Dr. Barnosky studies how environmental change--such as global warming--affect ecosystems and evolution. Current projects focus on biogeography and biodiversity of mammals.
From the Field to the Lab
Dr. Barnosky collects fossil mammals and associated geological information from caves and rock outcrops to study the effects of environmental change at the local level, and compiles databases analyzed with geographic information systems to scale from the local up to the regional picture.
Fossil communities are compared with modern ones in the same area to understand the natural range of variation in ecological systems, and to sort out the effects of human impacts.
These faunal patterns are compared with independently identified changes in the physical environment to test various evolutionary and biogeographic predictions.
Fossils, MIOMAP, and Global Climate Change
Several projects in Dr. Barnosky's lab use paleontology as the basis for understanding how global climate change affects species richness and other attributes of biotic communities, and to inform conservation biology.
One of those projects is MIOMAP, which seeks to understand how mammals of the western United States responded to environmental changes that range in time from 30 million years ago to the present, examining different scales of change from major mountain-building events to climate changes that are in process now.
Dr. Barnosky also investigates Pleistocene fauna in California and the Rocky Mountains to help predict biotic effects of global warming.
Future work of Dr. Barnosky aims to build more seamless linkages between paleoecology and ecology in ways that are useful in predicting the effects of future global change.
Dr. Barnosky: Q&A
Why did you decide to become a scientist?
It was a lucky accident. I started college fully intending to major in journalism. My first class was a field archaeology course and I suddenly realized people can actually make a living studying the past. And that field work was a viable option. After some detours that included working as an archaeologist on the Alaska Pipeline and as a coal geologist for Atlantic Richfield, I went back to graduate school to learn more about fossil mammals. And here I am.
What led you to the questions you are now investigating in your research?
At first it was curiosity about how the mammalian component of ecosystems changed in response to glacial-interglacial cycles--I did my graduate training at the Quaternary Research Center at University of Washington at a time when there was a lot of buzz in the air about whether community dynamics were driven more by the climate changes that resulted in ice ages or by biotic interactions.
Eventually it became clear that some of the fossil records my colleagues and I were pulling together actually had a lot to say about the dynamics of ecosystems, and could be used to address questions of societal concern such as how we might expect things to change with global warming. That's really where my interests lie these days--of the many ecological changes we are documenting, which are the really important ones, those that will fundamentally influence how ecosystems are structured on Earth?
How does your research affect your classroom and/or lab?
It keeps me excited and, hopefully, shows students why they should care. It also provides some great hands-on training for students. Some lab exercises have ended up as published papers with students as co-authors.
What do you enjoy most about your research?
The creative outlet. Taking pieces of what at first seems to be unrelated information, and seeing it come together in a way that makes sense. Also, it's really gratifying to see students succeed. Kind of like watching your kids grow up. And field work. There's nothing like getting out in the middle of nowhere and actually living in the natural systems you're trying to understand. It changes your view of your place in nature to come back to a supply tent that has been ripped to pieces by a grizzly bear or wake up to lion tracks outside your tent.
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