Climb a mountain during a Utah summer and you might find blackened earth recently scorched by a wildfire. Utah is one of the most wildfire-prone states, with over 800 fires annually, but underneath the charred earth there are tips of green plants sprouting to breathe new life into the soil. Some of those green tips are native to the desert, while others are invasive species brought over by settlers. These invasive plants, such as cheatgrass, a droopy brown and green grass native to Asia and Europe, have bounced back faster than native species post-flames, slowly creating a monoculture.
Also hailing from Europe, marine biology student and Sheffield, England native Rebekah Stanton (’21) wanted to earn her PhD at BYU but couldn’t find a program that fit her needs. After receiving an unexpected email from plant and wildlife sciences professor Sam St Clair, she packed her bags and joined his research team to study just the opposite of marine biology—they were going to study the desert.
While working in the Great Basin Desert west of Utah Lake and the Mojave Desert in southern Utah, where invasive plants seem to thrive, Stanton’s research team discovered that the local rodents have a suppressive effect on the cheatgrass and red brome plants. However, after years of record-breaking wildfires, the sheer number of those plants growing back has become too overwhelming for the animals.
The research team conducted two main experiments on burned plots of land by planting a selection of both native and invasive species seedlings. Rodents were allowed into one of the plots to see which seedlings they targeted and suppressed. The results tested in the Great Basin were inconclusive, but the team found the Mojave Desert experiments to be more enlightening. The rodents, which include deer mice and kangaroo rats, tended to eat the forbs and shrubs over the grasses. Stanton believes this is one possible reason why invasive grasses have been thriving.
After a wildfire has been extinguished management reseeds the ground to restore the native species before the invasive plants grow back. With the research Stanton has conducted, management can supplement their seed mixtures to compensate for the rodents and invasive plants.
Along with the seedling experiments, Stanton’s studies focused on fuel load, or the potential plants have to burn. This data can help scientists predict the longevity of plants as the climate shifts and more fires incinerate the deserts.
Deserts are quite the contrast from marine biology, but Stanton adjusted quickly. “You do an experiment in the ocean, the same principles apply for doing an experiment in the desert,” she explains. She completed her PhD in wildlife and wildlands conservation in August, and now works for Vanderbilt University in Tennessee in a science and engineering outreach program for high school students. While she enjoys working in education, Stanton knows she’ll return to the field again.
“I think part of me wants to do a totally different field of research,” she laughs. “Maybe I’ll do rainforests next!”