Conservation Science is the scientific field that examines how we best utilize resources to preserve species and ecosystems in the context of human-mediated local and global changes in the environment. At Brown our focus within the broader field of conservation is on developing predictive frameworks that allow us to anticipate how species and ecosystems will be impacted by environmental change, on working across the traditional disciplinary divide between the natural and social sciences, and on balancing conservation aims with a consideration of human needs and use of the environment.
Featured Faculty Research
A Predictive Framework for Species' Responses to Climate Change
Conservation scientists currently lack a predictive framework for anticipating which species will be most sensitive to changes in climate. We know from past episodes of climate change that some species will shift their geographic distributions by great distances (often thousands of kilometers), while others will survive in place. We don't currently have a framework, however, that helps us to anticipate these differences among species. Those that need to move great distances to track changes in climate will be at high risk of extinction because the modern landscape is altered by human land use, for example, through the creation of urban and agricultural landscapes, making long distance shifts in species distributions nearly impossible for most species. In this context, knowing which species can tolerate and thrive in changed climate conditions where they currently live is critical, because this allows us to target limited resources towards those species most in need of assistance.
To address this challenge our lab is engaged in a large, multi-investigator effort to map out the climate tolerances of thousands of plants in the United States and to relate this in a predictive fashion to the characteristics of plant species. Our principal data come from occurrences beyond species' own native ranges, where they are naturalized or grown in horticulture. By contrasting the climate conditions that require continued human assistance for plant survival versus those where species are able to self-perpetuate we are beginning to map out the fundamental niche relationships and climate tolerances of plant species. Our aims are to provide a major conceptual advance for understanding climate niche relationships and two apply this knowledge to plant species that are currently endangered in the United States, so as to provide a basis for the sound management and conservation of these species.