Project Areas & Mentors
CDB-REU research project opportunities and faculty research interests:
|Anthony Darrouzet-Nardi||Plant ecophysiology and soil biogeochemistry in the context of global change|
|Eli Greenbaum||Herpetology and Molecular Systematics|
|Michael G. Harvey||Pattern and causes bird population distribution in the desert Southwest|
|Jerry D. Johnson||Ecology and ecogeography of snakes, lizards, and birds|
|Elizabeth LaRue||Ecosystem Science, Remote Sensing, Plant Species Distributions and Structural Diversity of Ecosystems|
|Philip Lavretsky||Filling important knowledge gaps in the ecology of the Mexican duck|
|Vanessa L. Lougheed||Approaches to improve understanding of the causes and consequences of ecosystem change, degradation and restoration|
|Vicente Mata-Silva||Field Biology, Herpetology, Desert Ecology|
|Marguerite Mauritz||Ecosystem-level carbon, water, and energy exchange dynamics in the Chihuahuan Desert|
|Jennie McLaren||Plant community and ecosystem ecology|
|Michael L. Moody||Evolution, distribution, and molecular ecology of desert plants|
|Kelly S. Ramirez||Soil ecology, plant-soil interactions, microbiome, restoration|
|Elizabeth J. Walsh||Evolution and ecology of freshwater invertebrates|
Research in the Darrouzet-Nardi lab primarily focuses on exploring plant ecophysiology and soil biogeochemistry in the context of global change factors such as climate change and nitrogen deposition. REU students will conduct projects at the Jornada Experimental Range, in the northern Chihuahuan desert near Las Cruces, New Mexico (http://jornada-www.nmsu.edu/). Depending on student interests, projects will involve a combination of field sampling, as well as laboratory incubations and experiments.
Potential projects include:
- Quantifying carbon storage and partitioning carbon cycling processes among key organisms in the ecosystem: plants, soil microbes, and biological soil crusts.
- Testing the “fungal loop hypothesis” which suggests that soil fungi are key controllers of element cycling in dryland soils.
Students will learn skills in measuring plant ecophysiological parameters such as photosynthesis, both field and lab techniques for analyzing soil chemistry and quantifying microbial biomass as well as other ecosystem properties, and statistical methods for analyzing data. Students will work in close collaboration with Dr. Jennie McLaren and her research group.
This research project will focus on comparative phylogeography of selected amphibians and reptiles from the Chihuahuan Desert and adjacent ecoregions of the American southwest (e.g., Sonoran Desert, Edwards Plateau). As demonstrated with previous work with black-tailed rattlesnakes (Crotalus ornatus and C. molossus), widespread herpetological taxa from different populations of the American southwest often show patterns of cryptic speciation, where two genetically distinct taxa are morphologically similar. Students will collect natural history specimens and associated DNA samples from targeted taxa, including geckos (Coleonyx), snakes (Salvadora), and lizards (Aspidoscelis) and sequence widely used genomic markers for comparison to multiple populations. Taxa that are in need of taxonomic revision will be the focus of additional morphological and molecular work.
Patchiness is inherent to the environments of the borderlands region. Many habitats occur in patches with various degrees of isolation, and organisms that inhabit them occur as a network of variously isolated populations. These organisms provide an excellent system for studying key questions in population genetics and demography. These questions include: What are migration rates between populations in isolated patches? How long do individual populations persist or at what rate do they go extinct? How different are the individuals in different populations genetically? How do human activities and development impact movement between populations? This project will address these questions by collecting and analyzing population genetic and survey data from birds in borderlands areas. This work involves field collection of samples, field observational surveys of birds, laboratory work to extract DNA and prepare it for sequencing, and computational work (usually using bash, python, or R coding) to assemble DNA sequences from raw data and to compile observational data and then to use these to estimate population structure and historical demography. Specific projects that might be of interest to students:
- Use existing and new survey data to identify the distribution of populations in various borderlands bird species and evaluate connectivity between them
- Use existing genetic sequence data to estimate large-scale patterns of population structure across borderlands bird populations
- Develop genomic tools for research by extracting and sequencing DNA from existing samples
- Participate in new field collections and use these to gather diverse data that might be used to address questions about physiology or ecological traits
Dr. Johnson’s research program is focused on population/community ecology of selected species of lizards and snakes using mark-recapture techniques associated with pit-fall trap arrays and radiotelemetry technology, as well as using photographic surveys and plant community analysis for an ecogeographic study of bird communities comparing permanent and ephemeral water sources.
Significance of the work:
The Chihuahuan Desert is probably the least studied desert in North America, especially in regards to population ecology and ecogeography of its herpetofaunal and bird communities. We have been researching lizard and snake ecology for several years and continue to discover unique ecological attributes, especially in respect to lizard demography, behavior, and interrelationships between species, and by the use of radiotelemetry to focus on home ranges and dispersion of snakes within habitats and microhabitats. Very little is known about how birds use habitat patches in the Chihuahuan Desert, especially reasons for their utilization of different water sources based on vegetational differences between sources.
- What are the ecological parameters relating to lizard home ranges, habitat preferences, growth, reproduction, longevity, and symbiosis with other species determined by mark-recapture data gathered from pit-fall trap arrays?
- What are the ecological parameters relating to snake home ranges, movement patterns within home ranges, habitat and microhabitat preferences, reproduction, and symbiotic relationships with other species determined by data gathered using radiotelemetry?
- How do differences in habitat types affect the distribution of bird species between permanent and ephemeral water sources?
Methods to be learned:
Summer students will use a wide-range of techniques to conduct their studies depending on particular project they get involved with. Students interested in lizard ecology will learn techniques associated with building, maintaining, and running pitfall trap arrays. They will also learn how lizards are marked for later identification, processesed after capture, and how and when to release them back into the grid. Students involved in snake radiotelemetry will learn how snakes are captured, permanently marked with Pit Tags, observe the method of radio implanting, and how and when to release them back into the wild. In addition, students will learn how to use telemetry units to locate and take data on snakes in the wild. Lastly, for those students interested in the ecogeographic study of birds, they will lean proper techniques to locate and photograph birds in the wild and how to analyze vegetation plots associated with permanent and ephemeral water sources. All students will learn how data is taken, analyzed, conclusions reached, and presented in a poster seminar.
Most often biodiversity refers to the number of genetically distinct species, but there are different dimensions of biodiversity that each play a critical role in ecosystem function. However, not all of these dimensions of biodiversity are well understood. Structural diversity – the occupied volume and arrangement of biotic components within the ecosystem – has been shown to have a close relationship with ecosystem function, because the physical arrangement of vegetation influences the location of resources and habitat. However, an understanding of the spatial patterns of structural diversity and its ecological role as a new dimension of biodiversity in the Chihuahuan Desert is unknown, but could provide a new management approach for solving dryland issues, such as shrub encroachment, erosion, and drought.
The student will use remote sensing from drones and open-source data to quantify structural diversity of vegetation in the Chihuahuan Desert and then test the ability of structural diversity metrics to predict ecosystem function. The student will have an opportunity to choose an ecosystem function to focus their project on (e.g. biodiversity, wildlife habitat, productivity, nutrients) and will learn data science skills. The student will give a poster presentation at the end of the program and have an opportunity to participate as a co-author on a peer-reviewed article.
Very little is known about the Mexican duck, which is endemic to North America. The Mexican duck ranges from Pueblo, Mexico through the highlands of Mexico and into southern New Mexico. Although estimated around 55,000 individuals, they remain a conservation concern due to habitat loss along with interspecific competition with a sister species, the mallard. The focus of the project will be to fill in important gaps in nesting ecology and habitat use of Mexican ducks. Specifically, potential REU students will work in several wetland areas around the greater El Paso region to find and track breeding females and nest success. Students will also be exposed to collection methods and colleting of wild Mexican ducks and mallards in order to band, take morphological and phenotypic measurements, and obtain blood for genetic analyses. Students will obtain experience working with wild birds, an understanding of and contribution to the ecology of a poorly understood species, and the importance of collected banding and genetic data in regards to conservation, in general.
Dr. Lougheed is head of UTEP’s Aquatic Ecology Lab and PI of the Biology Green Roof. Research in my lab focuses on nutrient cycling (N, P, C); bioindicator development using plants, invertebrates and algae; and the use of remote sensing in monitoring ecosystem change.
My research utilizes interdisciplinary approaches to improve understanding of the causes and consequences of ecosystem change, degradation and restoration. Two main projects are available for REU students:
- Examining ecological restoration at the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, which is a wetland restoration project owned and managed by UTEP. This is a rare desert wetland that creates a unique environment for aquatic organisms in the Chihuahuan Desert within the city of El Paso, TX. Starting in 2016, water availability has become more permanent in the park, with water present during the summer months for the first time in over a decade, creating a unique research opportunity. REU students will examine water quality, aquatic macroinvertebrates and/or wetland plant communities in different sites and how they have changed over time in response to the restoration. Students could use Geographic Information Systems (GIS), if interested.
- Tracking plant structure and function on the UTEP Green Roof. The UTEP Green Roof was created as a platform for both research and education in 2009, and reopened in 2016 (after repairs). Students can look at the growth and success of native plant species, how these can be tracked using automated technologies, and how Green Roofs can mitigate the effects of climate change through carbon uptake.
This research project will assess pollutant concentrations in whiptail lizards living in Chihuahuan Desert habitats of far west Texas. Termites are known to be the staple prey item in the diet of whiptails in the region. In this project, soil, vegetation, termites, and ultimately whiptail lizards will be analyzed for pollutant concentrations and identify possible relationships between these concentrations and body condition of lizards. Two whiptail lizard species will be the target of this study, Aspidoscelis marmorata, a bisexual species, and A. tesselata, a unisexual species. These two species are relatively common and frequently found living sympatrically along the El Paso region providing an excellent opportunity for comparisons. A sampling area will be selected within Indio Mountains Research Station (IMRS) representing the undisturbed site. UTEP’s IMRS is located in Hudspeth County, Texas, a remote area located approximately 160 km SE of El Paso, and consequently isolated from significant human related activities. Another sampling site will be located near the City of El Paso representing the disturbed area. Differences in pollutant concentrations between the analyzed components are expected, with the assumption that samples from the disturbed site will contain the highest concentrations. This research project will provide an opportunity for students to gain experience doing both field and lab work. The research project will culminate in presentation of a poster at the end of the program and potential co-authorship on a research paper that will come from the findings.
In the last decade the scientific community has learned that dryland systems are far more important for global carbon storage than previously thought. Yet, most carbon models still rely on theories developed from research in cool, wet temperature ecosystems. More research is needed to improve representation of dryland systems, particularly responses to the extreme and highly variable rainfall patterns. The Systems Ecology Lab at UTEP focuses on capturing spatial and temporal drivers of ecosystem-level carbon, water, and energy exchange in the Chihuahuan Desert. We use a variety of instrument platforms (eddy covariance, cameras, spectral vegetation scans, drone imagery) to understand how vegetation and weather interact to control carbon, water, and energy exchange and ultimately to learn how vulnerable the system is to climate change. Potential projects will incorporate long-term data sets and coding in R to explore some fundamental questions about how vegetation dynamics relate to ecosystem-level fluxes. Projects will be developed with interests and input from the student.
Potential projects include:
- Work with leaf-level pulsed amplitude fluorometry (PAM) data to understand seasonal and inter-annual variation in plant photosynthetic activity
- Relate rainfall dynamics to soil moisture and evapotranspiration patterns
- Use camera-based vegetation greenness indices to link with carbon fluxes
- Use drone survey data to identify major land-cover types and map spatial heterogeneity
- Develop visualization tools to see data in real-time and make it easier to identify instrument malfunction
Dr. McLaren's research focuses on effects of vegetation communities on ecosystem properties using techniques from both community and ecosystem ecology. Projects include identifying relationships between desert plant community composition and ecosystem functioning. Please see further description of research interests at www.jenniemclaren.com
Research in my lab primarily focuses on exploring how changes in plant community structure influences the way that ecosystems work. Depending on student interests, projects will involve a combination of field sampling, as well as laboratory incubations and experiments. Students will learn skills in field plant survey techniques, both field and lab techniques for sampling soil chemistry and microbial activity and other ecosystem properties, and statistical methods for analyzing data. Potential projects will focus on the effects of woody plants in controlling soil carbon processes in Chihuahuan Desert. There has been a dramatic increase in the cover and abundance of woody plants in numerous ecosystems worldwide, including arctic tundra, grasslands and desert ecosystems. “Restore New Mexico” is a large scale woody plant removal in New Mexico, being maintained by the USDA and BLM, with the ultimate goal of restoring desert grasslands. Students will examine the influence of woody shrub removal on nutrient cycling and microbial processes in soils in these Chihuahuan desert ecosystems, focusing on impacts on C-cycling.
Dr. Moody’s research focuses on Botany and the evolution, distribution, and molecular ecology of plants in select ecosystems. This research also involves collaboration with the UTEP Herbarium and Chihuahuan Desert Garden. The research topics studied in the Moody Evolution Lab include: distribution mapping, systematics, conservation genetics, plant DNA fingerprinting or population genetic techniques in desert ecosystems and population genetics of invasive plant species.
Summer 2022 a project will be conducted examining distribution of plant species complexes across the “sky islands” and other mountain ranges in the Chihuahuan Desert. The project will involve field collection and genetic/genomic techniques to examine geographic patterns and systematics of a select group of plants in the region. The project may also involve some training in the use of GIS.
This research project will be a major step towards understanding more precisely the soil taxa and soil community types involved in carbon storage. Soils contain an immense amount of biodiversity that supports terrestrial ecosystems and benefits humans worldwide. Yet, soil biodiversity is threatened by major changes in land-use, and by increased incidence of extreme weather events as a result of current climate change. This is worrying because soils support the terrestrial carbon cycle by carbon sequestration, which is pivotal for climate regulation. The overall balance of carbon in soils is controlled by the interactive effects of climate, vegetation composition and soil biodiversity, but this sensitive balance is threatened by soil biodiversity degradation as a result of intensified drought. A more complete assessment of soil biodiversity responses to climate change is needed to predict responses and identify potential management options to conserve soil biodiversity and soils services. Using combination of long-term field experimentation and global scale soil biodiversity assessment this project will quantify and map local and regional patterns of soil biodiversity and carbon storage in connection with soil health under extreme drought events brought on by climate change. Specifically, the student will use DNA based analyses to examine soil biodiversity and its functional potential combined with measurements of microbial activity and carbon turnover. The outcomes of this project will facilitate the transfer of ecological research for informing on ways to enhance the stability of soil systems (for both biodiversity and carbon storage) under climate change and land degradation. The research project will culminate in presentation of a poster at the end of the program and potential co-authorship on a research paper that will come from the findings.
Dr. Walsh’s lab focuses on the evolution and ecology of freshwater invertebrates, especially of Chihuahuan Desert zooplankton. Her lab investigates how species adapt to temporary habitats in aridlands and how these adaptations lead to genetic differentiation and speciation.
- Investigating how invertebrates dispersal and colonize aquatic habitats in aridlands. In a past REU project, students constructed artificial ponds (mesocosms) at a local state park and monitored species colonization. Students will replicate and expand this experiment. The mesocom design will enable us to determine the relative roles of wind and insects in facilitating dispersal of the dormant stages of aquatic invertebrates. We will also monitor species diversity in sediment eggs banks in surrounding ponds as well as in dust collected on-site. Students will learn experimental design, how to identify common zooplankton colonists, and how succession occurs in temporary habitats.
- Investigating life history adaptations to temporary habitats. Students will determine key life history features of selected zooplankton that inhabit ponds that vary in their permanence. For instance, production of a resting stage is critical in temporary habitats to ensure persistence of the population through drought. Students will determine whether populations from temporary habitats have higher diapause stage production than their counterparts in more permanent habitats. A variety of other features can also be tested (uv tolerance, desiccation resistance, timing of sexual reproduction).
- Investigating biodiversity and cryptic speciation. Lake Lucero located at White Sands National Monument is a remnant of an ancient lakebed, geochemically distinctive and geographically isolated. These three features combine to facilitate speciation. Recently, we isolated four morphologically distinct forms of the rotifer Brachionus plicatilis co-occurring in the lake. This species can be the dominant member of the zooplankton and thus an important contributor to its production and transfer of energy to higher trophic levels. Students will use both molecular tools (DNA sequencing) and lab experiments (microcosm competition experiments) to explore genetic variation and ecological differentiation among these morphotypes.
- Investigating the Tree of Life using molecular tools. Rotifers are an enigmatic group of zooplankton. Although they are very important in nutrient cycling and trophic interactions in most freshwater habitats, little is known regarding their phylogenetic position. Students will use molecular techniques and morphometric analyses to investigate the phylogenetic position of a genus of sessile or colonial rotifers. Students will collect field samples from springs in Big Bend National Park and other regional state and national parks. They will then isolate, amplify and sequence DNA from a chosen taxon. Students will learn how to construct phylogenetic trees from DNA sequence data. This project will contribute to a larger project recently funded by the National Science Foundation.