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Biogeography and Behavioral Ecology Needed to Respond to Biodiversity Loss

Addressing questions of biodiversity dynamics is necessary for preventing large-scale extinction from climate change

by University of Oklahoma
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An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Oklahoma has published a perspective article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences advocating for convergent research that integrates the fields of biogeography and behavioral ecology to more rapidly respond to challenges associated with climate change and biodiversity loss.

While news about climate change fills headlines, the crisis of biodiversity loss has gotten less attention. In their article, the authors contend that “identifying solutions that prevent large-scale extinction requires addressing critical questions about biodiversity dynamics that—despite widespread interest—have been challenging to answer thus far.”

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From microorganisms that support soil health, fish that we eat, forests that clean water, to pollination, lumber, and medicine, protecting ecosystems and the variety of plants and animals within them is vital to the health of the planet and for humanity to thrive.

“The ways that we respond to climate change also have a big impact on outcomes for biodiversity—which is also a critical part of how the global climate system works,” said article co-author Katharine Marske, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences.

“Climate change is a major threat to biodiversity, but it’s not the only threat. We also have habitat loss and degradation, direct overharvest of some species and so forth, so it’s also its own unique crisis that needs to be considered on equal footing.”

“Historically in Oklahoma, we can point to cases where we have rapidly removed or changed natural habitats, such as the Dust Bowl,” said co-author Hayler Lanier, PhD, assistant curator of mammalogy at the Sam Noble Museum and an assistant professor of biology. “That was a case where we came through and stripped out a lot of the existing natural systems that do things to hold onto the soil and create nutrients, and that was sort of one small example. As we move into the future, we need to think about what sort of world we want to live in, and it is definitely one where we have these sorts of ecosystem services.”

By integrating the fields of biogeography, or the study of how and why biological diversity varies across the Earth, with behavioral ecology, or the study of the evolution of behavior in relation to ecological pressures, the authors argue that scientists will be better able to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how to leverage “existing biodiversity knowledge into predictive frameworks for how biodiversity will respond to environmental change, and where habitat conservation can be most effective.”

“This interdisciplinary connection between behavioral ecologists and scientists who study biogeography has not been linked well to date,” said Laura Stein, PhD, article co-author and an assistant professor of biology. “I think in many cases, biogeographers are not thinking about day-to-day activities of animals as much as behavioral ecologists are, and behavioral ecologists are not necessarily considering differences and overlaps in both current and historical ranges and how behaviors have been shaped by past geographic events that might help predict where they will be in the future. And so, by combining these two fields, we can get a much broader picture of what we can do now and what is important for protecting biodiversity into the future.”

The article’s authors have led a pilot of such integrative efforts at the University of Oklahoma (OU), supported by funding from the National Science Foundation.

Co-author Cameron Siler, PhD, associate professor of biology and associate curator of herpetology at the Sam Noble Museum, said “We, in the Department of Biology, together with the Sam Noble Museum, carried out a series of cluster hires over the last five years aimed strategically at bringing together integrative researchers with the capacity to think beyond these typically isolated fields, and what’s exciting is this work is a culmination of the success of that early effort to bring scientists like this together at OU.”

Lanier described their work as hopeful. Biodiversity loss and climate change are large, complex, and challenging problems to solve. “What we’re trying to do is to harness a lot of information that we already have as scientific and conservation communities and bring it together in new ways to very quickly answer some of these questions.”

Agreeing, Marske added, “The scope of the challenges that society faces require integration, so providing opportunities for this across biology, and amongst all disciplines, increases your chances to bring people together and talk about novel solutions. The more people you can have at that table, the better.”

- This press release was originally published on the University of Oklahoma website