The Year After

September 18, 2023 • by Nicole Elmer

Mosses appear post fire.

A year ago, I was sitting in the bus on my way home, cursing the heat, staring out the window at the suffering plants when my phone started to buzz and buzz. Turns out, it wasn’t some bot spammer calling me from Valentine, Nebraska. I was getting news about a fire at one of our field stations: Stengl Lost Pines Biological Field Station (SLP). It was a stressful few days for all connected to this gem between Smithville and Bastrop.

When the last ember fizzled out, more than two-thirds of SLP was burned. SLP is over 500 acres to give you a sense of the size of this damage. The loss was immense. SLP had been the site for the most western habitat of loblolly and short leaf pines. The field station is also unique in that it supports some of the last of old-growth pines, and is habitat to wildlife that was otherwise displaced to earlier fires.

It’s also a site of research for students and scientists from UT and beyond. Thankfully, the fire has not destroyed these research efforts. Fire-altered landscapes are interesting chances to learn how these events change the environments where they have occurred. This is particularly important in a time when wildfires rage in many parts of the world due to climate change and other human-introduced factors. 

SLP has a new team of technicians led by Dr. Rossana Maguiña-Conde. They are working to document the overall biological changes that happened as a consequence of the fire. They are here to talk about what these surveys entail.


Rossana Maguiña-Conde.

Can you orient us to what is involved with a post-fire survey?

Our post-fire research survey involves assessing the ecological changes after the fire in as many areas as possible. We have planned strategically to carry out surveys that encompass the soil nutrients and soil microorganisms, the vegetation from herbaceous bottom layer to top canopy layer, the insects including ants, moths, bees and beetles, and potentially larger animals such as birds and reptiles. We built a research team with people experienced in a diversity of subjects. Valarie Gabbard has experience working with mammals and birds. Briseida Yáñez has experience working with trees, as well as surveying small mammals and birds. Jane Strobel complements our team with experience working with Texas ants and plants. Rossana Maguiña-Conde has studied diverse pollinator groups and their associated plants in tropical environments. We all work in continuous communication with Steven Gibson (Station Manager), and several faculty (Caroline Farrior, Shalene Jha, Larry Gilbert, Brian Sedio and Amy Wolf) and research scientists (Rob Plowes and Alexander Wild) from the Department of Integrative Biology. UT Texas Field Station Network Director, Ken Wray, oversees our work. Our passion for working in nature is the core of our team. Our research efforts focus on educating about an urgent problem such as fire.

What have you been discovering thus far in the last year at Stengl Lost Pines?

We started the post-fire survey in July after months of strategic planning. We were sad to see the forest burned, but at the same time, were amazed to start seeing the resilience of nature. We encountered parts of the burned forest ground covered in beautiful layers of colorful mosses. We were also surprised by how smart bees are to find food in the burned forest, after the spring bloom, and in the middle of summer. These days, wherever we see a patch of flowers, we immediately see the bees enjoying their meal.

We have recorded more than 75 plant species, including one that is a new record for SLP (a pigeonwing species) and more than 15 ant species.


Valarie Gabbard (L) and Briseida Yáñez (R).

What challenges have you all been encountering in your work?

Walking around dense and spiny vegetation, such as the yaupon and smilax plants, is the most challenging part. We get multiple scratches every week and the blackened branches mark our clothes and skin. We have been told that we are wearing “tiger stripes.” We have a good schedule for working early to avoid the heat. So, surprisingly, we have been able to deal with the hot Texas summer. 

Another challenge for us is categorizing the plant species, especially the herbaceous layer. Because the blooming season has passed, we only have leaves to work with. We are getting great help from Steven, who is very knowledgeable about plants, and sometimes he even knows in which area of SLP we have found certain species. We also use the iNaturalist SLP project created by the Lost Pines Master Naturalists.

Does Stengl Lost Pines give you a unique opportunity not seen in other post-fire research?

SLP is a unique ecosystem because it includes populations at the limits of their range. This can make species more vulnerable to climate change events such as drought, fire, or big temperature fluctuations. Studying SLP lets us understand the future of natural areas that are becoming more isolated due to urbanization or the changes in land use. 


A bee at Stengl-Lost Pines.

In light of the large amount of wildfires burning all over the planet, how do you feel research like this might join in this conversation of concerning changes?

Studying the effects of fire on a diverse spot such as Central Texas can help us better prepare for the changes our planet will face with the incremental occurrence of wildfires. The holistic approach of our survey will help us identify the components, organisms, and their interactions that can suffer the most after a fire. Part of our strategic planning includes setting the baseline for future research. Future studies can repeat our methodologies or propose new ones to record the ecological succession in the SLP post-oak savannah ecosystem. We hope our findings contribute to implementing informed ecosystem management practices in Texas and beyond.

Have there been any other interesting discoveries in your work at SLP?

There have been pretty interesting discoveries. In our next blog update, we will perhaps tell you about the discovery of new species at SLP!



Jane Strobel sampling ants.

Researchers’ Bios

Jane Strobel recently graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from the University of Texas at Austin. Throughout her studies, she has found an interest in researching ants. Apart from her job, she enjoys painting and jewelry making, which have given her great skills to work with small insects.

Briseida Yáñez holds a Master’s in Biology from Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas and a Bachelor’s in Biology from Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. Her masters-level research involved looking at how altered flood regimes affected growth and survival of different species of trees at Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge. She also looked at how land use had changed over time. She is excited to be working at SLP expanding her skills and learning about the ecology of an ecosystem after a wildfire.

Valarie Gabbard is originally from southeastern Ohio where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology and Anthropology at Miami University. After graduating in 2021, she moved to Austin and worked in conservation at Texas Conservation Corps. While working at TXCC she participated in a special project at SLP. Little did she know that a year later she would be conducting post-fire surveys at SLP. Valarie has great personal interest in birdwatching, and is looking forward to the bird survey as we continue our studies into the new year.

Rossana Maguiña-Conde holds a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of California Santa Cruz, a Master’s in Biology from the University of Missouri at Saint Louis, and a Bachelor’s in Biology from Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Lima, Peru. Her research encompasses the ecology, evolution and conservation of plant-pollinator interactions. She is thrilled to lead the post-fire research at SLP as this is an opportunity to study a whole ecosystem.