We link fossil records, historic specimens, and modern surveys.

Species, assemblages, and landscapes have histories. Fossil records and historic specimens in natural history collections can enrich studies of the modern day by augmenting the temporal and spatial extents of datasets. Together, they provide more robust statistical power and can uncover otherwise hidden evolutionary patterns and ecological experiments.

A governing theme of our work is using lessons from the past to inform conservation decision-making in a changing world.

Photograph: Miguel Landestoy

Detecting shifting baselines to inform conservation and ecology

The present day ecology, diet, abundance, and distribution of many species – particularly those of commercial and cultural relevance – have been profoundly shaped by human activities, both direct persecution and the indirect effects of landscape change. In North America, it is often overlooked that Indigenous groups altered and managed many ecosystems prior to European arrival. We use paleontological fossils to generate pre-human baselines; zooarchaeological remains contrasted with historical specimens and narratives to understand how different human groups (Indigenous, European) may have interacted with and/or harvested key species; and modern day engagement with hunters, trappers, and managers to explore how data from the past may change our interpretation of the present.

We use tools such as stable isotopes, morphology, radiocarbon dating, and ancient DNA to explore these diverse data types.

We are members of the California Grizzly Research Network based at UCSB.

We currently explore two focal systems using this approach:

1. the extinction of California grizzlies and translocation of black bears

2. the North American fur trade in Maine (minks, muskrats, beavers)

Learn more about our work with Sea Minks

Responses to human-altered ecosystems

A central theme in conservation biology is understanding – and anticipating – how species will respond to human activities. We carry out traditional conservation studies of present day species responses to agriculture and habitat use using molecular and chemical tools to detect diet shifts.

These studies include fragmented tropical landscapes in biodiversity hotspots (the Caribbean) as well as rapidly urbanizing landscapes such as cities in North America and mixed use suburbs in Japan.

The life & death of island biodiversity

A primary focus of our lab is the description of island biodiversity, which is necessary for prioritizing regions for conservation action.

Because so many species recently went extinct, fossils are revealing new ecological and evolutionary stories.

We conduct excavations and survey modern ecosystems to understand how Caribbean biodiversity has changed over time – delimiting what has been lost and what is left to be saved.

While the Holocene (the past ~11,000 years) is our main temporal focus, we often dig deeper into the Late Pleistocene (for us, the past 50,000 years) for relevant contexts on megafaunal extinction, ecological change with the arrival of humans, and the impact of climate on species and ecosystems. Much of this work is carried out using fossils preserved in asphalt seeps, such as those from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles and localities in Trinidad. We also carry out both radiocarbon dating and modeling of these dates for paleontological and archaeological contexts.

Late Pleistocene paleoecology

We use packrat middens as time capsules of Pleistocene ecosystems

Innovative species assessments

There is increasing interest in integrating paleontological data into formal conservation assessments, such as the IUCN Red List and IUCN Green List, but methods for bridging spatiotemporal mismatches are currently sparse.

We work with conservation partners to develop innovative approaches for evaluating species trends, such as the use of fossil-based species distribution models in creating conservation counterfactuals.

We also convene productive working groups where paleontologists and other geohistorical scientists share data in response to practitioner needs, such as our Paleobiology in Novel Ecosystems approach for tackling conservation challenges in Los Angeles.

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