Embracing complexity: Jonathan Pauli

August 30, 2012

“Ecology isn’t rocket science. It’s much more difficult.”

Those eight words, written by UW-Madison’s own Steve Carpenter, jumped out at Jonathan Pauli as he was starting graduate school. To this day the statement stands as his favorite way to describe the field of ecology.

“I think there’s a great pressure to understand ecological systems,” says Pauli, an assistant professor of forest and wildlife ecology. “I think we understand more than we used to, and that adds to a greater demand to understand what’s happening. At the same time, the more we learn about these systems, the more we learn about how complicated they are.”

Jonathan Pauli

As the field becomes more complex, collaborations among researchers with varying backgrounds become more relevant and prevalent. This complexity has altered the approach to studying ecology.

“We can’t do it alone. The skill sets that are needed to understand the dynamics of systems and the mechanisms behind these drivers require good collaboration,” Pauli says. “One of the nice things about UW-Madison is that those collaborations can come easy.”

Throughout his research, Pauli has collaborated with colleagues all across campus. His research focuses on terrestrial vertebrates, which encompass more than 64,000 species ranging from amphibians to mammals to birds. His lab tends to look specifically at mammals, particularly carnivores including pumas, black bears and fishers, as well as sloths, porcupines and snowshoe hares.

“We’re a questions-oriented lab,” he says. “We don’t restrict ourselves to one taxonomic group, nor do we restrict ourselves to an approach.”

He and his students are currently studying sloths in Costa Rica, examining the species’ dispersal, demography and population dynamics and applying their findings to conservation methods. The sloths’ population has declined with a growing agriculture industry. The animal’s sedentary lifestyle makes them highly sensitive to forest fragmentation and habitat loss.

Pauli’s research looks at how shade-grown cacao plants in Costa Rica can aid in the protection of both two and three-toed sloths. “We are particularly interested in comparing the demography and social system of sloths in intact tropical forests, cattle pastures with isolated trees, and shade-grown cacao farms to determine if cacao cultivation can provide habitat elements needed to maintain viable sloth populations,” he explains.

Further south in Argentina, his lab is examining the link between pumas and Andean condors in the first-ever study of the diet of these vulture-like birds in undisturbed landscapes.

His student researchers hope an improved understanding of the condors’ foraging ecology will lead to better restoration strategies for the birds, which are threatened by habitat loss and declining food availability.  They believe food accessibility for the birds may depend on the interaction between pumas and their prey vicunas and guanacos, both relatives of the llama allowing condors to feed on the carcasses that pumas leave behind.

Pauli is also studying foraging behavior and the effects of increased human development in two native species: mountain lions, probing the connection between food availability and conflict related to the killing of domestic animals; and black bears, examining how an increased diet of garbage from close contact with humans may influence the animal’s fitness and population dynamics.

Closer to home, the impact of climate change on porcupines and fishers, a forest-dwelling member of the weasel family, has his attention.

“Porcupines used to be considered nutritionally limited, especially in the winter because there’s not a lot of food,” says Pauli. “But with moderating winter conditions, these restrictions seem to be going away.”

Jonathan Pauli sloth research
Pauli watches after releasing a two-toed sloth during
research in Costa Rica. The sedentary animals are
sensitive to forest fragmentation and habitat loss.

Even with more food, porcupines face increasing threats from one of their main predators, the fisher, whose range is expanding as the climate changes.

With a never-say-no approach to research questions, Pauli’s work continues to expand.

“Some people have a really tight system that they study and learn the ins and outs of, and that’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “We use these examples to better understand terrestrial ecology in different places, times and species, to pull it together and understand how species are responding to changing environmental conditions.”

In the end, changing conditions and endless questions only inspire Pauli to work harder.

“We know that climate change is going to affect systems, but how do we mitigate those consequences?” he asks. “Rather than trying to measure with increasing precision how bad the future is going to be, we should be coming up with solutions to problems. It can be challenging, but I think that’s where some of the excitement lies.”

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