Fall 2020

On Henry Mall

One way Ben Zuckerberg and his team are beginning to test their “ecological dipoles” idea is by using citizen science data to track irruptive bird migrations, such as those seen with pine siskins, and the boom-and-bust cycle of seed production. Their goal is to identify a link back to climate patterns across the entire continent. Photo by Bernard J. Boutin


When El Niño approaches, driven by warm Pacific Ocean waters, we’ve come to expect both drenching seasonal rains in the southern United States and drought in the Amazon. Those opposite extremes have huge effects on society and are increasingly predictable thanks to decades of weather data.

Soon, CALS ecologist Ben Zuckerberg thinks we’ll be able to pull off the same forecasting feat for bird migrations and wildlife populations. That’s because just as those recurring changes in climate have expected consequences for humans, they also have predictable effects on plants and animals.

For instance, ecological predictions could aid preparations for diseases in crops or population crashes in endangered species. Good forecasting could explain where conservation measures are needed most in the coming year or decade.

With an interdisciplinary team of scientists, Zuckerberg recently published a paper in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution describing how species and ecosystems across continents respond to opposite climate extremes induced by patterns such as El Niño. For these large-scale, opposing ecological outcomes, such as famine on one continent and a feast on another, the team coined the term “ecological dipoles.”

“Plant and animal populations respond to climate at continental scales,” says Zuckerberg, an associate professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. “Going forward, we want to know: How do we observe this connection? How do we measure it? How do we track how these dynamics are changing?”

He and his team believe that ongoing fundamental changes in ecological data make this possible. With the rise of citizen science, hundreds of thousands of global volunteers have been collecting quality data about the world around them. And the National Science Foundation has begun setting up ecological stations nationwide that mirror the ubiquitous weather stations we rely on for constant data collection.

“We are beginning that revolution right now in ecology where we are able to collect data at a scale that matches what climatologists have been able to use,” says Zuckerberg. “Having data that’s been collected over continental scales, in real time, and that spans decades is really what you need to analyze the regularity and changes in both climate and ecological dipoles.”

The idea that climate affects ecosystems across big expanses is not entirely new. It’s been clear for decades that plant and animal behavior can be synchronized across a region. One classic example is acorn production. In certain years, all the oak trees in an area will produce huge amounts of acorns, which in turn leads to population booms in squirrels and other animals. Most likely, climate helps organize this collective response. Better data will make it easier to spot these kinds of patterns across the globe.

Understanding this climate-ecology connection is more urgent than ever as Earth rapidly warms and its climate changes, says Zuckerberg. It’s not clear how climate change will affect patterns such as El Niño or the plants and animals that respond to those patterns. Getting a handle on how predictable climate extremes affect ecosystems will help researchers respond to changes as they arise.

For Zuckerberg, the fun comes from wrapping his head around this modern-day butterfly effect.

“Shifts in the climate system that can influence these ecological processes originate halfway across the world,” he says. “And I love thinking about how these connections are going to change over time.”

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation Macrosystems Biology and Neon-enabled Science projects 1926428, 1926341, and 1926221 and DEB EAGER project 1745496.

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