Tree Conservation Biology

How Forests Respond to Climate Change: Past Geographic Range Shifts in North America

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This project team is using new approaches and  combining multiple sources of information to learn how species’ ranges shifted after the last ice age, 20,000 years ago. Fraxinus, Juglans, Quercus, and other forest genera are used as case studies.

After the last ice age many species moved north as environmental conditions became more favorable, leading to large changes in population size and geographic range. How stable were forest communities during this rapid warming, which species moved the fastest and why, and where did species reside during the last ice age? Traditionally, scientists have used one of three types of data to address these questions: specimens from museums and herbaria matched with contemporary environmental data, DNA sequences that hold imprints of recent and past changes, and species’ presence in the fossil record, including ancient pollen deposited in sediments. 

This research will develop methods and software that, for the first time, coherently combine the three main data types and existing theory to provide a more comprehensive understanding of species’ biogeographic history. Each type of data has different strengths and weaknesses; using the strengths of each type will make best use of the total information on species’ range shifts and yield better conservation conclusions. The methods developed will provide the infrastructure needed to leverage big data and enable scientific progress on significant, long-standing questions about species historical dynamics, which will serve a variety of scientific communities. 

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