Some of the Earth’s treasured resources — animals, plants and fragile ecosystems — are under siege by rising temperatures, severe drought, insect infestation, hybrid competitors and man’s intrusion into nature, intentional and not. At UCLA, experts from evolutionary and environmental biologists to geographers and a physician are working to develop advanced techniques and gain new knowledge to save these treasures.
1. California tiger salamander
The California tiger salamander lives in the vernal pool grasslands of the Central Valley and inner-coast ranges. But it’s been declining in population ever since the non-native barred tiger salamander was intentionally introduced to its range, resulting in massive hybridization. In this battle of the genes, the native is losing ground. Brad Shaffer and his colleagues have developed a framework for evaluating hybrid protection and strategies to manage this problem by using evolutionary biology to select for more native salamanders.
Shaffer is a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science in the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
2. California oak trees
How will California oak trees tolerate climate change? Victoria Sork is particularly concerned with the ecological and genetic processes that will determine whether California oaks will survive. Through studies of tree species in California, the eastern U.S. and the tropics, Sork’s research has yielded important information about these impacts, disseminated in more than 100 publications in major evolutionary, ecological, and environmental journals and at national and international conferences, symposia and seminars.
Sork is dean of the Division of Life Sciences in the UCLA College and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
3. Santa Monica Mountains pumas
Robert Wayne is head of a lab at UCLA that collaborates with the National Park Service to provide DNA and genomic testing of dozens of species, most notably Santa Monica Mountains lions. He’s currently working on a project to preserve biodiversity and, together with experts at five UC campuses, is creating a toolkit to analyze enormous amounts of genomics data so they can understand how threatened populations respond to changes in their habitats and climate.
Wayne is a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
4. Tropical dry forests
In his work to save what many have called the world’s most endangered forests, Thomas Gillespie has surveyed the tropical dry forests in such biodiverse hotspots as Hawaii, Sundaland, Indo-Burma, New Caledonia and the Caribbean, using remote sensing by air and space via satellites. His research has yielded valuable information on global conservation priorities, the management of natural resources and tropical ecology. By using remote-sensing data, he hopes to predict how species spread or the probability of extinction in these fragile environments.
Gillespie is a UCLA professor of geography.
5. and 6. Channel Island fox and California sea lion
In California, Jamie Lloyd-Smith and his lab are delving into the dynamics of leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that has recently caused an outbreak in endangered Channel Island foxes. The scientists are also studying recurring, deadly outbreaks of leptospirosis in California sea lions that have occurred since 1970. Remarkably, genome sequencing has shown that the foxes and sea lions are infected by the same strain, indicating that the pathogen has been transmitted between land and sea.
Lloyd-Smith is a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
7. Red-eyed vireo
Ryan Harrigan and his fellow scientists at UCLA’s Center for Tropical Research are trying to determine why the West Nile virus is killing millions of birds, some more than other species, when it hits an area. Among the estimated 130 million red-eyed vireos in the U.S., researchers have determined that the virus has killed more than 37 million, about 29 percent of the population.
Harrigan is assistant adjunct professor with the UCLA Center for Tropical Research and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
8. Lane Mountain milkvetch
Since 1999, Philip Rundel and his team — Thomas Huggins, Barry Prigge and Rasoul Sharifi — have been painstakingly tracking the viability of this plant, considered by many to be the Mojave Desert’s most endangered. Their regular treks to remote areas of the desert to document the demise of this plant were instrumental in defeating recent attempts to remove the milkvetch from the list of endangered plants.
Rundel is a UCLA distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
9. Wilson's warbler and other songbirds
Songbirds like the Wilson’s warbler are in decline across many parts of their range, and conservation efforts have been stalled by the inability to assess where their numbers are waning, breeding, wintering and stopping during migration. Thomas Smith, Kristen Ruegg and their team have developed a high-resolution molecular tag — using genetic and chemical information from a single feather — to track where an individual bird was born and where it molted its feathers. It’s a significant breakthrough capable of revealing migratory patterns on a broad scale.
Smith is a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the Center for Tropical Research. Ruegg is an assistant adjunct professor.
10. Western lowland gorilla
As a medical consultant at the Los Angeles Zoo, Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz has assisted veterinarians there with medical procedures to diagnose and treat sick animal patients, including such threatened and/or endangered species as the western lowland gorilla, tapir, orangutan and California condor. "Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection between Human and Animal Health” was a New York Times best-seller and Discover Magazine best book of 2012 that the physician wrote with medical writer Kathryn Bowers.
Natterson-Horowitz is a UCLA cardiologist.
11. Coral reefs and the marine life that survive on them
Paul Barber’s work focuses on saving tropical coral reefs and marine biodiversity in the Coral Triangle. The Indonesian Archipelago is the heart of the Coral Triangle, the global hotspot for marine life. In 2009, he co-founded the Indonesian Biodiversity Research Center in Bali to build biodiversity research capacity and promote sustainability in one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems. He and his research team, including students, use molecular genetic techniques to study the evolution and conservation of marine biodiversity worldwide.
Barber is a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
12. Southwestern pond turtle
In 2014, Brad Shaffer and other ecologists and students traveled to Lake Elizabeth to rescue nearly 30 Southwestern Pond turtles, which have been in severe decline for decades in California. The turtles, dehydrated, emaciated and stressed-out by the extended drought, were brought back to UCLA for rehabilitation; 28 survived and were released back into the wild. A recent survey showed that many survived their first year back in the wild, and ongoing genetic work will tell whether these animals are producing healthy babies that can rebuild their population.
Shaffer is professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the UCLA La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
13. California newt
L.A.’s only species of newt, Taricha torosa or the California newt, is showing signs of severe distress. In Southern California, it's been appearing in its breeding grounds nearly 20 percent underweight on average. Gary Bucciarelli, who has been studying the species since 2010, believes the problem is related to dry, hot drought weather as well as climate change, although more information is needed to determine an exact cause.
Bucciarelli is an evolutionary biologist and Institute of the Environment and Sustainability postdoctoral researcher.
14. Capuchin monkeys of Costa Rica
For more than 25 years, Susan Perry has been climbing, crawling, slashing and sloshing her way through the Costa Rican dry forests in an unprecedented study of the capuchin monkey — a small, white-faced primate that populates large areas of Central America. Her Monkey Project is one of the longest continuous studies of a single species of monkey in the history of primatology. What scientists know today about the behavior of this monkey — and the conclusions that can be applied to other species as well — can be credited largely to Perry and the dozens of primatologists who have studied under her.
Perry is a UCLA professor of anthropology.
15. Greenland ice sheet
Greenland’s ice sheet, the world’s second largest body of ice after the Antarctic's, originally covered 660,000 square miles, but it is melting at a rapid rate due to climate change. Runoff from the sheet is expected to elevate sea levels dramatically, and UCLA researchers are developing field measurements in an attempt to verify computer-model–based projections of that rise. “This work represents a breakthrough in our ability to address one of the most pressing environmental challenges of the 21st century, which is ensuring access to sufficient water supply for human beings and ecosystems,” said Laurence C. Smith.
Smith is chairman of the UCLA Department of Geography and a professor of geography.