A group of 41 scientists published a paper in Science magazine about the applications of paleontology in climate biology, which was the result of a meeting in 2015 at UC Berkeley on the future of biological conservation.
The paper also emphasized that while traditional methods of conservation may work in some cases, it will not be as successful on ecosystems that have been drastically affected by climate change. While the idea of applying knowledge gained from paleontology to current climate change is not new, the paper provided specific examples of how the history of an ecosystem can be useful when assessing natural climate changes.
According to UC Berkeley doctorate recipient Allison Stegner, certain environments have been so altered by climate change that the way to best preserve it would be to identify which roles in the ecosystem are required for it to function.
“We need to think of the ecosystem as being able to adapt to periods of change and also to maintain the function of ecosystem,” Stegner said.
Stegner, who is currently doing postdoctoral research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said paleontological research can be used to determine the past natural reactions to climate change and the most important roles in an ecosystem.
The study found that the type of ecosystem has to be considered before deciding how to conserve it. Emily Lindsey, a former campus postdoctoral researcher and current assistant curator of the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles, said different types of ecosystems require different conservation methods.
“The point of the paper is that there’s not one single best practice,” Lindsey said. “There are multiple practices all of which need to be invoked.”
The researchers also sought a practical use for paleontology in conservation biology. According to Stegner, the paper includes a number of real-life examples of ways to use information from the history of ecosystems to assess how to best preserve them in the future, such as the Joshua tree found in Joshua Tree National Park.
By using paleontological data, the researchers found that the tree’s seeds used to spread across the landscape by being digested and excreted by a now-extinct form of sloth. The trees are not spreading out like they once did because the sloths are not distributing their seeds. Additionally, because of the increasing temperature of the desert, the Joshua trees’ native habitat, they have been dying at a faster pace.
The Joshua tree and other such examples show conservationists that an active role will need to be taken to distribute the seeds of Joshua trees in order to preserve the species.
Paleontological data such as this will direct the conservation efforts of the U.S. National Park Service, according to Patrick Gonzalez, principal climate change scientist of the U.S. National Park Service.
“We are developing plans for managing the National Parks under climate change,” Gonzalez said. “To do that we need more information on the sensitivity of plants and wildlife and other resources to climate change.”