When you think about West African savannas, elephants and lions may come to mind. But … termites?
Brianna Lind was studying abroad in South Africa as an undergraduate student at Colby College when she found out she would be learning about termites, instead of typical African animals. She was surprised to learn the unusually large termite mounds have a major impact on the ecosystems and habitat in semi-arid environments, such as the West African Sahelian and Sudanian savannas, areas from which she is now collecting data.
“Termite mounds are really big in this area, and they’ve been around for a really long time,” Lind said. “As mounds erode, they take up more and more space in the landscape because it is so difficult for plants to colonize the mound surfaces. They can be over 20 or 30 meters in diameter in this area of Senegal. And they have a really big impact on how water is redistributed in the environment and where plants can grow.”
Lind will join New Mexico State University this fall. She will pursue a doctorate in plant and environmental sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
The importance of termite research isn’t the only thing that has surprised Lind. She recently learned she was the recipient of a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship to further her research. She was one of just 69 people out of 385 applicants from across the United States to receive the award.
“Grant and fellowship applications are huge,” she said. “They’re really time-consuming and difficult, and you put a lot of energy into it. It was a really nice surprise.”
Niall Hanan, professor of dryland ecology in the NMSU Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, is Lind’s adviser, and he also worked with her while she was pursing her master’s degree in biology at South Dakota State University.
“Brianna is a highly motivated and independent student,” Hanan said. “For her master’s research, she explored how the diversity of termite species varies across Southern Africa in relation to climate, soil and vegetation types, using termites as a model to explore larger ecological questions about biodiversity. With her NASA Fellowship, Brianna plans to build on that research to study how these small insects, through construction of large termite mounds, act as ecosystem engineers – radically altering water and nutrient distributions – in African savannas.”
A unique aspect of her research is the use of satellite imagery. In addition to recent images, Lind will reference Corona satellite images from the 1960s and 1970s. These United States photographic surveillance satellites were designed to assess how rapidly the Soviet Union was producing long-range bombers and ballistic missiles and where they were being deployed.
“The Corona satellite imagery provides very high-resolution photographs across large geographic areas that can be used to understand exactly what the landscape looked like in the 60s and 70s,” she said. “Otherwise, we would have no physical picture of that. I’m hoping to see how the landscape has changed – or not changed – over time. Hopefully I’ll be able to see how this type of arid landscape responds to climatic shifts, how it has changed over the past few decades and how termites affect that.”
Although she’ll continue her West African research and data analysis while at NMSU, she is eager to experience hands-on research at semi-arid and arid locations near Las Cruces, including the Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research area, which is similar in landscape to West Africa.
The NASA Fellowship is one year, with the option for Lind to submit a renewal request for two additional years. Her research contributes to the NASA “Carbon Cycle and Ecosystem” science focus area by documenting and understanding how termites impact ecosystem structure, function, vegetation, water and carbon cycling in semi-arid and arid environments.
“Brianna’s success in applying for a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship reflects not only her abilities as a young researcher but also recognizes NMSU and the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences for the quality of our graduate degree program and the reputation of our students and staff,” Hanan said.
Lind credits her success of receiving the fellowship to support from Hanan and others from the Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence, which is a research and educational collaboration between SDSU and the United States Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation and Science center.
Although she was initially disappointed about studying termites instead of elephants, giraffes and lions, she now finds termites exciting.
“It turns out termites are super interesting and really cool, and when you get down to it, they’re a huge part of that environment,” she said. “Many different animals in the savanna eat termites. A lot of animals use termite mounds to stand on to get a better vantage point, and the mounds can have plants growing on or near them that the animals prefer to eat. They’re right in the middle of things. It’s a cooler thing to study than people think.”
Information from NMSU