UW-Whitewater scientist wins grant to study animal survival in changing climate

October 28, 2011

Brett WoodsImagine spending eight months burrowed underground where the harsh winter brings piles of snow towering 20 to 30 feet above ground. Leading up to this long hard winter there would be only three months of eating before vegetation dried up and disappeared. Is it humanly possible to survive?

Truth is, humans likely would not make it under such extreme conditions. However, there are animals that make this lifestyle look relatively easy. They are large ground squirrels known as marmots.

Brett Woods, assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, has taken a deep interest in the yellow-bellied marmot lifestyle. He has focused his research on examining how the marmots function in harsh weather.

"The marmots that I study are on the top of mountains that can be as high as 15,000 feet," Woods said. "One of the things I'm curious about is when these animals are at this elevation, what are some of the differences they have to deal with compared to similar animals, like the woodchuck in Wisconsin?"

Woods, along with staff members from the Niwot Ridge long-term ecological research site near Boulder, Colo., has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant for $19,955. Their project is titled "The Landscape Continuum Model: A Biogeochemical Paradigm for High Elevation Ecosystems."

The grant supports research to examine how the ecosystem works in extreme environments over a long period of time. Woods said that marmots are very much affected by this extreme environment through hibernation and their diet of plants.

"So, what I am studying is hibernation and reproduction at these extreme areas of the planet where they may have only two or three months out of the year to eat or do anything real," he said.

Other scientists study how plants change in response to changes in climate, while Woods' research looks at how animals respond to changes in climate.

"Ultimately I think this is related to us as human beings, because if an animal like this doesn't do well because of changes in weather, what is that going to mean for us?" said Woods.

Every year, he takes UW-Whitewater students to the Rocky Mountains to assist with the research. Any students interested in working with Woods should email him at woodsb@uww.edu or visit his office in Upham Hall, room 363.


Sara Kuhl