Dr. Jaime E. Jiménez is a wildlife ecologist and professor in the department of Biological Sciences at University of North Texas. Like a migratory bird, he divides his time between two countries in two vastly different climates, teaching classes and conducting research in both Texas and in Chile.
Between 2011 and 2018, Dr. Jiménez ran the Tracing Darwin´s Path study abroad course in the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve alongside Dr. James Kennedy of UNT Biological Sciences and Dr. Ricardo Rozzi of UNT's Philosophy and Religion Studies, taking up to thirty students at a time from around the globe to experience the region and conduct research abroad.
"This is one of the few untouched places left in the world with many glaciers, fjords, lakes, islands, and the world's southernmost forests. It's truly beautiful," he said. "And it is quite an experience for students; they wake up on the other side of the world, with another season, language, and culture. Students must be prepared to collaborate with local scientists and students and make new discoveries about the world and themselves. This is a life-changing experience for students."
Dr. Jiménez's research primarily focuses on understanding the drivers that explain the abundances and distributions of species in space and time, particularly of terrestrial vertebrates of conservation concern, such as foxes, pumas, huemul deer, chinchillas, raptors, parrots, ducks, Magellanic woodpeckers, the invasive American mink, and many more.
Three years ago, Dr. Jiménez and his colleagues received an NSF International Research Experience for Students (IRES) grant to promote research and expose both graduate and undergraduate students to an overseas practice by engaging them in high quality education and professional development experiences.
"The NSF grant is meant for training students overseas. We have run the grant two years in a row with much success," he said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Our students have presented their research results in conferences in person in the U.S., Mexico, Ecuador, Canada, and Denmark."
During one of these research trips to the far south, Dr. Jiménez and his students were studying moss dispersal by birds and made an amazing discovery. "Since my interest was from the bird perspective -specifically to look at herbivorous birds and the plants that they eat and transport- we found that some moss passes unharmed through the bird's digestive tract and, in the case of migratory birds, these can be dispersed into a new habitat and distributed widely," he said. "Incredibly, there are mosses with more similarities on the opposite poles than with those in other places. These distributions are likely the role of migratory birds."
But that wasn't all there was to be uncovered in this study. "While we were doing this research, one of my students discovered through a microscope something moving in the feces they were studying," he said. "We were amazed to discover that other organisms, tardigrades, also survived the digestive process of the birds."
Tardigrades, or water bears as they are commonly called, are eight-legged micro-animals that are known for being one of the most resilient and enduring organisms that can survive in practically any natural environment.
"These are a relatively little-known species. Our analysis led us to believe that the tardigrades as well as the mosses are dispersed by birds," Dr. Jiménez said. "These organisms can dry up with the moss where they live and later become reanimated with the addition of water. This is beneficial to the survival of the species, but also makes it easy for us to transport, send, and receive samples from all over the world."
Their discovery led Dr. Jiménez and his students to meet many new researchers interested in tardigrade research and even present at the World Tardigrade Conference. "The NSF grant allowed UNT undergraduates to attend the conference, which wouldn't otherwise have been accessible to students. This opened up whole new horizons for them," he said.
Since the discovery of the tardigrades, Dr. Jiménez has been traveling the world collecting specimens and collaborating with scientists across the globe, from Kansas to Copenhagen.
Not all his research is conducted in far off places, however. "We are presenting with TAMS students at a conference soon on tardigrades found on the UNT campus and within Denton and comparing islands with mainland settings," he indicates.
Starting this past June, Dr. Jiménez and his Ph.D. student Jalissa Williams have undertaken a project examining the biodiversity of the UNT Denton campus. Using sensor cameras that take photos of animals and people but also record the date, time, and temperature when each photo was taken, they are working to answer the question, "What species live here, around us, and how abundant are these?" So far, they've documented everything from birds and squirrels to bobcats and coyotes.
Dr. Jiménez obtained his undergraduate degree from Universidad Católica ('85), an M.S. from the University of Florida ('93), and a Ph.D. from Utah State University ('99). He was then a professor and chair of graduate programs at Universidad de Los Lagos until 2011, when he accepted his current position at UNT.
Dr. Jiménez is a fellow and honorary fellow of the International Ornithologists' Union and of the American Ornithologists' Union, respectively: both international recognitions for his contributions to bird studies. To date, he has published 120+ peer reviewed papers, more than ten book chapters, and three books in three languages, including Japanese. To learn more about his fascinating research and explore one of his hobbies, wildlife photography, visit http://www.jaimeejimenez.com/