June 27, 2007 10:52 PM

Animals & Climate Change

Another great article - this one's about animal habitat-change research going on at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Link: http://sciencematters.berkeley.edu/archives/volume4/issue28/story1.php

As Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Craig Moritz is in charge of more than 710,000 animal specimens such as this albatross. Photo courtesy of Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

We've all heard the news—climate change is altering the world as we know it. Seas are set to rise and glaciers to melt, drought to parch some lands and scorching temperatures to desiccate others. The effects on us humans are grimly predictable. We'll have to scramble to develop new cars to drive, lands to farm, and sources of water to drink.

But the fate of the birds and beasts who share our planet remains an open question. Will chipmunks and salamanders weather this latest shift in habitat and climate conditions by adapting, or might they fade into extinction? How did they respond to climate change over past millennia, and what can we learn from this?

A tray of bat specimens from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology's collections are cared for by undergraduate curatorial assistant Rika Setsuda. Photo credit: Anand Varma

Craig Moritz, UC Berkeley professor of Integrative Biology and director of the university's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ), is uniquely positioned to help answer that question. By combining traditional systematics – the study of animal specimens collected from the wild – with new molecular and computing tools, he and his staff are analyzing how shifts in climate and habitat have affected animals in epochs past. At the same time, they might help forecast how species will react to climate change in the future.

"The business of the whole museum is understanding the patterns of speciation, extinction, and range change that gave rise to patterns of diversity we see today," Moritz says.

Much of that work begins with the museum's vast collection. Each of the more than 710,000 animal specimens, including stuffed storks, grizzly pelts, and pickled amphibians, is associated with a species name, the date and location where it was collected, and often genetic and photographic information as well.

After Moritz joined the museum as director in 2001, he developed the museum's Biodiversity Informatics laboratory. Since then, staff have painstakingly put the information associated with every specimen online, along with thousands of photos and images of the museum's first fifty years of field notes. Much of that information has been entered into databases containing information about birds, mammals, and reptiles and amphibians from collections around the world.

The Grinnell Project resurvey has found that the pinyon mouse (Peromyscus truei), is expanding its range into higher elevations in California, likely due to climate warming. Photo credit: Chris Conroy, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology

"We're not a public display museum. But through bioinformatics, we can get the collection out of the cabinets and let people know what we have. Anyone can download the data and do what they want with it. Until now, we weren't able to get that information out," Moritz says.

The new format has revolutionized how scientists and others work with the collection. Now able to compare data from more specimens from a wider geographic range, researchers can also overlay spatial information such as annual precipitation and temperature, elevation, vegetation type, and other data collected via satellite. The resulting maps give researchers a new way to evaluate what factors influence a species' range over time.

For example, one of Moritz's specialties is tropical rainforest ecology in Queensland, Australia. "We have a fairly good idea from the fossil record about what temperature and rainfall was like under glacial conditions tens of thousands of years ago. We can ask using modeling where rainforests were likely to have persisted. Then we can use patterns of genetic data we've recovered from our specimens to estimate where species have persisted and how their populations have changed."

Moritz also studies the spatial dynamics of vertebrates in California. Here, he follows in the footsteps of the museum's first director, Joseph Grinnell. In 1908, Grinnell began a 30-year survey of animal populations at more than 700 sites across California. Moritz and the MVZ are re-sampling those same areas 100 years later as part of the ten-year Grinnell Project. By comparing the two sets of specimens, the researchers hope to understand how native species respond to major climate and land use change.

Researchers at the MVZ are layering biological data along with spatial information such as rainfall and temperature in order to gain a better sense of how climate is affecting species ranges. This map shows hotspots of recent speciation, or neoendemism, among native California mammals. Photo credit: Michelle Koo.

"What we've seen already with our work in the Yosemite area has been quite dramatic," Moritz says. "The ranges of a lot of high elevation species like the pika, alpine chipmunks, and Belding's ground squirrels are contracting upwards" where it's cooler. But other high elevation species, such as marmots and Lyell's shrew, seem to be holding their own. "We've seen enough to know that simplistic notions like all high-elevation species or predators will do one thing isn't backed up by our data," Moritz says. "Now we have to think more like ecologists and say, what is it about these organisms – what they eat or where they live or their hibernation patterns – is causing these changes."

Answering those questions is particularly pertinent today, as severe climate change is forecast to occur across California and the West over the next century. "We're trying to determine what species are going to be really hammered by climate change and habitat fragmentation, and which are going to be resilient. If we know that, we can more efficiently target our conservation strategies," Moritz says. Data from Grinnell's collection will allow the scientists to validate their hypotheses against the previous 100 years of climate change in the state.

In addition, California State Parks has asked Moritz and the museum to help identify areas in the state where rapid speciation and evolution is occurring so these places can be protected as new parks. The agency also wants information about patterns of evolution in existing parks that can be highlighted in brochures and educational programs.

"Natural history museums are just at the beginning of some really exciting science. They have a very proud record, but as these new tools come on board, I think Berkeley's well placed to maintain the leadership position," Moritz says.

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