Archive for October, 2016

Walking the beat

October 12, 2016


Last month we highlighted the brains (and a little brawn) of The Portal Project, with a description of the new regime shift research and the requisite hardware-cloth-battle of 2015.  This month we bring out the big brawn guns (and some brains) to show you how the site keeps its youthful glow year after year in the unforgiving desert.  If we could bottle this Portal magic, it would be a best-seller for sure. Here’s our best attempt:


Do you like long walks in the desert?  Do you love cute, cuddly animals?  Do you like to take long walks in the desert with rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas when it’s 115 degrees out, and do you still love cute, cuddly animals when they bite you and poop on you?  If you answered yes to the last question, you might be Portal Protectors! material. (By the way, Morgan is recruiting another PhD student to work at Portal.  Please see her announcement about that here.) If you answered ‘yes’ to questions one and two but ‘no’ to question three, this blog post, accessed from the comfort of your armchair, is our gift to you.

To be a Portal Protector! is to be a biologist, a naturalist, an outdoor enthusiast/athlete, a team player, and a bit of a masochist. We get up early. We go to bed late. And we spend many of the intervening hours digging trenches, moving large rocks, pounding stakes into the ground, lugging heavy equipment to and fro, crawling around on our hands and knees amidst sharp objects, and catching small critters.  If any of these images below speak to you, then we’re on the same mental page:

Before you assume that these types of activities must only be for blockbusters, game shows, soldiers, or insane people, let us instead convince you how they are necessary and beloved steps in the quest towards scientific truth (I sense a blockbuster there…).  In fact, walking the beat of the Portal Project, including all of the aforementioned digging/crawling jobs, was the start to a successful career in science for a long and distinguished list of people.  Maybe you are one of them!  For that, we salute you.

Nearly every month, for approximately the last 453 months, one of the Portal Research Assistants has traveled to the site with a brave volunteer to census the rodent community.  Journeying from the original University of New Mexico headquarters, then from Utah State University, and most recently all the way from the University of Florida, they give up their weekends to keep the research going. (Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie…anyone?)  The current Portal RAs, Erica Christensen and Ellen Bledsoe, leave Florida on a Thursday to travel to Tuscon, Arizona, where they then pick up the truck, gather supplies and drive three hours to the site on Friday to set rodent traps on 12 of the 24 quarter-hectare plots before the sun goes down. Early the next morning they process the rodents caught in the traps, recording the species, sex, hind foot length, weight and pit tag number. They then bait and set traps on the other 12 plots to census the next nights’ activity, hauling wooden boxes of metal Sherman traps around a dizzying desert maze — like a Halloween corn maze, but made of spiny acacia bushes and located even more in the middle of nowhere.  After recording details about those rodents the next morning, they download data from the local weather station and make their way back to Florida by Monday night. It all looks something like this:

Many interesting scientific findings about how body size, metabolism, rain, species interactions, and temporal dynamics influence the structure of a rodent community, as well as a unique and impressive long-term community ecology dataset have come out of this workAnd since ecology is all about understanding the ways in which groups of living things interact with each other, additional results have come out of pairing the rodent census data with information collected twice a year about plants.

In both March and September of 2016, the current conglomeration of the Portal Protectors! traveled from Florida to Arizona to chase rodents, crawl around on our hands and knees counting plants, and perform our biannual trench-digging, rock-moving, stake-pounding, equipment-lugging rituals.  The Science Gods demand some weird sacrifices to ensure the everlasting bounty of Portal data.  And we must obey.  For the biannual plant census, we work together to record the sources of greenery around the site. We use meter quadrats (squares made out of PVC pipe, 0.25m on a side), placed at 16 permanent locations evenly spaced across each plot, to count and identify every tiny bud and blade of grass. We then string transect tape in a giant “X” across each plot and measure the width and height of every shrub it crosses. It’s spiny, tedious work. But the show must go on. In blistering heat and unrelenting sun, or through shivers and downpour, the plant census process takes about four long days each season, and looks something like this:

We often return from a plant census bruised, bloody, and burned, ready for a soft bed, a warm shower, a flushing toilet, and a clean shirt.  But we are only out there for a week.  Portal herself must endure the savage sun, devastating aridity, and seasonal deluges year-round.  Four-hundred and fifty-three rodent censuses and thirty-five plant censuses under the daily assault of the desert would take their toll on anyone.  So when the Portal Protectors! make our biannual pilgrimage from the lab to the site, we usually reserve some time, and some brawn, for a little Portal TLC.

Next time on the Portal blog, we’ll unveil both the long-overdue makeover of Plot 24, and our brand new shiny weather station!  This is where all the real trench-digging, rock-moving, stake-pounding, and equipment-lugging comes into play.  We might even include some original pictures of us doing these activities, instead of just George Clooney’s excellent portrayal of our work.  So stay tuned.  And stay safe.  It’s a crazy, dusty, desert world out there. But someone has to keep the lights burning.