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In the News
Applications are invited for the position of Professor and Department Head of the newly formed Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology at Texas A&M University. The Professor and Head will serve as the chief administrative officer for the Department, reporting to the Vice Chancellor and Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. This will be a 9-month tenured position, with a research appointment (negotiable from 25-40%), and an administrative stipend equivalent to two months of summer salary.
The Head will provide visionary leadership for numerous departmental initiatives including undergraduate and graduate education; knowledge creation through extramurally funded research; a diverse, equitable and inclusive climate; synergistic relationships with diverse stakeholder groups; and facilitate communication of science-based findings to inform policy. A commitment to working cooperatively with university administration, multidisciplinary and multicultural scholars and the general public is essential. A record of success in the development of funding and program support is expected.
The Department has 37 faculty (https://eccb.tamu.edu), offers a B.Sc. degree in Ecology and Conservation Biology that contains four tracks – Ecology and Conservation Biology, Vertebrate Zoology, Forestry, and Ecoinformatics – and has a large graduate student program. The Department occupies a new building and maintains the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections (https://brtc.tamu.edu/) and S.M. Tracy Herbarium, which are among the top 10 university-based biodiversity collections in the USA. Research programs in the department address fundamental questions in ecological science that span from genes to ecosystems to produce knowledge that is immediately applicable to pressing 21st century challenges, including climate change, biodiversity loss, ecological restoration, and integrative approaches to conservation. The Department is engaged in the campus-wide interdisciplinary programs of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (https://eeb.tamu.edu/), Genetics (https://genetics.tamu.edu/), and Applied Biodiversity Science (https://biodiversity.tamu.edu/).
Texas A&M is ranked 4th among public universities, has a student population of 67,000 from all 50 states and 124 countries, and is a top 20 research enterprise. Texas A&M is supported by a $13.5-billion-dollar endowment and is a Land, Sea, and Space Grant university. College Station/Bryan has 180,000 permanent residents, is consistently ranked among the best places to live in the country, has a low cost of living, and ready access to the metropolitan centers of Austin and Houston.
Candidates must have an earned doctorate in ecological sciences or a closely related discipline and possess a record of academic accomplishment commensurate with the rank of full professor. Primary qualifications include an interdisciplinary vision, an internationally recognized research program, demonstrated commitment to inclusive undergraduate and graduate education, and experience in academic administration. Candidates with active research programs and interest in continuing active scholarship at Texas A&M are particularly encouraged to apply.
Applicants should submit the following: 1) a cover letter; 2) a detailed curriculum vitae; 3) a statement of vision for the Department; 4) a research statement; 5) a statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; 6) a statement of administrative philosophy, and 7) contact information for three to five references.
Review of applications will begin August 22, 2022 and continue until the position is filled.
‘Thicketization’ likely inhibiting water flow into aquifer
Restoring Texas’ Post Oak Savanna ecoregion to reflect its historic native prairies could be a key to sustaining the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer.
Scientists from Texas A&M AgriLife Research and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are undertaking a project that will shed light on how changes in land use and the encroachment of woody plant thickets are dramatically reducing groundwater recharge. The three-year project is funded by a $750,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant.
Bradford Wilcox, Ph.D., AgriLife Research professor of ecohydrology in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, Bryan-College Station, said the project has broad implications related to water availability and land stewardship in Texas.
Over the past 150 years, native post oak savanna landscapes have been transformed due to numerous factors, including cultivation and subsequent abandonment, altered fire regimes, urbanization and land fragmentation. These changes in land use allowed undesirable plants, such as yaupon and junipers, to invade the understory, creating dense thickets of vegetation—a process described as thicketization.
Preliminary data indicates thicketization could be reducing recharge rates along the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer by 100-fold annually, Wilcox said.
“We are relatively confident parts of the recharge area is being dominated by thickets, causing dramatic reductions in recharge from rainfall,” he said. “This project will provide a comprehensive analysis of this phenomena across the Post Oak Savanna ecoregion and provide useful information that can guide long-term land stewardship and restoration efforts to help maintain one of the state’s most precious resources.”
Post Oak Savanna and Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer study
Wilcox, collaborators Briana Wyatt, Ph.D., soil scientist in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences; Jason West, Ph.D., plant physiologist, and Sorin Popescu, Ph.D., professor of remote sensing, both in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology; and a team of graduate students, including ecohydrology Ph.D. candidate Shishir Basant, will conduct the study. The project is based on Basant’s doctoral dissertation work.
The overarching goal of the project is to identify and quantify the impacts thicketization has had on the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer’s ability to capture water from rainfall across its recharge zone.
The Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer has long been utilized by private well owners, municipalities, agricultural producers and industry. It is the third most important groundwater resource in Texas after the Edwards and the Ogallala aquifers.
Recoverable water storage in the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer is estimated to be between 1.3 billion to 3.9 billion acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover 1 acre of land with water 1 foot deep, almost 326,000 gallons. By comparison, Toledo Bend, the largest surface-water reservoir in Texas, was designed for a total storage capacity of 4.6 million acre-feet.
The aquifer’s water table has dropped more than 150 feet over the past several decades.
As land-use changes and fragmentation accelerates, Wilcox worries thicketization will worsen unless landowners and policymakers are made aware of its negative impacts.
“I think a lot of landowners have allowed their properties to slip back into what they believe to be the natural state,” he said. “But historically, the Post Oak Savanna ecoregion included vast open grasslands. So, identifying the underlying negatives of these habitat changes in ways that people can relate to, whether it is wildlife or water availability, helps educate and activate change.”
Wilcox said providing data could help guide policies and initiatives by the Texas Legislature and state agencies like the Texas Water Development Board to improve water recharge in the aquifer.
Testing a theory
Wilcox and his team believe the Post Oak Savanna holds particular promise for increasing groundwater recharge because about one-third of the ecoregion overlies the Carrizo-Wilcox recharge zone—a deep sandy formation that allows water to filter into the aquifer.
Recharge rates in the aquifer vary along the aquifer depending on the amount of annual rainfall – with about 0.5 inches every year in South Texas to about 5 inches every year in the piney woods part of the aquifer, Wilcox said. Areas in Northeast Texas have greater potential for recharge than at the southwestern end of the aquifer.
Wilcox said the team’s theory is that thicketization is preventing water infiltration and percolation into the deeper sediments and the aquifer. Soil core samples collected within the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District showed distinct differences in how water moved through open soils compared to the thickets.
Wilcox said impacts of thicketization will vary across the geological and regional gradiant, but he expects to find compelling evidence that invasive woody plants are connected to water table reductions in the aquifer.
“If our suspicions are correct, the conversion to thicketization could present real implications for the sustainability of the aquifer,” he said.
Analyzing, quantifying thicketization, water flux
The team will employ a variety of field measurements by taking core samples and using sensing equipment at various locations in the ecoregion. They will analyze and measure the natural give-and-take of water across these landscapes, specifically the aquifer’s recharge capabilities.
Wilcox said a primary location will be the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department-managed Gus Engling Wildlife Management Area north of Palestine. A second heavily monitored location will be in oak forests within the U.S. Forest Service-managed Caddo-L.B.J. Grasslands near Decatur.
Both areas have extensive savanna grasslands that are likely similar to what much of the Post Oak Savanna was prior to settlement. Open savannas at both locations are maintained by frequent fire regimes.
The team will take soil core samples 10 feet deep up to 30 feet deep to analyze atmospheric chloride deposits that reveal how water moves through the soil, Basant said. Atmospheric chloride is deposited with rainfall remains in the soil and moves deeper with water movement along the soil profile. The extent of chloride deposition and accumulation in the soils and deeper sediments indicate how fast or slow the water moves in the soil column.
“Water movement under the thicketized areas is slowed down because of higher transpiration demand by the trees in these areas,” Basant said. “There is a clear and measurable difference between those deposits and open areas where water moves more rapidly through the soil.”
Aside from answering questions related to thicketization’s impact on recharge and how much restoration efforts might enhance water collection, the team will also focus on other valuable data related to the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. These will include what type of rain events drive aquifer recharge, how deeply trees are accessing soil water, evapotranspiration rates by vegetation, and the rate of thicketization over the past four decades.
Researchers will also be able to scale up results for the entire region using both field and remote-sensing analysis, Basant said. The data can also be applied to modeling for other oak savannas.
“We believe this project will shed light on a solvable problem related to a historically important water resource for the state,” Wilcox said. “What we are doing could impact water and land conservation efforts within the Post Oak Savanna ecoregion and beyond.”
Kirk O. Winemiller, Ph.D., University Distinguished Professor and Interim Department Head in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, Leslie C. Kelso Winemiller, Ph.D., Instructional Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology and Carmen Montaña, Ph.D., assistant professor at Stephen F. Austin State University and former Texas A&M University doctoral student coauthored and published “Peacock Bass: Diversity, Ecology and Conservation.”
The book describes the diversity and natural history of the various peacock bass species, including their geographic distributions, evolutionary relationships, ecology, and economic importance.
According to Kirk Winemiller, Ph.D., peacock bass are the most popular sportfish pursued by anglers in tropical freshwaters, and they support important subsistence and commercial fisheries in rivers and lakes in their native South America. However, peacock bass are more than just sportfish. Like other species of the Cichlidae, a large and diverse family of tropical freshwater fishes, peacock bass (species of the genus Cichla) have fascinating reproductive biology that includes aggressive defense of eggs and fry by both parents.
“Research has revealed that peacock bass in rivers and lakes can exert strong control over prey-fish stocks and thereby have the potential to function as keystone predators affecting aquatic community dynamics,” Kirk Winemiller, PhD, said. “When people introduce peacock bass into waters outside their natural range, they can have a negative impact on fish diversity and ecological processes.”
Peacock bass are also of high value in fish markets, which oftentimes results in overfishing. Ecotourism for peacock bass fishing has emerged as a significant economic component in South America.
This book summarizes all that is currently known about the peacock bass and is essential reading for biologists, fisheries managers, anglers, naturalists, and aquarists interested in these remarkable fish and the diverse tropical rivers they inhabit.
The book can be purchased at most online bookstores, including Amazon, for $106.
Newly classified Danionella cerebrum hides in plain sight
Scientists identify and name new fish species around the globe practically every week. Some turn up in unlikely places like the soil of riverbanks. Some display characteristics and behaviors that are not what most people would call fish-like, such as not having fins and breathing through their skin rather than gills.
But it is rare for an unidentified and unnamed fish to have played such an important role in scientific research for several years before being officially identified and named.
Kevin Conway, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology and curator of fishes at the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M University, Bryan-College Station, is among a team of three international scientists from Germany, Switzerland and the U.S. who have discovered and classified a fish that has been swimming in the tanks of neuroscientists for years.
The Prairie Project focuses on research, extension and education
Rangelands in the Great Plains, and the ranchers who depend on them, are losing battles against an invasion of brush and shrubs on historical grasslands.
Ranchers are under increasing stress due to changing environmental conditions and subsequent losses of rangelands to woody plants, but a relatively new management approach shows promise in turning the tide against encroaching brush and shrubs.
Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientist Brad Wilcox is among a group of researchers, extension specialists and educators who hope pyric herbivory will one day become a routine point of conversation in rangeland conservation and wildfire mitigation.
Pyric herbivory utilizes controlled patch burns to promote forage growth. Over thousands of years, fire and mixed animal grazing helped shape the Great Plains, which cover more than 452 million acres across 12 states.
Wilcox, Ph.D., AgriLife Research ecohydrologist in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Bryan-College Station, said the invasion by woody plants like cedar and mesquite presents a host of problems for producers, native ecosystems, and properties in both rural and urban areas.
Wilcox is leading a consortium of researchers, extension specialists and educators looking to help ranching operations and landowners prevent and reverse rangeland losses by replicating natural fire and grazing.
This undertaking, the Prairie Project, is a team effort that spans many institutions, agencies and disciplines. The project promotes pyric herbivory, mixed animal grazing and other disturbance regimens on rangelands in the Great Plains to make these areas more resilient to woody plant encroachment, wildfire and extreme heat events.
The Texas A&M University-led project is a collaboration with Oklahoma State University and the University of Nebraska and is funded via a five-year, $10 million U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant to test and promote pyric herbivory and other replicated natural disturbance regimens.
Each time Gary Voelker opens a drawer inside rows of crisp white cabinets represents an unveiling of sorts.
Solemn beauty lies inside. Curated winged fragments of Mother Nature sit frozen in time. Some are as tiny as a human thumb, while others are long and lean. The colors on display range from white and drab earth to a vibrant spectrum of tones and shades artists spend years learning to imitate.
The Collection of Birds at the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections, BRTC, is a curated collection of thousands of avian specimens from around the state, nation and world. It is a part of the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology at Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Bryan-College Station.
Voelker, Ph.D., curator of birds, professor, ornithologist and evolutionary biologist, said the collection represents decades of collection, curation and utilization by birders, researchers and students the world over.
“Our job is to preserve the material and make the data and materials available to the interested public and researchers,” he said. “We’re not a museum in that these birds are not on exhibition. We just have lots and lots of preserved material for research and education.”
Rangeland Systems: Processes, Management and Challenges provides an unprecedented synthesis of the current status of scientific and management knowledge regarding global rangelands and the major challenges that confront them.
This volume contains 17 chapters organized around three major themes. The first theme summarizes the conceptual advances that have occurred in the rangeland profession. The second theme addresses the implications of these conceptual advances to management and policy. The third theme assesses several major challenges confronting global rangelands in the 21st century.
The book is intended to compliment applied range management textbooks by describing the conceptual foundation on which the rangeland profession is based. It is written to be accessible to a broad audience, including ecosystem managers, educators, students and policy makers. The content is founded on the collective experience, knowledge and commitment of 80 authors who have worked in rangelands throughout the world. Their collective contributions indicate that a more comprehensive framework is necessary to address the complex challenges confronting global rangelands.
Rangelands represent adaptive social-ecological systems, in which societal values, organizations and capacities are of equal importance to, and interact with, those of ecological processes. A more comprehensive framework for rangeland systems will enable management agencies, and educational, research and policy making organizations to more effectively assess complex problems and develop appropriate solutions.
This book is open access and can be downloaded by anyone who is interested in learning more about global rangelands and the major challenges that confront them.
Thomas Lacher, Ph.D., director of Texas A&M’s Center for Coffee Research and Education, CCRE, and professor for over 20 years in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, retires at the end of June. He has been a global leader in both roles.
Lacher, serving as director of the CCRE of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture’s coffee center for the last year, has worked to incorporate innovations to coffee production practices.
“Dr. Lacher has brought awareness of the value and environmental sustainability of agroforestry as applied to coffee,” said Elsa Murano, Ph.D., director of the Borlaug Institute.
Coffee agroforestry consists of producing coffee under a canopy of native trees. This creates habitat for biodiversity to thrive and serve as natural control agents against pests, such as the coffee borer beetle. Such innovative practices are essential for small-holder coffee producers in developing countries to be able to thrive in a competitive market, enhancing their livelihoods and elevating them out of poverty.
In his professor role, Kirk Winemiller, Ph.D., interim department head of the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, described Lacher as a leader in biodiversity conservation.