July 22, 2008

Habitat Gets Mapped: Students, Interns, Researchers Map Habitats for Flyover

By Tara Bozick, Victoria Advocate, Texas

Jul. 22--REFUGIO --The 3,400-acre ranch never received this much attention.

University students, high school interns and researchers spent months staking out various plants and wildlife habitat at Fennessey Ranch in anticipation of a cutting-edge hyperspectral flyover on Thursday.

Brien O'Connor Dunn's ranch comprises the most biodiversity in the Crossroads area because of a conservation easement on the property. So, that site and others in the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve await the plane from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

More than 60 plants on Fennessey will be mapped this way for the first time when the weather proves just right in the next couple weeks. Each plant gives off a different color in the color spectrum, Liz Smith, research scientist at Texas A&M University's Center for Coastal Studies, said.

While earlier maps generally showed habitat areas, these maps would show habitat and then the various plants comprising that habitat, Smith said. This would help show relationships between plants over time.

"We don't really think about the fact that the environment is constantly changing," she said. Smith added that vegetation can show decadal climate shifts.

To test the plane's analysis, research geographer Jeff Vincent from the University of Texas in Austin, along with four students from Texas A&M--two from Corpus Christi and two from College Station --visited the habitats Smith and her students staked out.

They took ground spectral data at the stakes on Thursday.

The hope is to make maps at the species level, Vincent said. This would help in spotting incoming invasive species or just to see the species richness, he said.

These plants are choices for wildlife homes and food, he explained. Imagine going into a grocery store and only having the choice of one item to eat. If one plant disappears, that could affect the organisms that eat that plant and those who eat those organisms --the entire food chain.

But Vincent leaves the analysis of the data to scientists like Smith. He just helps provide the basic data. This is why science today is highly creative and multidisciplinary, he said.

"We have a whole bunch of people who want to answer a whole set of questions," Vincent said. "We're all kind of tied together."

Vincent and Smith want students to understand the importance of science in real world applications. That's why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration granted fellowships to Smith's Texas A&M-Corpus Christi students, who camp out every other week at the ranch to document wildlife.

On Thursday, the interns collected water samples from McGuill Lake that will add to the data of the flyover.

"I like to see the kids," Sally Crofutt, ranch general manager, said. "They're developing a true appreciation."

Tara Bozick is a reporter for the Advocate. Contact her at 361-580-6504 or [email protected]


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