Digging for Clues: How to Prevent Exctinction

A big-picture biologist unearths threats to songbirds, salamanders, and a peak-loving furball.

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When Terry Root scored the highest marks in her math class as a 14-year-old in Albuquerque, her father announced that girls weren’t supposed to be good at numbers. So Root decided to become a mathematician. And she got pretty far–until she fell in love with birds.

So Root transferred her statistics skills to her Ph.D. work in biology at Princeton, where her computer analysis of bird counts from across the United States proved that temperature, not competition, exerts a greater influence on avian ranges, upending the conventional wisdom that had been advanced by her colleagues and thesis advisors.

As climate-change science gathered steam in the late 1990s, Root’s skill at meta-analysis–seeing the big picture–became critical to quantifying the impact of rising temperatures. In 2003, she published an article in Nature that analyzed 143 scientific studies and concluded that global warming was already affecting animal and plant populations, and could accelerate extinctions.

Root’s current research takes these findings a step further. She believes continued warming will tear ecosystems apart, instead of shifting them intact to new climates, as Darwin once speculated.

For evidence, she points to the mountaintop-dwelling pika, a fist-sized relative of the rabbit that can’t tolerate hot conditions. In Nevada and Utah, pikas have moved to higher elevations to escape rising temperatures. Some colonies have disappeared, while the survivors are running out of space. “Because pikas can’t move above talus fields,” Root explains, “they are toast.” Other alpine species, from songbirds to salamanders, also face climatic upheaval. Some animals will migrate to survive, she says, but others will disappear as ecosystems collide.

Now based at Stanford University, Root, 53, mixes teaching and research with expeditions to the North Pole and Papua New Guinea, as well as occasional birding escapes to New Mexico. With all she’s seen, she says she can no longer ignore the moral imperative of climate change. This realization came several years ago in Australia when she learned that the tiny Mallee emu-wren she had just spotted faced certain extinction. “I’ve turned a corner,” she says. “When you see that one species is about to cause the extinction of greater than 40 percent of existing species on the planet, it’s hard to sit back. Can we save everything? No. But I want to save as much as I can.”