WASHINGTON, D.C. — Dr. Ben Pauli of Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota is collaborating on a four-year, $1.7 million grant to study the effects of climate change on American kestrels. The grant, awarded to Boise State University by the Department of Defense (DoD), will be used to monitor migratory connectivity, population change, and the impacts of climate change on the American kestrel and other migratory birds.
As part of the grant, Dr. Pauli will develop a computer model that can be used to predict how kestrels and other avian species will react to changes in weather patterns—an increasingly pressing need within DoD, as well as the broader scientific and conservation community.
The study will be led by Boise State University biological sciences professor Dr. Julie Heath.
“The DoD manages about 28 million acres of land across the country that support biodiversity and provide a variety of environments to support testing and training missions. To best manage this biodiversity, we need to understand whether and how species will respond to climate change,” Dr. Heath explained. Dr. Richard Fischer of DoD’s Environmental Laboratory added that “the DoD must adhere to all federal laws and regulations, and understanding climate change impacts to flora and fauna provides direct support to maintaining the ability of the military services to train and prepare (personnel).”
Heath and faculty members from Boise State’s Geosciences Department are collaborating with researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota; Hawkwatch International; The Peregrine Fund; and the Environmental Laboratory of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center. The grant is administered by the Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program.
The research team thinks the project will have broad implications for science and conservation. The multi-phase project is beginning this summer with a large-scale investigation of the environmental and genetic factors underlying nesting and migration patterns among American kestrels, in partnership with The Peregrine Fund, Hawkwatch International, and UCLA. The team will use genetic tools and tracking technology to identify how breeding, migration, and wintering areas for the birds are interconnected.
Dr. Pauli from Saint Mary’s, with help from modelers from Boise State’s Geosciences Department, will then combine genetic and migratory research with regional and local weather variables. They will develop an individual-based model capable of testing hypotheses about the causes and consequences of phenology shifts for other avian species in response to climate change. The video game-like model, called SCOPE (Simulation of Carry-Over and Phenological Effects), will allow other researchers to simulate real environments and weather patterns, and test how these variables affect the behavior of migratory birds. While similar modeling systems have been used to study ecological systems, this project represents the first time it has been used to connect how cyclic events, like migration and nesting, are affected by warmer winters or earlier springs.
Dr. Pauli said by creating a virtual environment, his team can conduct experiments that would be impossible in the real world. “We can tinker around in ways that you can’t in real life,” he said. “I create this virtual world so we can use it as a virtual laboratory. By combining field and lab research with computer modeling, we can make predictions about how a species of concern will or will not adapt to potential future climate changes. We live in a world with a changing climate that can have wide-ranging, significant impact on lots of wildlife species.
“This species is particularly interesting because kestrels exist across the U.S., and in different parts of the country, kestrels have different strategies related to their breeding and behavior,” Dr. Pauli added. “Some kestrels migrate and some don’t, and this varies by population. They are interesting to study because of this variability. They have the potential to change. Ultimately what we learn and develop through this work on kestrels will be broadened to other bird species and to other wildlife species. From this we can begin to make predictions about what will happen in five years, 10 years, or 100 years to determine whether we expect the behavior and location of kestrels and other species to change due to climate change. The ability to make these types of predictions is key if we want to be able to fully understand the impact that climate change will have on our world in the future.”
More information about the project can be found at www.fullcyclephenology.com.