Fritz leads research project on Amazon biodiversity

Sherilyn Fritz

The Amazon rain forest’s incredible biodiversity has been luring naturalists since before Charles Darwin’s famous expedition in the 1830s. Now, modern-day naturalists are teaming up to use new tools to answer age-old questions about the natural world, with implications for understanding today’s global threats.

UNL paleoclimatologist Sherilyn Fritz is project coordinator for a large multidisciplinary team of North and South American scientists that recently won a five-year, $4.4 million Frontiers in Earth-System Dynamics grant from the National Science Foundation.

The researchers will study how climate and geology interact to shape biodiversity in the Amazon and Andean forests through time. The FESD program is designed to improve knowledge of the Earth’s resilience by exploring connections among the planet’s dynamic systems.

“Those are the most diverse forests on the planet,” Fritz said of the Amazon and Andes. “So why is it that this particular region has such great diversity, and what is the role of these long-term geologic and climatic processes in fostering that diversity?”

To answer these questions, Fritz and colleagues – a team of geologists, climatologists, biologists and modelers – will collaborate to understand how the creation of the Andes Mountains affected erosion, climate and other processes in the lowland Amazon region, and how those processes, in turn, influenced species evolution.

Deciphering these historic interactions will help scientists and decision-makers better understand modern threats to biodiversity posed by climate change, dam building, deforestation and other human activities, and how best to protect the region’s ecosystems, said Fritz, George Holmes University Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

The project’s scope is unique. Paul Baker at Duke University conceived and leads the project. He and Fritz developed the framework and recruited 12 U.S. researchers at nine universities, as well as six South American collaborators. As project coordinator, Fritz will facilitate discussions and data exchanges. She is one of four project co-leaders, along with colleagues from the University of Washington, University of Michigan and University of Texas at Austin.

Research teams will tackle distinct aspects, such as understanding when and how fast the Andes Mountains uplifted, deciphering the climatic past and reconstructing the evolutionary history of rain forest plants. The teams will come together, along with climate and earth-system modelers, to interpret the data as an entire system.

In addition to coordinating the project, Fritz will research the area’s climate history by studying fossil microorganisms. Identifying organisms found in geologic deposits helps determine what environmental conditions and habitats existed at that time. Colleagues will measure chemical variations in the deposits to infer temperature, moisture and other conditions.

“As a team, we’ll be trying to reconstruct what the environments were at times in the geologic past and what their associated climate conditions would have been,” Fritz said.

Also unique is the role of geneticists and ecologists. Biologists interested in species evolution have long looked to geologic events to understand causes of genetic divergence or extinctions. This project, in contrast, will use genetic data to inform geologic hypotheses. For example, the age of parts of the Andes Mountains is disputed. Plant genetic evolution data may provide time constraints to help determine when mountains formed.

Project participants anticipate this new approach will become a new field they’re calling “geo-genomics.”

“These questions are not new, but in each of these sub-disciplines there have been some really big developments,” Fritz said. “We’re trying to provide a more integrated understanding by combining a lot of disciplines that often operate in parallel to understand how the system itself works.”