Author Archive

The Portal Project is Dead, Long Live the Portal Project

June 4, 2010

As some of the people who read this blog are aware, Portal has been having trouble getting refunded. We are sad to announce that our most recent attempt at NSF LTREB funding was declined. These are difficult funding times for many of us and we know many people are experiencing similar difficulties to those we are currently facing. What this means for us is that Portal is now completely unfunded and thus the study will enter a new phase of existence. We’re still trying to figure out what this means for the project in a big picture sense. What is easier to answer is: What does this mean for the continued collection of the data? Morgan is committed to maintaining some level of data collection on the rodent community, but does not have the funds to do so on the monthly basis conducted for the past 30+ years. While we are still working out what is possible given our resources, for the next year we will probably start collecting data every 3-4 months and depend entirely on volunteer labor (we have depended on graduate RAs for data collection in the past). This means that at least some of the valuable information available from the time-series will continue to be maintained.

However, the maintenance of the experimental plots is dependent on monthly trips to trap out the exclosures and maintain the fences. Rodents are tenacious creatures and the desert is a harsh environment on man-made structures. Without this constant attention rodents will invade the exclosures. Since we have never had a 3-4 month gap in trapping before, we don’t know what effect this will have on the integrity of the experimental manipulations, but we doubt it will be “good”. At this time, there are no resources to continue data collection for the plants and ants. Obviously, in a big picture sense, this means big changes to the study.

We appreciate the support many of you have given us while we have been struggling over the future of the study. Suggestions such as renaming the Portal Project the “Bill Gates the Beneficent Long-term Desert Ecology site” in the hopes of attracting a patron have been much appreciated.

We have some future posts planned highlighting Portal papers that will be coming out this year and an update on what’s been going on at the site as of the May census, but I’d like to leave this post with the two reasons I think Portal is so wonderful and why I am so saddened by the choices we are facing:

1) Portals Contributions to Ecology.

  • Number of Papers/Books using data collected at the site to date: at least 112 and still counting (because so many people have worked at the site in so many capacities we have probably missed some; this number includes 28 papers in Ecology, 8 in American Naturalist, 4 in Ecology Letters, 3 in PNAS and 7 in Science).
  • Number of Graduate Students trained by the project: 20 (many of whom are currently faculty or government scientists).
  • Number of volunteers who have helped with data collection: Too many to count. Over the course of just the recently expired grant, over 60 people volunteered their time to assist with data collection at the site. These people included graduate students (both in ecology and in unrelated areas such as history and chemistry), undergraduates interesting in gaining field experience (including a wonderful young man who had never been out of Utah, never seen a palm tree before, definitely never been anywhere as hot as Portal, never seen a rodent outside of a pet store and never had an avocado before… he had the time of his life), postdocs and faculty interested in seeing a field site they had read so much about, and nonacademics ranging from school teachers to physical therapists to artists to lawyers who came for a wide range reasons, saw a little ecology in action, and spent the night under the most glorious view of the Milky Way.

2) Which brings me to the second reason Portal is so wonderful. Unfortunately, there are no words adequate for this, so I’ll let Portal speak for itself:


If you’re interested in helping with the site or just want to see some of our less… conventional… ideas for keeping the site going, please visit or email Morgan at:

Portal Data Published!

November 24, 2009

This announcement is a little late, but I’ve been a little distracted by my other baby (a biological one instead of a scientific one). But I am proud to announce that this summer the Portal Project data (ants, plants, rodents, and precipitation for 1977-2002) were published on Ecological Archives!! We’ve been working on getting the data in publishable form for several years now – doing a thorough quality check, writing over 90 pages of metadata, etc. We hope many more people will find this data as useful and fun to work with as we have! As long as the site is running, we will continue to publish new data through Ecological Archives every few years. Go enjoy!

Grassy, but not too grassy

September 8, 2008

Reports coming from the field crew for the August census indicate a lot of grass again this summer, but perhaps not as much as last year. The grass cover makes the rodent crew a little nervous about not being able to see where they put their feet (love those rattlesnakes), but it does make for some beautiful pictures of the site.

Plot3_wavinggrass_29 Aug 08_aernest Photo: A. Ernest

Above is a picture of plot 3 (a kangaroo rat exclosure plot), showing grasses rippling in the breeze.

Below is a picture taken from outside Plot 1 (control plot) looking in. The dirt in the foreground is one of the paths around the site. The fact that you can still see dirt is why the crew thinks there is less plant cover this year than last year.

Plot1_northfence_29 Aug 08_aernest Photo: A. Ernest

July Rodent Census

August 28, 2008

The remanents of hurricane Dolly hit the site last month while the trapping was occurring, so our numbers were probably low because the weather was bad. However, we still caught 1 of the 4 tagged Dipodomys spectabilis that are currently residing on the site. We go back down very soon, so we should have a better feel for what the rodents are actually up to.

Portal Project Poster at ESA

August 1, 2008

If you’re interested in what we’ve been up to lately, we’ll be presenting a research poster at next week’s Ecological Society of America meeting. The title is:

Effects of species identity and functional group richness on community structure and function: Are species functionally redundant?

by Katherine M. Thibault and S.K. Morgan Ernest.

It’s our latest work on the the invasion of Bailey’s pocket mouse (see photo below; isn’t he cute?) on ecosystem structure and function. So stop by Weds night and we’ll tell you all about what this little guy has been up to!


Photo by Katherine M. Thibault

An unexpected visitor

July 28, 2008

We occasionally catch non-rodents in our Sherman traps, but this month the crew caught something new. A toad!Portal 1 26July08

Maybe he saw all the rodents going into boxes and thought he’d see what the fuss was all about. The crew released him and he went on his merry way….probably with a lower opinion of rodents!

Portal 2 26July08

Expect more updates from this month’s rodent trapping as we process all the events!

Pictures taken by A. Ernest.

Coming Soon

July 3, 2008

This is the blog for the Portal Project, an ecological study of rodents, ants and plants that was begun in 1977. This long-term study is currently run by Thomas J. Valone (Saint Louis University), James H. Brown (University of New Mexico), and me (S.K. Morgan Ernest; Utah State University). The purpose of this blog is to inform interested parties of recent research results and current impressions gained from the field. We go down every month for the rodent census, twice yearly for the plants, and annually for the plants. Stay tuned as we get the blog up and running.