiopia (Mwasi and Mwengi 2007), human-related impacts (largely the effects of agriculture and grazing on water sources) remain a huge issue in the conservation of this species (Moehlman et al. 2013).
The presence of endangered, exotic game species is not unique to this particular ranch in Texas.  Texas is globally renowned for its high fence game ranches hosting collections of outlandish species that would never coexist in the wild.  In fact, the Grevyi’s zebra I found were not nearly as lucrative as the addax, dama gazelle, and the scimitar horned oryx which all are now legally hunted on Texas game ranches without permitting under the Endangered Species Act. 

 A mating pair of endangered Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) in habitat quite unlike their native savanna.

There are many arguments for (ex: conservation of the species is successful on these ranches) and against (ex: this isn’t true conservation if we are raising them like cattle) exotic game ranches.  Neither camps have considered the effects of high fence ranches (not just exotic ranches) on habitat connectivity or genetic structure of native species.  While conservation of endangered species matters, so does providing optimal habitat for our native endangered species here in Texas.  Too often, these high fence ranches provide no brush management and exclude fire (a natural form of disturbance in this ecosystem) from their management regime.  Without much public land to rely on, species such as the Texas horned lizard (don’t forget bobwhite quail, black-capped vireo, and golden-cheeked warbler) need sound land management on private parcels in order to persist.
Something that these big game ranchers fail to realize is that the little guys, such as birds and reptiles, often indicate overall health of the ecosystem.  The ranch I observed earlier today was nearly devoid of forbs and grasses because Ashe juniper had grown into a dense, monotypic stand (thanks to lack of fire).  The animals were probably so curious about my ATV because they need to be supplementally fed, thrown bales of alfalfa off the bed of a pickup.  In a healthy ecosystem, there would be ample forage for these animals to survive (along with our vulnerable native species) without supplemental feeding.
            With the manual thinning of juniper, followed by a few prescribed burns, this ranch would provide ideal habitat for the bobwhite quail and Texas horned lizards that occur on neighboring parcels.  Just because this ranch specializes in exotic game, doesn’t mean it can’t support native species.

The difference in rangeland health is dramatic between these two parcels.  On the right, light grazing and prescribed fire have created suitable habitat for the Texas horned lizard and bobwhite quail.  To the left, over grazing along the fire perimeter is a stark contrast.  Lack of fire on this ranch has allowed Ashe juniper to form dense thickets, disallowing the establishment of grasses and forbs required by these African grazers

Miller, C. L. 2006. The price-size relationship: Analyzing fragmentation of rural land in Texas.  Thesis,  Texas A&M University, College Station, USA.
Moehlman, P.D., Rubenstein, D.I. & Kebede, F. 2013. Equus grevyi. In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. <>. Downloaded on 31 May 2014.

Mwasi, S. and Mwangi, E. 2007. Proceedings of the National Grevy’s Zebra Conservation Strategy Workshop 11-14 April 2007. KWS Training Institute, Naivasha, Kenya.

What's New in the Lab?

The summer field season is in full swing and a lot has been happening!

Anna Meyer and her crew have deployed to central Texas to collect harvester and fire ants.

Rachel Granberg is hard at work at Camp Bowie collecting vegetation and Texas horned lizard data.

Nick Goforth has returned to the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico to continue his bat research.

Clara Frasconi-Wendt and Tabea Malinowski are nearing the end of their degrees and are both putting the finishing touches on their MS theses.  Tabea defends on 23 June, and Clara will be defending in July.

Vidhur Sohini graduated in May with a BS in Biology.  He is off to Texas Tech University's School of Medicine to pursue an MD.  On behalf of the entire lab, congratulations to him!

I recently taught a two week field entomology course in Junction, Texas.  The students were wonderful and enthusiastic.  Plus, I got to spend my time catching insects!  I am spending the majority of the rest of my summer in Lubbock, working on grant proposals and publications.

I am also pleased to introduce our newest lab member, Britt Smith.  Britt recently completed an MS at Oklahoma State University and will be working on a PhD in the lab.  His interests include rangeland insects, grazing ecology, and, of course, fire ecology.  I'm excited to have him on board!  Expect more updates as he gets settled.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

TTU Undergraduate Research Conference

Four amazing undergraduate researchers from the Fire Ecology Lab presented their research at the Texas Tech Undergraduate Research Conference in April 2014.  

Cody Fell and Vidhur Sohini have spent the last two years working on understanding how limb length influences thermal tolerance in harvester ants.  Vidhur is part of the Texas Tech Honors College Undergraduate Research Fellow program.

Cody Fell (L) and Vidhur Sohini (R)
Ana Navarrete presented her work on how the media portrays wildland fires.  Ana is also part of the Texas Tech Honors College Undergraduate Research Fellow program.

Ana Navarette
And finally, Vanessa Torres presented her work on how harvester ants influence local soil texture.  Vanessa is also part of the Texas Tech Honors College Undergraduate Research Fellow program.

Vanessa Torres

These students get to choose the laboratory in which they work, and I am so very happy and proud that they chose to come to mine.  Each of them has put in a tremendous amount of effort on their projects, and they should be very proud of the results.

L-R, Ana, Vidhur, Robin, Cody, and Vanessea

Monday, March 31, 2014

Burn season continues!

March has been a fire-filled month in the lab.  We have assisted on several prescribed burns in the Texas Panhandle with a variety of agencies.  In particular, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Lubbock Lake Landmark, and several fire departments have been gracious teachers, strong leaders, and great examples for the students.  These professionals probably don't realize the huge impact that they make when they take the time to teach, train, and educate my students.

We've burned about 1500 acres since I last posted, so here are a few more photos from the season:

A 900 acre prescribed burn at the Matador WMA as seen from space (Photo courtesy of Derrick Holdstock and the National Weather Service)

Juniper bush torching near the fire line on a 300 acre prescribed burn at the Matador WMA

Cameron Ward, Colton Laws, Ryan Tedford, Heather Williams, and Kristen Linnier getting ready to head out to a 40 acre prescribed burn at the Matador WMA

Tumbleweeds ignite on a 95 acre prescribed fire at Lubbock Lake Landmark.  This property is within Lubbock city limits and posed unique challenges as a result.

Flowers completely unburned during a prescribed burn at the Matador WMA.  This never ceases to amaze me.

Smoked in on the south line at the OX Pasture Burn

Greg Pavur lights strips of fire at Lubbock Lake Landmark.  Photo credit:  Anton Gereau

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Prescribed Burn at the Matador WMA

This semester, I have been teaching Prescribed Burning to thirty enthusiastic and wonderful students. They have been completing training in line with NWCG Type 2 Wildland Firefighter standards, pack testing, and doing field exercises to prepare for future careers in fire.

Derrick Holdstock, Texas Parks and Wildlife Region 1 Fire Coordinator, invited us to attend a prescribed burn at the Matador WMA near Paducah, TX last week.  We burned two forty acre research plots in beautiful weather.

Needless to say, the students were thrilled with this opportunity and obviously took away lots of lessons and invaluable experience.  Below are a few photos from the day's events:

Anton Gereau, Preston Kleman, Neil Estes, Heather Williams, William Knox, Glenn Greanya, and Brad Barker

TPWD employee building black on the back fire line

Neil Estes surveys the fire

Heather Williams prepares for ignition operations

Head fire 

Post burn

Neil Estes and Heather Williams mop-up a smoking tree