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Specimen libraries at WNMU help researchers track climate change

Jay Hemphill
Dr. William Norris observes a specimen in the Gila National Forest.

The Gila National Forest covers over 3 million acres across southwest New Mexico, with elevation changes between 5,000 feet above sea level, to nearly 11,000 feet. At Western New Mexico University in Silver City, the Natural Sciences Department has collected over 13,000 plant specimens, and over 10,000 animal specimens in order to document the unique biodiversity within and around the Gila. This enables researchers to be able to track the effects of drought, pollution, and ultimately, climate change.

Dr. William “Bill” Norris, Professor of Botany at WNMU, explained the importance of having these specimen libraries to help track the effects of climate change.

“Our climate is changing, our resources are changing, we’re having more frequent fires. The only way we can really understand what’s going on is to document what’s here now, and to lay the groundwork for anyone who wants to repeat this kind of work down the road so we can actually analyze the change in an appropriate scientific method,” he said.

Gila Conservation at WNMU 2.0

The WNMU Herbarium was established in 1957 by the late Dr. Dale Zimmerman. According to Norris, Zimmerman estimated that the drought in the Gila has been ongoing for nearly 50 years.

“There’s a lot of factors that enter into why, presumably, we’ve had higher frequency of fires in this region. But having drier conditions, it also promotes invasion of pine bark beetles, all kinds of things that detrimentally affect these trees here,” he said.

Norris said that the biodiversity of the Gila is threatened due to disruptions in the life cycle of pollinators being disrupted by the rapidly changing climate.

“The climate is changing very quickly and long-evolved relationships are getting out of sync. These relationships between plants and pollinators, as their phenology, the timing of their emergence basically gets out of synch, you’re going to have much more difficulty for plants which require these pollinators for their reproduction, to be able to persist,” Norris said.

Russ Kleinman, associate botanist and professor at WNMU, said that there is already discernible evidence of climate change having an impact in the mountains surrounding Silver City with the ponderosa tree line moving upward in elevation. More than that though, he said that the disappearance of species could be detrimental to humans, which is why it’s important to have a physical specimen library.

Jay Hemphill
Dr. Kleinman leads students on a field-study in the Gila National Forest.

“Any of these species that we lose can be a lynchpin. It can be like removing a brick from the bottom of a wall, the whole ecosystem can collapse. But more than that, we don’t know how we might want to use those organisms in the future. Some of them may be incredibly important for our own survival. So when we cause the loss of an organism by pollution or by global warming, we may be harming ourselves, we may be losing an organism that may be the cure for the next cancer, or the next asthma medication might not come about because we don’t have the organism that produces that compound for us,” Kleinman said. “These things are clearly impacting our natural areas in ways that we know, and a lot of ways that we don’t know.”

Although a relatively small university, the collections at WNMU are vast. They show how the Gila Forest’s climate has been affected and give insight to researchers on what to expect in the future.

Jonny Coker is a Multimedia Journalist for KRWG Public Media. He has lived in Southern New Mexico for most of his life, growing up in the small Village of Cloudcroft, and earning a degree in Journalism and Media Studies at New Mexico State University.