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Home | Tag Archives: Chihuahuan Desert

Tag Archives: Chihuahuan Desert

NMSU Biologists Take Part in EU-Funded Research on NM’s Unique Gypsum Ecosystems

A team of biologists from New Mexico State University, Oberlin College in Ohio, and 17 other universities and research institutes worldwide has received a European Union grant to investigate the plant and microbial communities of gypsum soils.

NMSU professors Donovan Bailey, Nicole Pietrasiak, and Sara Fuentes-Soriano, as well as Professor Mike Moore from Oberlin College and a team of EU researchers just completed a month of researching plant and soil life on gypsum-rich environments throughout New Mexico, such as White Sands National Monument. They will return again for another month of work in summer 2019.

“Gypsum is high in calcium and sulfur, and has no nitrogen, no potassium, no phosphorous, which are essential for plant growth,” said Moore, who specializes in gypsum flora. “So, gypsum is a terrible soil for normal plants. But when plants that do grow on this soil are tested, their levels for nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous are normal or even elevated. How those elements got into the plant is a mystery, one we’re trying to solve.”

Pietrasiak and Moore said microorganisms living within the thick crust that is typical of gypsum soils might be responsible for providing these nutrients.

Gypsum, known chemically as dihydrated calcium sulfate, is economically very important as the key component of drywall and plaster. It is often found in mineral form in the drier regions of the world, including many parts of New Mexico such as White Sands National Monument. Gypsum ‘outcrops’ are often considered wastelands, yet they have an amazing assortment of organisms found nowhere else on the planet.

“Unique substrates like gypsum lead to a unique flora of microorganisms living within the soil,” said Pietrasiak, who specializes in soil microbiology. “A lot of these microorganisms haven’t been identified, and we’re really interested in learning about the algae and fungi that may be living within the gypsum substrate.”

The role of soil microorganisms in providing nutrients to plants is similar to the role of digestive bacteria in the human gut, which allow for food to be broken down and the nutrients absorbed by the body.

The Chihuahuan Desert has a large amount of gypsum soil and Fuentes-Soriano has previously studied a group of mustards that grow in this bioregion. She said the original inhabitants of New Mexico had many practical uses of local gypsum flora for many aspects of life.

“Four-wing saltbush grows in salty soils, like gypsum, and before human colonization, people used the dry and powdered leaves of saltbush as food seasoning, and used its seeds to make flour,” Fuentes-Soriano said.

Because plants that grow in gypsum soils can be different from those found in other desert environments, Fuentes-Soriano said there’s an anthropological interest in preserving gypsum soil, since the plants found in these environments can provide clues as to how native peoples sustainably manage and survive in these environments. This is extremely important because many of the plant species that specialize in gypsum are rare in New Mexico and are of conservation concern.

Moore said studying New Mexico’s gypsum flora is an integral part of the overall EU-funded research program, which will also include research into the gypsum floras found in Iran, Turkey, Australia, Cyprus, Spain, Italy, Mexico, South Africa, Argentina, and Chile.

“There’s a different flora that only grows on gypsum in New Mexico, then there’s different flora that only grows on gypsum in Turkey and Spain,” Moore said.

Because the Chihuahuan Desert has the largest known group of plants uniquely adapted to grow on gypsum in the world, Moore noted the importance of research to understand its gypsum flora here in New Mexico.

“In part, the team will be compiling data to try to determine how climate affects plants growing on gypsum,” Bailey said. “For example, we are interested in how the warmer climate of southern New Mexico affects the flora that grows on those gypsum outcrops versus the flora that grows on gypsum in northern New Mexico? With that information, we’ll have a baseline to compare similar data from the other regions being studied.”

The lead principal investigator for the grant is Dr. Sara Palacio at the Pyrenean Institute of Ecology in Jaca, Spain.

“She has developed an outstanding research program focused on Spanish gypsum floras and she wanted to expand the research to gain a global perspective by comparing systems across continents” Bailey said.

Palacio and her EU colleagues were awarded a four-year grant that includes collaborative elements with researchers from the US, Australia, the Middle East, and South Africa.

The grant began in January 2018. Further information on the grant and gypsum ecosystems can be found online.

Author:  Billy Huntsman – NMSU

Borderlands Research Institute Celebrates 10 years of Collaborative Conservation

(Alpine, TX) The Borderlands Research Institute (BRI) at Sul Ross State University is marking ten years of collaborative efforts to conserve one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world: the Chihuahuan Desert in the borderlands of West Texas.

Through research, education, and outreach, BRI has encouraged effective land stewardship throughout the region by providing land managers with the most current scientific information. A steady stream of graduate students has produced new research annually on topics ranging from pronghorn to songbirds.

“Collaboration with our many partners makes our work possible,” said Dr. Louis Harveson, who is the Dan Allen Hughes, Jr., BRI Endowed Director and professor of Wildlife Management at Sul Ross. “With 95 percent of Texas in private hands, our most important partners are the landowners we work with every day. Conservation in Texas begins and ends with private landowners.”

Since BRI’s inception, the institute has graduated more than 60 graduate students, with another 25 currently enrolled. Under the guidance of faculty professors, more than 80 significant research projects have been completed, adding to the body of knowledge that has improved land management practices.

“One of the key things we’ve learned in the last decade is that we need to manage wildlife on a much larger scale,” said Harveson.

“Tracking thousands of radio-collared animals has demonstrated that many species require much larger landscapes than we thought. That means if we want healthy wildlife, we need to work with our neighbors. We all have a responsibility and role to play in conservation.”

Research findings on pronghorn are a case in point. BRI is working with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, landowners and many other partners on a pronghorn restoration project. BRI research insights are driving some of the management decisions.

For example, BRI research data documented that pronghorn frequently make movements in excess of 15 miles within a few days. In addition, one of the more surprising findings is the unwillingness of pronghorn to cross fences.

For decades it was assumed that pronghorn easily negotiated wire fences. It wasn’t until BRI students put GPS collars on the pronghorn and tracked them that scientists and wildlife biologists learned that was not the case. Another study demonstrated the problem could be easily resolved with a simple fence modification.

Since then, TPWD and BRI have spent thousands of hours modifying fences to accommodate pronghorn. In addition, many landowners have voluntarily replaced miles of restrictive fence with pronghorn-friendly fencing.

“In a relatively short amount of time, BRI has grown to be a trusted partner for landowners, ranch managers, conservation organizations, and state and federal agencies,” said Elliott Hayne, BRI Advisory Board Chairman.

“Landowners across the region have allowed BRI students to access more than two million acres of private land for their research projects. Not only has the institute contributed significantly to the body of knowledge about West Texas natural resources, we are also training the next generation of conservation leaders.”

Besides research and education, outreach to land managers is a top priority for BRI. Getting scientific information into the hands of those who can apply it on the landscape improves land management practices across the region. BRI shares knowledge through newsletters, research briefings and landowner workshops.

Every four years, BRI hosts the Trans-Pecos Wildlife Conference, bringing together researchers, wildlife biologists, land managers and landowners to share the latest knowledge about wildlife and their habitat needs.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of BRI’s operation is that it is essentially self-funded through private dollars and grants. The first annual budget in 2007 was only $3,000.

Today BRI is managing almost $3 million in research accounts and has endowments that exceed $3 million.

“It’s a remarkable public-private partnership,” said Dr. Bill Kibler, Sul Ross State University President. “The quality of the research program has attracted support from private donors and foundations that has enabled the program to grow. We are grateful for the support. The Borderlands Research Institute has become the flagship program for the university.”

Schedule for ‘Celebration of our Mountains’ Released

El Pasoan’s love their mountains and this year’s Celebration of our Mountains schedule promises to bring outdoor lovers together from across the community.

Outdoor events like this are very important to the city’s quality of life by offering numerous opportunities for people to immerse themselves in nature.  Getting outside in the natural world offers many understated health benefits for adults and children alike including improving one’s physicalmental, and for some – even spiritual – well being.

Many people are amazed to discover that the desert and mountains are full of wildlife and plant species that often go unseen or out of sight and mind as people zoom through the desert on the highway system.

Natural connection opportunities over the next few months include mountain biking, astronomy talks, and history tours including a trip to an old mining ghost town.  And for those who are looking for a new way to loosen up and relax in a 100% natural setting, there is an event called Yoga on the Rocks

Celebration of our Mountains this year is featuring El Paso Water Utilities and El Paso Electric science and technology field trips.

Most events are held at Franklin Mountains State Park, Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site, Guadalupe Mountains National Park or Leasburg State Park in southern New Mexico.

Check out the event’s website at for this year’s extensive schedule of hikes, bird walks and field trips to learn about and connect with the biodiversity of the Chihuahuan Desert right here in El Paso’s big backyard.

Shelters, Data Collection at NMSU’s Jornada Experimental Range help Predict Climate Change Effects

Hundreds of rainout shelters on the Jornada Experimental Range are helping researchers predict what arid and semi-arid ecosystems will look like in the future. The rainout shelters serve as simulators of climate change, and they are just one part of a 20-year and ongoing Chihuahuan Desert study.

Osvaldo Sala, the Julie A. Wrigley professor at Arizona State University, has been a part of this project for more than 10 years. He said the key to determining the future of ecosystems is using four complementary approaches to reach scientific answers.

“The four legs of our research approach are observation, experimentation, modeling and long-term data analysis,” Sala said.

The Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research principal investigators live in various locations. Among others, Sala is working with lead principal investigator and New Mexico State University adjunct plant and environmental sciences faculty member Debra Peters and Northern Arizona University Professor of Environmental Science Laura Huenneke, who have been a part of the project for almost 20 years. The research team is in the process of writing manuscripts about all of its discoveries, and various groups of researchers convened on the NMSU campus in February to discuss their findings.

“The writing process is finding a story,” Sala said. “We have a hypothesis, we collect all the data, we perform statistical analyses, and then we get together to look at the data and try to put together a scientific story.”

What exactly is the story?

Hundreds of rainout shelters help gather climate change data for Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research. (NMSU courtesy photo) FEB16
Hundreds of rainout shelters help gather climate change data for Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research. (NMSU courtesy photo) FEB16

For one, vegetation maps beginning in the 1850s have shown that the Southwest changed from perennial grasslands to shrublands. Also, there has been a cycle of long periods of drought years followed by periods of wet years.

While short-term experiments may provide valuable data about processes, accurate predictions are not possible without long-term data.

“The long-term data on plant production and diversity have allowed us to see changes between very wet years and very dry years, and between sequences of wet years and sequences of dry periods,” Peters said. “These comparisons allow us to look at vegetation patterns and make inferences about what our future is going to look like. It’s only using that long-term data that we can make those sort of effective predictions.”

These “arms” are an extension of the rainout shelter used for climate change data for Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research (NMSU courtesy photo) FEB16
These “arms” are an extension of the rainout shelter used for climate change data for Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research (NMSU courtesy photo) FEB16

The rainout shelter project is part of the long-term research. The distances between the shingles on these structures purposely vary, in order to control precipitation. Some shelters intercept 50 percent of incoming precipitation and some intercept up to 90 percent.

Acting as simulators, the shelters intercept precipitation representing drought conditions and route precipitation through pipes to a plot that is irrigated, simulating wet conditions.

“We’ve run this rainfall manipulation for almost 10 years now,” Sala said. “During the first four years of rainfall manipulation, we didn’t see any significant difference. But by year seven or eight, we started seeing that in the drought treatments, there was a sharp decline of the grasses.

That would have been impossible to predict based on the short-term experiments. What’s even more interesting is that declining grass was accompanied by an increase in shrub production. And that only could be seen after 10 years of manipulation.”

The data have also shown that the diversity in species is related to the availability of water. High temperatures cause evaporation in the soil, which leads to soil drying faster. And in drought situations, the ecosystems will have fewer species.

Huenneke participated in the initiation, design and first years of data collection at the Jornada Range during her career at NMSU in the late 1980s and 1990s.

“It’s wonderful to come back after 20 years – 25 years in some cases – of these studies, and to look at what the continuing results have been,” Huenneke said. “It’s really an exceptional opportunity to look at long-term change in desert systems, which are so hard to sample. That’s what makes this such an unusually valuable study.”

One of the next steps is to develop a simulation model that incorporates all of the water and vegetation data collected thus far. The NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences has committed to funding a two-year research assistant position to work on the simulation model.

Operated by the Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, data have been collected on the Jornada Experimental Range since 1915. Data have been collected for the LTER project, administered by NMSU, since 1983. The Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center is operated by NMSU.

Author: Kristie Garcia – NMSU

Repairs to Chihuahuan Desert Gardens at UTEP underway

The Chihuahuan Desert Gardens will get a special facelift this winter, thanks to a generous donation from the Maxie Groce Templeton Estate.

The repairs, which began Monday, Dec. 7, include concrete, rock wall and wood restoration work, as well repairs to several planters within the gardens. New, vibrant colors will be added to the gardens. El Fortín, the museum’s replica of a fort used by the indigenous people of the Chihuahuan Desert, will also be repaired, and a new awning will replace the current awning in the garden’s amphitheater.

Contractors estimate the work will be completed by February.

Due to the construction, certain areas of the gardens will be closed off to the public during the repair work. As such, contractors will limit their work to one section of the gardens at a time to still allow visitors to enjoy the botanical gardens.

The Chihuahuan Desert Gardens were established in 1999 by Wynn Anderson, the garden’s first botanical curator. Anderson remains an active volunteer in the gardens and is the executor of the Templeton Estate, making the donation for the repairs possible.

Today, the gardens offer one of the most extensive collections of plants that are native or adapted to the Chihuahuan Desert. The gardens were also a source of inspiration for UTEP’s most recent campus transformation, which now includes native plants throughout campus.

Maxie G. Templeton was the widow of Dr. Arleigh B. Templeton, president at The University of Texas at El Paso from 1972 to 1980. She died in December, 2014, in her home in San Antonio. “She had a particular affection for UTEP and was always interested in the development of the Gardens,” Anderson said.

Author: Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens

Amy’s Astronomy
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