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Wildlife on the “trailing” edge: Warnell study looks at climate change impact on Appalachian species

Dr. Richard Chandler

In the southern Appalachian Mountains, visitors can see wildlife normally found much farther north in parts of New England and Canada. These species can’t be found in the lower elevations of the southeastern U.S. — and as the climate changes, they may not be in the Appalachians much longer either.

In fact, many of these southern populations are already declining, and researchers at the Warnell School want to know if these declines are part of a process called a “climate-induced range shift,” said Dr. Richard Chandler. “Climate change appears to be causing the ranges of many species to shift toward the poles and to higher elevations, but we know very little about the ecological processes that are involved,” Chandler said.

Chandler has been funded by the Faculty Early Career Development Program, known as the CAREER program, which is one of the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards. Through the CAREER program, Chandler has been awarded $716,000 for his five-year project, which will focus on collecting data and creating novel statistical models that can help researchers understand why species’ ranges are shifting and what can be done to conserve these species.

Previous studies have already shown that climate change can cause complex changes in species distribution, with most ranges shifting poleward and upward in elevation. Trailing-edge populations are those found near the warm edges of these ranges, at low latitudes and low elevations. Chandler’s project will focus on whether these trailing-edge populations will survive climate change, and if so, how.

Chandler and his research team have established research plots across species’ range boundaries in the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina where they have begun collecting data on reproduction, mortality, and movement rates.

In addition to assessing how environmental factors influence these population rates, they will also conduct experiments to figure out how other species, such as competitors and predators, influence trailing-edge populations.

Chandler’s team will also conduct experiments to determine if temperature and precipitation at lower elevations are too extreme for some species. Chandler’s project also has a teaching component. As part of the CAREER award, he will integrate his research with ways to teach students and the general public about wildlife conservation and climate change. These lessons will include hands-on learning activities for students at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens. Chandler also plans to include global environmental change in a course he teaches at UGA, as well as develop a graduate course to teach the modeling techniques that he will develop as part of this study.

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