Biodiversity in the Face of Climate Change

How do animal species and plants react to climate change? This is the question Allison Louthan is trying to answer. Fond of nature, the American scientists holds her experiments on the field in Kenya.

As an ecologist, Allison Louthan spends much of her time in the field investigating the complex interactions among species and how this delicate equilibrium is altered by environmental stressors. The rapid rate of man-made climate change is putting many fragile ecosystems under significant pressure, leading to dramatic shifts in the geographical ranges of plant and animal species. Allison is concerned that conservation strategies aiming to predict these shifts are often based on long-standing assumptions rather than empirical research and may therefore be inaccurate in the long-term.


The majority of models used for predicting the effect of climate change on ecosystems focus uniquely on abiotic variables (temperature change or rainfall, for example), and ignore biotic factors, such as predators or herbivores. However, Allison suspects that biotic factors also need to be taken into account.

To test this hypothesis, she is working with local field assistants in Kenya over a three-year period to assess performance and distribution patterns of a flowering shrub, Hibiscus meyeri, across a large sampling area. This plant is commonly consumed by herbivores of different sizes, ranging from tiny dik-dik antelopes to elephants. She works in an experiment designed to exclude different herbivores from each of three zones, leaving a fourth zone as an open control for comparison. In some zones she will also manipulate pollination levels and species competition. This set up is repeated at three locations in the experimental area that represent varying levels of rainfall. Her analysis will focus on the combined effects of abiotic stress (rainfall) and biotic stress (herbivory, pollination and species competition) on plant populations.

Once the survey is completed, Allison will use her experimental results in conjunction with predictions of climate change in East Africa to predict how population dynamics and plant distributions will change in the future. She can then judge when and where conservation strategies need to take into account interactions among species.

By involving the local population in her work, Allison also hopes to raise awareness about climate change and contribute to developing future conservation policies.

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