Texas Tech University

Researchers Continue Search for Knowledge During Coronavirus Closures

By: Karen Michael 

nathan gill
Nathan Gill

As it seemed the world was grinding to a halt during coronavirus closures this spring, some researchers continued their search for knowledge.

"I'm a researcher. I need to be doing research," said Nathan Gill, an assistant professor in Texas Tech University's Department of Natural Resources Management.

Gill studies patterns of fire and how changes in the way that fires are burning could influence plants, animals, and people.

"In a given ecosystem, you have fires that burn at different frequencies and different severities, but with climate change and other human activities such as allowing fuels to accumulate, those patterns are changing. I'm interested in looking at how changes in that fire pattern or fire cycle influence other things like plant-forest dynamics and animal habitat and that sort of thing," Gill said.

With a small team of students, Gill set off into the Lincoln National Forest and the Capitan Wilderness. They are studying how patterns of wildfire are changing things in the forest that influence Mexican Spotted Owls in particular. They are also interested in an insect outbreak that happened in the Sacramento Mountains and how it could have changed the nesting conditions for the Mexican Spotted Owls.

mexican spotted owl in treeThis photo of a Mexican Spotted Owl was taken by Tara Durboraw.

Originally, Gill said his team also wanted to survey for the owls during their nesting season during April and May, but they weren't able to get out to the area until May. Gill said there were a number of permits and approvals that just got held up amidst the coronavirus closures, so the team decided to just focus on the forest structure questions.

"We've been really hitting it hard," Gill said, noting that one student was working to get enough data for her thesis. "We've been able to adapt, and I guess, bolster the parts of their research questions that are still possible for us to do."

Usually, Gill said researchers would work for a week or so and then take a break. Because of the coronavirus, they have been out in the wilderness much longer, camping in tents and spending a lot of time hiking on steep slopes. They are only allowed to go into town and among other people for groceries and gas.

"Being out there for weeks at a time is really taxing," Gill said. "We had to keep the group small and limit our risk of exposure (to the coronavirus) by not really going into civilization."

But he also said the excursion into the forest lands was also peaceful because they were in a very safe environment with no other people around.

"It was kind of nice in a way to get away from all of the news, and all of the stressfulness of the pandemic and everything," Gill said.