Lovejoy discusses biodiversity in conference keynote

Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, the “godfather” of biodiversity, delivered the keynote lecture at Vassar College’s Conservation Leaders of Tomorrow Conference on Wednesday, April 19 in Taylor Hall. / Michael Chung

Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, known as the “godfather” of biodiversity, argues that the world nears an environmental tipping point—launching us into an age in which humans will likely become extinct. Vassar College invited Dr. Lovejoy to be the keynote speaker for the one-day Conservation Leaders of Tomorrow Conference held this past Wednesday, April 19. The conference included a series of lectures identifying the challenges and wealth of opportunities within the preservation/ conservation field. A range of alumnae/i shared their personal experiences working as an Environmental Science professor, a zoo director and at various non-profits. Beyond exploring career pathways and necessary leadership skills, students, educators and local Poughkeepsie community members dove into the larger issues of conservation. How do politics and economics play into conservation methods? What can we do to push our community into using sustainable resources? Lovejoy’s lecture concluded the conference by encouraging the audience to understand the complexities of these issues and realize that finding and implementing a solution will not be easy.

Lovejoy established the focus of his lecture by revealing an unexpected secret in his field: “Climate change is greatly underappreciated from a biological point of view.” Only in recent decades have biologists and ecologists recognized the impact of climate change on living things. This is far too late considering humans have severely altered the climate since the Industrial Revolution more than a century ago. While more people step into the field, Lovejoy urged for both acknowledgment and action in not only academia, but also in the general public. To actually reverse past damages and prevent further stress on our surroundings, everyone has to be aware of how they personally and, as a collective whole, humans need to change. Perhaps it will mean using less fertilizer to inhibit the creation of coastal dead zones, areas in which algae blooms deplete oxygen entirely, eating less meat to reduce the amount of methane being released in the air or simply investing in more sustainable resources (Scientific American, “What Causes Ocean ‘Dead Zones’?,” 9.25.2012). Either way, he said, one small step would be better than none.

Vassar has already pushed for more climate change awareness on campus through extracurriculars and academics. In conjunction with the Anthropology, Chemistry and Economics Departments, among many others, the Environmental Science Department created the well-received course, “Climate Change: A Global Challenge.” Each week, professors from different departments point out the implications of climate change within their respective fields. The class analyzed climate change on a global level as well as detailing its effects in Poughkeepsie. Kayla Lightner ’18 appreciated this, pointing out, “Climate change is real. Most people know that, but they imagine it to be something like polar ice caps melting or faraway islands being submerged underwater. They don’t realize that it’s affecting them personally, in Poughkeepsie. If you look back in February, there were days when temperatures reached seventy degrees.”

The majority of the lecture analyzed the impacts of climate change on biodiversity, Lovejoy’s home turf. He charted the effects of changing temperatures and day length, both the most visible indicators of climate change, through the retreat of specific species of trees. Though somewhat crude, as other factors could be responsible, the measure relies on the species’s niche conditions to survive and thrive. Other examples include the snowshoe hare and mountain pika. Both animals have slowly reduced in number due to their changing environment. Warmer temperatures cause snow to melt earlier, nullifying the camouflage of the hare’s white fur, and the pika, normally adapted to colder temperatures, must flee farther up the mountains (United States Geological Survey, “Pikas Disappearing from Parts of the West Due to Climate Change,” 8.25.2016). Ngoc “Seven” Duong ’18 stressed, “The issue about biodiversity applies to the Poughkeepsie ecosystem too. We’re seeing a huge change in biodiversity, especially with the exploding deer population and invasive plant species because, in some ways, it’s a response to changing global climate.”

Lovejoy’s has completed extensive research in Central Amazonia, in which he charted the vast number of animal and plant species with fellow ecologists. Eventually, he helped coin the widely-used term “biological diversity” in the mid-1970s, with Edward O. Wilson, currently the world’s leading expert on ants, and Elliott Norse, founder of the Marine Conservation Biological Institute (Yale, “Lovejoy, Godfather of Biodiversity, Reflects on 50 Years in the Amazon,” 2.17.2016). In reality, none of them thought anything of it, creating the term was simply a way to move conversations quicker.

At the time, Lovejoy spent his time examining the impact of Brazil’s plan to implement a Trans-Amazonian highway system. The project caused massive deforestation and the resulting pushback led to the establishment of mini conservation units. Ultimately, Lovejoy researched the efficiency in preserving biodiversity through these units versus one larger reserve, culminating in his seminal paper. He found that habitat fragmentation reduces biodiversity from a range of 13 percent to 75 percent, primarily caused by decreasing biomass and altered nutrient cycles (Science Advances, “Habitat Fragmentation and its Lasting Impact on Earth’s Ecosystems,” 3.20.2015). When it comes to conservation, you cannot simply compromise the Earth, he argued. Choosing the method which is the most convenient has its consequences.

The audience itself was diverse: there were both science and humanities majors, students as well as their professors and local Poughkeepsie residents attended. Nevertheless, many found the lecture to be transformative of their viewpoints towards the environment while for others, it reaffirmed prior convictions. Lovejoy ended on an encouraging note, stating, “It’s time for us to have a bold new vision about how we relate to the natural world.” The statement was perfectly timed, three days before Earth Day—when millions have marched across the U.S. to protest cutbacks in the funding of scientific and environmental agencies


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