DURHAM, N.C. – Scientists from North and South America have joined forces in an ambitious five-year project to protect biodiversity in the Amazon-Andean forest by shedding new light on how biology, geology and climate interact to shape species distribution and  generation there.

The project, now entering its second year, is led by Paul A. Baker, professor of geochemistry at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

It is funded through a $4.43 million five-year grant from the National Science Foundation.

“Diversity is critical to resilience in ecosystem function. The biodiversity of the Amazon/Andean forest is greatly threatened by global climate change and other human activities, including a major emerging threat posed by the planned construction of headwater dams that will sever upland-lowland nutrient connectivity,” Baker says.

“By taking advantage of recent advances in geochemistry, molecular genetics and earth science modeling, we hope to decipher the complex interplay of environmental forces that helps drive species’ origins, evolution, distribution and demise,” he says. “At the same time, we are developing an emerging field, that we call ‘geo-genomics, in which hwe seek to solv geological problems through the application of molecular genetic methods.”
Thirteen scientists from nine universities serve as co-principal investigators or senior personnel on the study. Six of them are from South American countries – a move intended to help “strengthen north-south collaboration,” Baker says.

The study provides funding to support fieldwork, laboratory studies and modeling research by undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral scientists, and to underwrite the creation of an innovative new short course linking evolutionary genetics and geology.

“Education and training are important components of this project,” Baker stresses.

The Amazon/Andes is a dynamically linked, highly interactive system, he explains. On long timescales, Andean surface uplift exerts control on Amazonian climate, hydrology and primary productivity. However, these controls are two-way, as climate and hydrology also influence Andean uplift through weathering, erosional incision and isostasy. Andean uplift also generates the adjacent Amazon foreland basins and their sediment fill, nutrient supply, river routing, soil composition and forest habitat. Together, these system parts interact in complex ways to affect the origin and demise of new species, and thus determine the region’s biodiversity.

“Before we can quantify relationships between extrinsic forcings and the observed distribution of species through time, we have to generate accurately dated histories of the underlying geologic and climatic processes, and understand the governing rules for how the environment influences diversity,” Baker says.

To achieve this goal, he and his colleagues are focusing on five key research objectives. These include determining the history of Andean uplift, particularly in the little-studied Western Cordillera region; reconstructing a complete history of the Cenozoic paleoclimate in the western Amazon lowlands; and generating isotope-enabled ocean-atmosphere climate modeling at key Cenozoic time slices. The two other core focuses are to conduct molecular genetic analysis on woody plant taxa to test several fundamental hypotheses about the roles of uplift and climate in the generation of diversity; and to construct an overarching modeling framework that incorporates new data on uplift, climate and biota. This new framework will enable scientists to link paleo-topography, climate, hydrology and nutrient cycling to plant traits, productivity, ecologic niche and species distribution.

“Ultimately, the goal is to understand how the environment and environmental history influence genetic differentiation among populations and the origins of new species,” Baker says.  

Co-principal investigators on the grant are David Battisti of the University of Washington; Christopher Dick of the University of Michigan; Sherilyn Fritz of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and Brian Horton of the University of Texas-Austin.  Senior personnel are: Mark Bush of the Florida Institute of Technology; Carmala Garzione of the University of Rochester; Richard F. Kay and Amilcare Porporato of Duke; Edgardo Latrubesse of UT-Austin; Catherine Rigsby of East Carolina University; Miles Silman of Wake Forest University; and Stephen Smith of Michigan.