Scientists look to ancient past to better predict how species may respond to climate change

April 15, 2013

What do woolly mammoths wandering around the ancient spruce woodlands of eastern North America have to do with predicting how species could respond to climate change? Matt Fitzpatrick of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Appalachian Laboratory, along with researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California-Merced, have received a three-year, $670,000 award from the National Science Foundation to study how plants and animals responded to changes in climate during the ice age to better predict what we can expect in the near future.

In particular, they will be trying to understand the response of vegetation, such as forests, to changes in climate. Working with fossilized tree pollen found at the bottom of lakes and fossils of mammals like woolly mammoths and rodents that fed on plants, the scientists can tell how the plants and animals living in forests thousands of years ago responded to changes in climate. Understanding this relationship can help build better models to predict how forests will respond to climate changes in the future.

"Looking to the past, we can ask whether we can 'predict' changes we saw in the past and learn how to build better models to predict the future," lead researcher  Fitzpatrick said."This is a period of time about 21,000 years ago to near-present when the climate changes are known very well. It roughly mimics the amount of climate change expected in the next hundred years."

Fitzpatrick studies global change and biodiversity, trying to understand what determines where species occur and how climate change may alter where species could live in the future. As part of this grant, he will develop and test new methods that consider interactions between species, for the first time accounting for patterns of species coexistence--such as when two kind of plants grow in the same place because one provides shade for the other--in order to predict how species and biological communities respond to changes in climate.

"We're trying to get better at forecasting what will happen in the future," he said. "What will vegetation in the eastern North America look like if climate changes the way climate models suggest? By looking to the past and assessing our ability to predict these observed changes back in time, we're hoping to do that better than we are able to do today." 

The National Science Foundation award includes Matt Fitzpatrick of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Appalachian Laboratory, Jack Williams of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jessica Blois of the University of California- Merced.