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Terry L. Root, Ph.D » Research Interests

Research Interests

Current Vita

My research interests include:

1) Ecological analyses of the distribution and abundance patterns of species on a continent-wide scale

2) Examining the physiological constraints on the distribution of wintering birds

3) Influence of global warming on the biogeography of species

4) Large-scale geographic examinations of the structure and composition of communities

5) Applying quantitative problems; 6) analyzing the ecological causes of rarity and commonness, and applying such information to rare and endangered species

6) Women in Science.

My career in academics is increasingly providing me with the platform I seek to make a significant difference in mitigating human abuse of the natural world. One obvious academic opportunity is personal contact with students. But more importantly I am increasingly able to help inform colleagues, aides to policy makers, and the general public about the crises in biological conservation. As I said in the introduction to a scientific symposium I recently convened, academics hold privileged positions with much respect, but we must stop pretending to be above the battle since that only abdicates to interest groups our power to shape policies that could help slow habitat degradation. I also argued that we must steer our research to where the problems take us, not just work on what is traditionally valued by the disciplines or those who fund the disciplines.

In our society, academics are given the freedom to enhance our understanding of nature. Unfortunately, however, too many scientists seem to keep their insights and understanding within their community (e.g., popular articles are rarely counted toward — and often subtracted from — promotions). Yet, policy makers and the general public need the information obtained by academics to make appropriate decisions.

My research involves developing theory, detecting general patterns, and determining possible mechanisms that create the patterns. I let the problem be my guide, and work with theory, mathematical models, field studies or laboratory analyses as needed. Because very little ecological work is done on a large-scale (e.g., roughly 80 percent of ecological studies reported from 1980 to 1986 had study areas roughly the size of a tennis court), little validated theory exists that will help us understand why species occur where they do and are absent in other regions. I derived a graphical model that predicts how environmental factors shape the ranges of birds. To test this model, I used empirical data to generate computer-drawn maps of bird ranges and abundance’s and used these maps to quantify how the vast majority of species√≠ range limits are strongly associated with isopleths of various environmental factors. By coupling physiological information from the literature with my biogeographic data, I additionally determined that the location of several birds northern range limits are consistent with the following hypothesis: birds extend their winter ranges only as far north as raising their resting metabolic rates about 2.5 times their basal rates will allow them to maintain necessary body temperature. (Jared Diamond dubbed this the 2.5 Rule [1988, Nature 337:692-693].) Preliminary results from follow-up field and laboratory work over the past four years indicate that temperature greatly influences the shape of many birds winter ranges. Furthermore, an interdisciplinary pilot project with climologists suggest that year-to-year changes in the shapes of these ranges correspond surprisingly well with year-to-year variation in minimum temperature.

All of this work suggests that projected global warming will have significant impact on the ranges of birds. Indeed, it most probably will cause a tearing apart of biological communities; those species directly affected by temperature will be able to expand rapidly while those limited by vegetation may not be able to expand until the plants themselves disperse. The consequences of such disruptions of communities could be catastrophic, e.g., the balance between competitors and between predators and prey could lead to drastic reductions in some populations.

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