Spatial Ecology and Conservation

  • canopy height data
  • tidal marsh in Georgia
  • thermal image of experimental garden from a drone
  • remnant tree in a field
  • desert tortoise with sensor attached
  • Justin checking hoop traps for turtles
  • frog in leaf litter
  • a working landscape in Costa Rica
  • frog on vegetation in a swamp in Costa Rica
  • image of SERC forest and river from a drone

Principal Investigator

We focus on understanding the responses of animals to drivers of global change  including land use and climate change  and identifying opportunities for maintaining biodiversity in human-altered landscapes. Viewing global change through the lens of thermal ecology, we study (1) how drivers of change shape the distributions of traits, individuals, and species; (2) which traits mediate responses to these drivers; and (3) how this information can be used to optimize conservation interventions (e.g., protected areas, restoration and species management). We address these challenges through experiments, landscape-scale field studies, and synthesis.

Ultimately, we aim to bridge the gap between research and conservation implementation through engagement with our local and international partners (e.g., IUCN and Conservation International) and communities of practice, such as the Working Land and Seascapes initiative.

Because temperature drives the ecology of ectotherms, the interplay among (A) land cover specific temperatures, (B) local microclimates, and (C) species’ thermal niches (hypothetical thermal performance curves – TPCs – of different species) influences how ectothermic species are distributed across changing thermal landscapes (Nowakowski et al. 2018: Ecology Letters). (D) Exposure of amphibians to temperatures across forest (green) and open land cover types (yellow) can lead to (E) divergence in thermal traits like preferred body temperatures (selected in thermal gradients). (F) Movements of ectothermic species are highly temperature dependent and can scale to determine distributions of individuals across space and time.

To characterize changing microclimates across landscapes, we use a combination of sensor arrays and remotely sensed data, such as LiDAR

Drivers of landscape change, such as land use climate change, create spatially complex and novel conditions for native species. Some species have the capacity to adapt or persist under these new conditions, whereas others do not. By looking across taxonomic groups and spatial scales, We try to identify general principles that explain why many species decline while others persist or even thrive under rapid environmental change For example, amphibians that decline (blue) or persist (green and yellow) after natural habitats have been converted to human land uses tend to come from the same branches within the tree of life (Nowakowski et al. 2018, PNAS). Tolerant species share traits that likely predispose them to life in converted habitats (Nowakowski et al. 2018, Ecology Letters). 

Conservation science is a relatively young discipline. As a result, there is still limited understanding of what generally works and why. This problem stems from a lack of standardized and reliable conservation evidence underpinning many conservation interventions. Working with landowners and implementing partners, our lab contributes to conservation evidence through rigorous impact evaluation and synthesis. We focus on understanding the impacts of interventions – including habitat protection and restoration – on vertebrate populations and assemblages.