Norman, Okla. – From the barren arctic tundra to the teeming forests of the equator, the number and diversity of creatures seems to increase as ambient temperatures rise. Does it indeed? If so, why? No big-picture study has ever examined the reasons behind differences in populations between cold and warmer climates until now.
Michael Kaspari and Jizhong Zhou, professors in the University of Oklahoma College of Arts and Sciences Department of Zoology, are collaborating with their labs, theoreticians, microbiologists and entomologists to devise new theories for why warm places have more species. They will then test those theories in six forests across the Americas, from the Rockies to the tropical forests of Panama. Their research is funded over four years by a $2.8 million award from the National Science Foundation Emerging Frontiers Program.
"Our goal is to devise new theory – new hypotheses – for why warm places have more species," writes Kaspari. "Of particular interest to our lab is the project's focus on brown food webs – the microbes and invertebrates that cause dead plants to rot. Brown food webs are home to much of the earth's biodiversity, and perform such vital services as recycling minerals and regulating the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."
The mathematical models generated will be tested on trees, small animals that eat decaying leaves and microbes that consume the remains. The research hopes to better predict the impacts of global climate change on biodiversity and ecological processes.
"This award is a tremendous opportunity to combine strengths in climate and large scale ecosystems research at OU in order to seek the answers to one of the most fundamental riddles in ecology," said Randall Hewes, chair of the department.
Kaspari and Zhou will work with OU Adjunct Professor Zhili He, as well as Brian Enquist of the University of Arizona and James Brown from the University of New Mexico, on the four-year project. In addition to finding answers about temperature and life, they will train the next generation of scientists. Many undergraduate researchers will be brought in to help, affording them first-hand experience in the field.
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