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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


Under the microscope: professor looks to predict the extinction of species

Climate change and over-hunting are two factors that can lead to the extinction of a species. (PHOTO CREDIT: MCTCAMPUS)

Every other week Ruchi Shah, a sophomore biology major, will take a look at Stony Brook-related research and science news.

Climate change has affected the ability of species to survive. However, a team of researchers, led by Dr. H. Resit Akçakaya, professor and graduate program director of the Department of Ecology and Evolution, has developed new models to better predict and understand the extinction of species as a result of climate change.

The first goal of Akçakaya’s group was to create methods and models to predict extinction of species due to climate change. In order to do this, Akçakaya worked with collaborators who collect species data and then used various maps, including climate, weather and land use maps, to describe current animal habitats and predict them for the future. They developed models that link these maps with the species data to simulate the changes in species populations in the future.

In this way, the team was able to predict species survival after 100 years based on current information. Using these models, they tested whether the type of information currently available on many species—such as population size, how large an area the species is distributed over, how fast its numbers are declining, etc.—can predict the extinction risk of the species. This type of information is currently used when determining whether a species is threatened or not, for example, in the “IUCN Red List of Threatened Species”—

However, the Red List system was developed in the 1990s, when scientists did not know much about the ecological impacts of climate change. it was not clear that this system would work for species threatened because of climate change.

The research by Akçakaya and his collaborators showed that these types of information can also identify species that are vulnerable to extinction because of climate change.

While Akçakaya’s study was restricted to reptiles and amphibians endemic to the U.S., he plans to develop more general models. Additionally, while these models predict whether a species is in danger of extinction, Akçakaya and his team are currently doing further studies to determine how far in advance these methods can predict extinction. This will  give enough time for conservation efforts to save species.

The second goal of Akçakaya’s research is to understand why certain species are driven to extinction.

For some species, the cause of decline, such as loss of habitat or over-hunting, is known. However, for most species it is not. Using a Bayesian model, Akçakaya and post-doctoral researcher Kevin Shoemaker created a program that analyses population changes of a species and determines whether the decline is better explained by habitat loss, hunting, or some other cause of population decline.

The third aspect of Akçakaya’s research focuses on using models to predict what is necessary to conserve a species. As Akçakaya explained, when there is a new threat, such as climate change, it is vital to understand how the actions of conservationists need to be altered.

For example, there was a decline in the black-footed ferret population when a new threat, the plague, began to affect the main prey of the ferrets, prairie dogs. Akçakaya and his collaborators formed a team of experts in disease dynamics, black-footed ferrets and population modeling, to explore the most effective conservation methods for the species.

Akçakaya plans to continue to use modeling and other quantitative approaches to help devise better species-specific conservation plans and in turn protect the diversity of the natural world.


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