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USU Ecologist Awarded NSF Grant to Study Ecosystem Regime Shifts

Thursday, Feb. 06, 2014

USU ecologist Morgan Ernest

USU ecologist Morgan Ernest holds a kangaroo rat at the Portal Project long-term study site in southeastern Arizona. Ernest received a five-year National Science Foundation grant to study ecological regime shifts.

USU doctoral biology student Erica Christensen

Framed by the Chihuahuan Mountains, USU doctoral biology student Erica Christensen examines a cactus mouse. Faculty mentor Morgan Ernest's NSF grant will support continued graduate student and undergraduate student research opportunities.

When ecologists speak of regime shifts, they’re referring to rapid shifts in the structure and function of ecosystems that sometimes occur in response to environmental changes. When regime shifts happen, they are often difficult to undo and, therefore, a cause of great concern to land managers.

“Because regime shifts occur quickly and without much warning, they have been difficult to study scientifically,” says Utah State University ecologist Morgan Ernest, associate professor in the Department of Biology and the USU Ecology Center.

Ernest was recently awarded a five-year, $740,000 National Science Foundation Populations and Community Ecology Program grant to explore regime shifts and how ecosystems reorganize themselves in response to this phenomenon.

The USU scientist, an empirical community ecologist and macroecologist by training, will conduct her research at a long-term study site in the Chihuahuan desert near Portal, Ariz. Ernest serves as principal investigator in charge of the collection of rodent and weather datasets at the Portal Project, which was established in 1977 by Ernest’s mentor James H. Brown and associates.

“Scientists at the Portal Project have studied small mammals and experimentally manipulated large patches of desert for more than 30 years,” Ernest says. “Reversing these experimental manipulations will give us a rare opportunity to scientifically study regime shifts in a controlled fashion.”

Portions of the NSF grant will support graduate students’ participation in the project. Ernest will also apply for NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates funding to support an undergrad’s participation in the project each year.

“This grant is going to allow us to address a whole new range of questions on how ecosystems changes,” she says. “The funding also allows us to keep working at this amazing field site.”

Related links:

Contact: S.K. Morgan Ernest, 435-797-8751,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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