Academic journals are not familiar to most people, which is unfortunate. They are filled with useful information. In an article in the scientific journal Global Change Biology, University of Nevada, Reno professor Beth Leger, assisted by her students, wrote about the impact of climate change on the size of plants in the Great Basin. It applies to her work on how to restore the Great Basin after man or nature intrudes, as with range fires.
What interested you about this particular topic? We’ve heard a lot about climate but not that much about plants.
Yes, and not much about plant sizes, either. The reason why this project came about was that last winter, you remember, it was so dry here that there weren’t even any plants to study outside. We didn’t even have cheat grass here last year. And what happened was, I had all these people working for me, and I realized I needed to find something for them to do. And so I thought … we have this great resource here, it’s our herbarium. It’s not very large, but it’s very old, and it has collections of plants going back to the 1890s. Some of the first collections of Nevada are there. And I had this idea that we could use this collection to sort of look at what the impact of warming and drying are in our area. … I had this suspicion that plants might be getting smaller. Some of the research I had been hearing showed that when conditions are really bad—you know, when it’s really warm or really dry—that it’s actually better to be small rather than large, which is kind of funny because most people think the opposite. Right? Like usually, bigger is always better. … There is global evidence that being small when it’s warm and dry is good. And my suspicion was that as it gets warmer and drier, plants are going to shrink and become even smaller over time. And so I used this very dry winter last year to take some of my students and put this on this task of measuring plants. … And of them, five of them are getting a lot smaller over time. So it was as I predicted.
You examined 1,900 samples, which seems like a lot to me. How long did it take?
It was hundreds of hours, for sure. The kids loved it, though, because … it was almost like they were going back to historic archives. … [Earlier researchers] would put a label on them, they’d have beautiful old cursive writing, they would write about what was there and the other plants that were around. It was a lot of work, but it was also like a big discovery. Every specimen was like a new look into the past. So they loved it even though it was a lot of work.
What’s next for you? How do you follow up on this?
That’s a very good question. Part of the reason why I’m interested in this is I’m trying to find out how to restore native plants in today’s environment. And one of the things that I think is really important to keep in mind is just what I said at the beginning—bigger is not always better. And sometimes when you want to do restoration, [findings] point to the fact that smaller plants might be better able to survive in post-fire restoration than large plants. I think there are real practical implications. … If you want to be alive in the desert right now, you don’t want to be a 4-foot-tall plant. You want to be much smaller. …
When the federal government or the military has wanted to install various projects in Nevada, some people have said that those officials do not understand that the desert is a fragile ecology. Is it?
Yes. Yes, it really is. I mean, it takes a lot for a plant to get established from seed here. Not every year is a year to grow. … You have to be careful when you disturb [the desert] because you’re killing things that have been here for hundreds of years and getting them back is really challenging.