Studying the ecological roles of top predators and the impacts of climate change on predator-prey interactions and ecosystem dynamics

Timespan: 
2013-2015
Principal Investigator: 
Forestry and Environmental Studies

I study the effects of climate change on animals, the interactions they have with each other and plants, and the cascading impacts of climate change on humans and how we live. This research is important because the climate is changing rapidly and we need to understand how ecosystems will respond so that we can adapt to the new realities of a warming world.

My previous research focused on large predators, like alligators and sharks, and at Yale I have begun studying smaller predators like spiders.  My work is motivated by the idea that if predators are over-hunted or forced to abandon their ecosystems because of climate change, then the ecosystems can become destabilized and radically change in both form and function. This can be very bad for humans because such ecosystems may gradually cease to provide us with many of the services that we rely on, such as timber, clean water, and flood protection.

Currently I’m working on how combinations of climate change variables, like warming temperatures and more frequent droughts, simultaneously impact predators and whole ecosystems. To do this I create experimental, self-contained mini-ecosystems in New England forests, stock them with different kinds of spiders (like wolf spiders and jumping spiders) and their prey, and then manipulate the temperature and rainfall patterns to see how the organisms and the ecosystem as a whole respond. Previous work in this experimental system has found that warming alone can lead to extinction of some of the spider species, which can then lead to changes in prey abundance and ecosystem nutrient cycling rates. These effects may not sound that important because spiders are so small, but spiders are very abundant and widely distributed in New England so changes in their behaviors can have strong and persistent effects across New England.

My ultimate goals are to predict how predators and the ecosystems they inhabit will respond to climate change, inform people about how changes to ecosystems can affect humans, and help inform predator population and ecosystem management strategies. Most people think of predators, especially large ones, as scary and dangerous. Though they can be threatening at times, they also deserve our respect because they’re fascinating, charismatic creatures that can play critical ecological roles in ecosystems and help maintain the balance of nature.