The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $2 million in grants to fund a collaborative research project to investigate how climate change is affecting plant communities and animal populations around the world. Led by UC Santa Cruz biologist Barry Sinervo, an international team of scientists will study the effects of climate change at research sites on five continents.

In 2010, Sinervo and others published a landmark paper documenting the widespread extinction of lizard populations due to climate change. The new study will evaluate how climate-driven changes to plant communities are affecting local populations of lizards, frogs, fish, and other "cold-blooded" vertebrate animals. As climate change alters global patterns of temperature and rainfall, the resulting changes to plant communities may be causing local extinctions of many vertebrate species, Sinervo said.

"Our hypothesis is that many vertebrate species are going extinct in part because rising temperatures are directly stressful to them, and in part because rising temperatures also damage plant communities, upon which animals rely for food, water, and shelter," he said.

In the 2010 study, Sinervo's group developed a computer-based model for predicting the risk of local extinction for different lizard populations. The new study will further develop and expand this model, using local studies, remote sensing, and online databases to create a worldwide data set integrating information on temperature, rainfall, plant die-offs, and the physiological limits for heat and water stress of targeted animals. This will enable scientists to predict and test how extinction rates among targeted vertebrate species relate to current and expected changes in rainfall, temperature, and plant communities.

The project includes scientists with expertise in climatology, physiology, biodiversity, and remote sensing. An international team from 20 countries will work together on this project, which will also train a new generation of postdoctoral researchers and graduate students in the latest methods of climate change studies.

"The new grants will fund scientists and graduate students working at research stations around the world," Sinervo said. "These researchers have a wealth of data on the species in their regions, which we are integrating into the framework we have developed."

In addition to Sinervo, the other principal investigator involved in the project is Jack Sites, a biologist at Brigham Young University. They were awarded two NSF grants totaling $2 million (award numbers 1241848 and 1241885).