Early ambition: Peter McIntyre

August 30, 2012

By the age of seven, Peter McIntyre already knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“I got my first fishing pole from my granddad when I was seven,” recalls McIntyre, a UW-Madison limnologist and assistant professor of zoology since 2010. “It was a long family tradition, and from the day I got that fishing pole, I was an aquatic ecologist.”

Peter McIntyre

McIntyre graduated from family fishing trips to the classrooms of Harvard and Cornell, where he earned degrees in 1998 and 2006. He then made his way to UW-Madison to join one of the world’s leading limnology centers.

“UW has an incredible tradition in ecology,” McIntyre says, “particularly in its Center for Limnology; it is not an exaggeration to say this is one of the top research centers in the world for aquatic sciences.”

McIntyre’s research and his lab of undergraduate and graduate students focus on the roles that fish play in ecosystems.

“The goal of our work is to understand what happens to fish when we degrade an ecosystem, and what happens to ecosystems if we decimate the fish,” he explains.

The McIntyre lab focuses its efforts on studying migratory fish in Great Lakes tributaries, the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, streams across the Hawaiian Archipelago, and in the Mekong River of Southeast Asia. They are also researching the effects of climate change and fisheries on Lake Tanganyika in Africa; and analyzing the biodiversity and ecosystem services of the world’s rivers.

His research on Lake Tanganyika, one of the East African Great Lakes, is closest to McIntyre’s heart and has become his personal, long-term field commitment.

“It’s the golden crown of aquatic biodiversity,” says McIntyre, sighting the high number of species found only in Tanganyika. “It’s massive; the volume is roughly equivalent to the five North American Great Lakes combined. Eighteen percent of the world’s fresh surface water is in Lake Tanganyika, yet there are only a handful of us studying this amazing ecosystem.”

Lake Tanganyika, like many other biodiversity hotspots, has begun to change with the warming climate, which is impacting the fisheries and fresh water on which millions of people depend. McIntyre’s lab group, which visits Lake Tanganyika every summer, is working to understand how climate change is influencing the lake ecosystem and how these changes will affect food security for East Africans.

McIntyre is also part of a collaborative project to gauge the condition and level of degradation of the world’s rivers and freshwater fisheries.

“We’re trying to systematically assess the state of river ecosystems, what services they provide to humanity and how that’s going to change with future shifts in climate, population and land use,” he explains.

Interdisciplinary, wide-ranging projects that encompass the field of ecology have been a focus of McIntyre’s research and teaching philosophy, making his involvement with Wisconsin Ecology a natural fit, he says. “I have broad interests, and being active in Wisconsin Ecology allows me to indulge those interests and interact with a wonderful group of colleagues.”

Peter McIntyre research
McIntyre's research focuses on fish and ecosystems,
including how speciation in African fish is driven
by changes in their electrical mating songs.

As the field of ecology continues to evolve, McIntyre believes a strong sense of community and innovation will drive progress.

“One thing that’s changed dramatically in the last 20 years or so is that ecological research has shifted from being dominated by individual projects toward team-based science,” says McIntyre.

“I think the history of increasing team size and multidisciplinary work in ecology has been driven by the fact that so many components of our world are shifting before our eyes, forcing us to ask questions that go beyond traditional disciplinary divides.” 

In response to these global challenges, McIntyre sees numerous opportunities to do good science and educate the next generation of ecologists.

“We have a choice in how we respond in our graduate training,” he explains. “By giving our students the self-confidence and communication skills to make the most of collaborations, we can prepare them to define the future of ecology.” 

This is one of four features profiling a new cohort of ecological researchers at UW-Madison. View the full series »