From muddy boots to mathematics: Advancing the science of ecosystems and biodiversity

Written by
Morgan Kelly
Morgan Kelly, High Meadows Environmental Institute
Aug. 14, 2020

As the world undergoes the largest mass extinction to occur since the end of the dinosaurs, researchers at Princeton University are drawing from a deep reserve of research techniques and perspectives — many developed at Princeton — to find ways to understand biocomplexity,  improve ecological conservation and save species.

An accelerated loss of plant and animal species — known as the sixth mass extinction — is driven by human activity, with at least 25% of the world’s mammals and 12% of birds facing extinction.

“Around the world, we’re seeing natural ecosystems being destroyed or developed in ways that diminish their ability to sustain life and to provide important services for humanity,” said David Wilcove, whose research focuses on habitat restoration, the wildlife trade, and the effect of climate change and human activity on species.

“We need healthy ecosystems for us to maintain a healthy life,” he said. “We can’t exist in a world that consists solely of cornfields and cities.”

From mathematical models and gene sequencing, to climate models and satellites, the study of biodiversity has expanded during the past 50 years to consider and capture the structure and interconnectedness of living systems.

Many of the tools and theories scientists use in the lab and field today have their roots at Princeton. Princeton scientists continue to lead the way in applying new techniques to the study of natural systems — all the way down to the cellular level — modeling the dynamics that govern all systems, and studying how species behave and respond to their environment in ways that can be used for conservation.

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