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The emerging scientific discipline of aeroecology

Study of species within the life-supporting boundary layer of the Earth's atmosphere using technological advances in ecology, engineering, computer science and geography

Boston University

(Boston) -- In the history of science and technology, there is an infrequent combination of empirical discoveries, theories and technology developments converge that make it possible to recognize a new discipline. Past examples include marine biology, biomechanics and astrobiology with more recent developments of nanotechnology and bioinformatics - all disciplines that are now well established in the lexicon of modern science and technology.

Aeroecology is one such emerging discipline, noted Thomas H. Kunz, Boston University Professor of Biology and Director of the Center of Ecology and Conservation Biology and the lead author of "Aeroecology: probing and modeling the aerosphere," a research report* in Integrative and Comparative Biology, based on a symposium sponsored by the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.

Kunz, who is best known for his extensive research on bats, explained that aeroecology embraces and integrates the domains of atmospheric science, earth science, geography, ecology, computer science, computational biology, and engineering.

The unifying concept that underlies aeroecology is its focus on the planetary boundary layer of the Earth's atmosphere, or aerosphere, which supports the myriad of airborne organisms that, in large part, depend upon this natural environment for their existence. Organisms that use the aerosphere, specifically arthropods, birds and bats, are also influenced by an increasing number of anthropogenic or man-made conditions and structures, notably lighted towns and cities, air pollution, skyscrapers, aircraft, radio and television towers, plus a recent proliferation of communication towers and wind turbines that dot the Earth's landscape.

In addition, human-altered landscapes increasing are characterized by deforestation, intensive agriculture, urbanization, and assorted industrial activities that are rapidly and irreversibly transforming the quantity and quality of available terrestrial and aquatic habitats which airborne organisms rely upon. These conditions are known to influence navigational cues, sources of food, water, nesting and roosting habitats--factors that can, in turn, alter the structure and function of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and the assemblages of organisms.

Similarly, "climate change and its expected increase in global temperatures, altered circulation of air masses, and effects on local and regional weather patterns are expected to have profound impacts on the foraging and migratory behavior of insects, birds and bats," noted Kunz.

"In contrast to organisms that depend strictly on terrestrial or aquatic existence, those that routinely use the aerosphere are almost immediately influenced by changing atmospheric conditions ( e.g. winds, air density, precipitation, air temperature) sunlight, polarized light, moonlight and geomagnetic and gravitational forces," the report states.

Ecologists who study animals that use the aerosphere face three important challenges:

  1. to discover best methods for detecting the presence, taxonomic identity, diversity, and activity of organisms that use this aerial environment,
  2. to identify ways to integrate relevant environmental variables at different temporal and spatial scales, and
  3. to determine how best to understand and interpret behavioral, ecological, and evolutionary responses of organisms in the context of complex meteorological conditions and patterns within both natural and anthropogenically-altered environments.

"Appropriate integration of diverse tools and concepts for probing into the lives of organisms aloft can help inform important ecological and evolutionary concepts and management decisions associated with the spread of invasive species, emergence of infectious diseases, altered biodiversity, and sustainability of terrestrial, aquatic, and aerospheric environments," said Kunz.


Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 30,000 students, it is the fourth largest independent university in the United States. BU contains 17 colleges and schools along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes which are central to the school's research and teaching mission.

* The report's coauthors are: T.H. Kunz, S.A. Gauthreaux Jr., N.I. Hristov, J.W. Horn, G. Jones, E.K.V. Kalko, R.P. Larkin, G.F. McCracken, S.W. Swartz, R.B. Srygley, R. Dudley, J.K. Westbrook, and M. Wikelski. 2008. Integrative and Comparative Biology, 48: 1-11; doi:10.1093/icb/icn037

To access this report go to:


Q - What is Aeroecology and why is it important?

A - Aeroecology is the emerging discipline for studying how airborne organisms -- birds, bats, arthropods and microbes -- depend on the support of the lower atmosphere that is closest to the earth's surface. Called the aerosphere, it influences the daily and seasonal movements, development traits, such as size and shape, and evolution of behavioral, sensory, metabolic and respiratory functions of airborne organisms.

Ecologists who study the relationship between organisms and their environment currently face numerous challenges for probing and modeling the aerosphere. Aeroecology integrates a range of scientific domains, notably atmospheric science, earth science, geography, computer science, computational biology, and engineering to better understand and research how these organisms rely on the aerosphere for their existence.

Future advances in aeroecology can ultimately provide understandings for how airborne organisms are influenced by the aerosphere, which is important for assessing and maintaining human health, biodiversity, and ecosystem health.

Q - Why should we care about Aeroecolgy?

A-- The aerosphere and the organisms that spend a significant portion of their lives in it, depend on predictable atmospheric conditions, notably, temperature, precipitation, air density wind and air pressure. Recent research has shown that prevailing climate changes could profoundly affect historic migratory patterns of animals that use the aerosphere.

Human changes to the landscape in the form of air pollution, skyscrapers, aircraft, radio and television towers along with the nationwide proliferation of wind turbines and communications towers have shown adverse effects on such essential activities as feeding, dispersal, migration and courtship.

Already there are noticeable signs of declining, insect, bird and bat populations - changes that negatively impact agriculture, which often depends on airborne organisms for pollination and pest management

Understanding how airborne organisms respond to altered landscapes and atmospheric conditions can also help mitigate adverse affects of anthropogenic conditions such as fatalities of bats and birds caused by wind turbines.

Q - So what's missing in the aeroecology arsenal?

A - A combination of scientific awareness about the discipline and engaging researchers from different disciplines to participate. Ecologists have been hampered by a lack of technological awareness and the challenges of working across different disciplinary platforms. Although weather radar, radio telemetry, GPS satellite tracking, are widely used by individuals and groups of ecologists, there is a need to reach out and establish meaningful collaborations with atmospheric and computer scientists.

Ecologist interested in climate change and perturbations to the landscape have yet to optimally use rich databases on landscapes assembled by earth scientists and geographers using remote sensing tools and advanced satellite data. Other needed researchers include mathematical modelers, electrical engineers, computer scientists and statisticians.

Q - With a diverse group of scientists what types of research and questions will be examined?

A - To further advance aeroecology, studies that integrate research discoveries of atmospheric scientists, engineers and computer scientists with those of ecologists, physiologists, and functional morphologists to better understand the activity and movements of organisms in the aerosphere. This includes laboratory and field studies of biomechanics, physiology, behavior and ecology. The promise from those findings could also provide new insights into how, where, and when, and why organisms negatively interact with man-made features in the aerosphere.

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