Ecology Students Model the Effects of Climate Change on Local Wildlife

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Professor Kerkhoff and his students mill around before the poster session begins in the Fischman 2nd floor poster gallery on Friday, November 18th.

Associate Professor of biology Andrew Kerkhoff’s ecology lab course is attempting to put a local face on a global problem with a new project modeling the potential responses of different Ohio wildlife to climate change.

As they gather for the culmination of their project: a public poster session for faculty and students, Professor Kerkhoff reminds his class of the importance of their work: “So often, climate change is viewed as this unmitigated disaster, and it just gets depressing and oftentimes paralyzing because it feels too big to really do something about it. But by making predictions about how climate change can affect specific organisms, it not only raises awareness, but it presents specific targets for conservation efforts.”

For the project, students in Biology 229: Ecology Laboratory used data and estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) to create species distribution models for the year 2070 using R Studio software. The students’ overall findings show that average precipitation in the driest quarter of the year was generally the greatest predicting factor of climate suitability.

Toby Santamaria ’17, senior lab technician for the Ecology class, is very proud of the students for their hard work on a tough assignment. The students only had two class sessions for researching and preparing their posters, plus a great deal of outside work and fiddling with R programming to run their predictive distribution models. She mostly helped the students with the technical aspects, frantically googling R scripts and troubleshooting formatting issues. “They worked very hard and they should be proud of themselves,” she says.

Since the session is on a Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving break, student attendance for the poster session is low, but a few biology faculty members trickle by throughout the hour and a half open discussion. Biology and neuroscience Professor Sarah Petersen remarks about the students’ impressive work, and she thinks it was important to look at species that were endemic to Ohio because it brings climate change close to home.

While some students like Erin Keleske ’18 are veterans to the tried and true art of the biology poster session, for others this project was their first exposure. “This is my very first poster I’ve made for biology, and I really enjoyed it” says Mia Fox ’19, beaming at her poster on the Massasauga rattlesnake, a new edition to the Ohio endangered species list. Mia’s rattlesnake and Erin’s study species, the eastern hellbender salamander both have rather bleak prospects under continuing climate change. Their habitats, streams for the hellbender and the riparian corridors around them for the rattlesnake, are predicted to move far north into Canada, and both of these species travel very little from their birth sites. These are cases where conservationists may need to assist in the continued success of these species through programs like assisted migration, moving organisms to a more suitable habitat when they would never make it there on their own.

Both Erin and Mia agree that this project was very helpful for putting climate change into context. “Work like this brings attention to specific problems, and it shows that the effects vary vastly across species,” Mia explains.

Christina Ennis ’18, is a neuroscience major and a biology minor who signed up for ecology because “my friend wanted me to do it,” but she was also excited by her work on this project. She chose Anas carolinensis, the green-winged teal which visits Ohio during its yearly migration “mainly because they were pretty,” but says she had fun learning new information about ducks, especially what the term ‘dabbling’ means. Due to its migratory nature, her predictions only show the ducks’ habitat range for the winter season. Still, she says she found it very interesting for the lab to look at different taxa and see how different groups respond, and she’s learning a whole new approach to the problems presented in biology by focusing on the bigger picture.

Other students looked at plant species, like Dylan Barret Smith ’17, who studied his favorite tree Fagus grandifolia, the American beech tree. Like many of the other species, Dylan predicts the American beech tree’s habitat will move much farther north into the eastern parts of Canada, out to the isles of Newfoundland and Labrador. However, the model has some limitations to what it can predict, including whether the beech will grow well in these tougher, harsher soils even if the climate of the area radically shifts. American beech trees are threatened by the nasty Beech Bark Disease, and Dylan says one interesting line of inquiry for the future of these trees would be looking at how both the beetles that bore into the bark and the fungus that later infects the bore-holes and kills the tree would be affected by climate change as some shifts could negatively impact the success of the disease, ultimately proving beneficial for the tree. Dylan is a biology and anthropology double major interested in sustainable urban development, and he hopes making models like this can aid in changing attitudes toward climate change. “By showing the worst possible scenario, maybe we can incite change to prevent it from coming true.”

Hannah Wedig ’18 who studied Claytonia virginica, the Spring Beauty wildflower, agrees with Dylan’s hope for change, saying this project made her even more certain that “we need to do something fast!” Though she’s more interested in a career in veterinary medicine, she enjoyed thinking about all the contributing factors that play a role in a species’ success, and how altering single factors can have a dramatic cascade effect not only for that species but for all levels of its ecosystem.

Sam Lisak ’19, a future conservation biologist, studied Myotis sodalis, the Indiana bat, a species whose population has been halved in the last couple decades by the pervasive White-nose syndrome perpetrated by invasive Pseudogymnoascus destructans fungus. For the Indiana bat and many others in its order, the future looks dismal, and the only way to preserve diversity may be assisted migration. Sam thinks spreading the realities of their predictive data to the public is critical, and he feels the topics of ecology and conservation should be integrated much earlier in science curriculum: “high school students should all have some conservation biology exposure, so everyone will see the problem is so much broader than we thought.”

Though the prospects of climate change are daunting, the wall of posters present not only a cause for alarm but a resounding call to action, as the more scientists like the ecology students can predict how species will be affected, the more they can integrate their data to elucidate a hazy future and develop solutions to protect our planet and its rich biodiversity.

You can visit the posters on display in the Fischman poster gallery through the end of the semester, after which they will move to the third floor of Higley Hall. You can also view them as a “Climate Change Atlas”.

 

 

 

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