Predicting the population consequences of environmental change

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Zoology


The environment that most natural populations experience is changing. Not only as a result of global climate change, but also as a consequence of other anthropogenic activities including hunting, habitat modification and the introduction of alien species. Such environmental change has already been demonstrated to impact animal and plant populations and the ecosystems in which these populations are embedded. The speed of environmental change continues to accelerate with potentially catastrophic consequences. Unfortunately biologists do not have a good track record of accurately predicting how environmental change will impact natural populations. This is because populations and the environment they experience are complex. We have identified an approach that is likely to improve upon the predictions that biologists are able to make about how populations will respond to environment change. The types of response we are able to model include both short-term ecological ones and longer-term evolutionary responses. Our approach relies on a powerful, recently developed modelling framework that can be applied to the types of data that biologists often collect. We will apply the approach to construct a detailed model to a well-studied population of Yellowstone wolves. Analysis of this model will allow us to predict how the Yellowstone wolf population may respond to various environmental change scenarios. We will also construct simplified versions of the model for a wide range of animal data sets to identify more general patterns in ways that animal populations are likely to respond to environmental change. Our work has the potential to substantially improve our understanding of how environmental change is likely to impact natural populations in both the short and long term.

Planned Impact

Understanding the impact of environmental change, including global climate change, on the natural world is central to NERCs mission. A major impediment to predicting the consequences of environmental change on the populations that constitute ecosystems is that they can respond to change in a very wide range of ways, with both ecological and evolutionary responses possible. We propose to develop, apply and showcase powerful new theory that can be used to simultaneously predict the ecological and evolutionary consequences of environmental change on natural populations. The strength of our approach is it can be applied to data that is often collected by biologists. We are confident our approach has the potential to provide unprecedented insight into the ways that environmental change could impact populations. As well as publishing our approach in the scientific literature, in our pathways to impact proposal we describe how we plan to develop easy-to-use software that can be used by population managers and conservation scientists. We will publicise our specific findings for our study system - Yellowstone wolves - through the frequent popular articles and TV documentaries produced about the park.

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
NE/I023791/1 01/02/2012 31/12/2012 £344,003
NE/I023791/2 Transfer NE/I023791/1 01/01/2013 31/01/2015 £236,441
Description We have built predictive models that explain how wolves are likely to be impacted by future environmental change.
Exploitation Route Our findings have fed into wolf management plans in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The survival analyses proved particularly contentious as Montana State did not like our conclusions.
Sectors Environment

Description Incredibly difficult to measure societal impact. Some of the US population are huge supporters of wolves, and will use any information to help conserve them, with positive consequences for the local ecosystem. Others are opposed to wolves on the landscape and they see our research as divisive.
Sector Environment
Impact Types Cultural,Societal