Research News

UB scientists to study how ancient climate change altered ecosystems in Southeast Alaska

This bone fragment, found in Southeast Alaska, belongs to a dog that lived about 10,150 years ago, according to past research led by UB biologist Charlotte Lindqvist. The new NSF-funded project will build on this work with a broader study that dates and analyzes ancient DNA from multiple species to understand the impact of prehistoric climate change in the region. This photo is a composite that employs a technique called focus-stacking to show details of the bone more clearly. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published September 14, 2022

Charlotte Lindqvist.
“If we can learn something about what happened in the past, it could tell us something about what may be happening today and in the future. ”
Charlotte Lindqvist, associate professor
Department of Biological Sciences

UB scientists have received more than $2.9 million from the National Science Foundation to study the impacts of prehistoric climate change on ecosystems in Southeast Alaska.

This coastal region “holds exceptional geologic archives of past biological and climate change,” and may have also served as a crucial gateway for early human migration into the Americas, according to the project description.

The work brings together an interdisciplinary team. UB biologists will date and analyze DNA from ancient animal bones and plant matter to learn what species were living in the region at different times. Meanwhile, UB geologists will research Southeast Alaska’s ancient climate and understand which parts of the study area were covered with ice during the last ice age, and how quickly glaciers retreated as the region warmed.

Together, this data will tell a story about how ecosystems in the region changed as the climate shifted over the past 40,000 years.

What the scientists learn could provide important insights into how climate change may impact ecosystems around the world today, says Charlotte Lindqvist, associate professor of biological sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, who is leading the project as principal investigator.

“A lot of the research on how life on Earth responds to climate change has looked at single species over a short time span,” Lindqvist explains. “We are trying to understand changes in species communities going back at least 40,000 years, also focusing on three particularly rapid warming events that we know took place since the last ice age.

UB biologist Charlotte Lindqvist (right) works in Southeast Alaska several years ago with Alia Lesnek, a UB geology PhD graduate who is now on the faculty of Queens College. A new NSF-funded project will bring UB biologists and geologists together again to study the impacts of prehistoric climate change in the region. Photo: Jason Briner

“What kind of species were found before and after these events, and how did that correlate with changing environmental and climate variables? As warming occurs, do we have a different community of species — how quickly does it shift? If we can learn something about what happened in the past, it could tell us something about what may be happening today and in the future.”

Co-principal investigators include Jason Briner, professor of geology; Elizabeth Thomas, associate professor of geology; and Corey Krabbenhoft, an ecologist who will begin as assistant professor of biological sciences in 2023.

The project will invest in interdisciplinary STEM training and career-building to educate the next generation of multidisciplinary scientists, including training of postdoctoral associates and graduate and undergraduate students. The team will also develop programs for science teachers in Buffalo high schools, and for K-12 students in Southeast Alaska.

UB geologist Jason Briner collects rock samples in Southeast Alaska several years ago. The samples were used in a past study to examine when Ice Age glaciers retreated from the area. That research brought together UB geologists and biologists, who will partner again on the new NSF-funded project. Photo: Charlotte Lindqvist

Lindqvist notes the team of biologists and geologists has worked together in Southeast Alaska in the past, with prior studies contributing valuable information to conversations about how the first people may have entered the Americas, and about the history of dogs in the Americas.

The new grant, announced in August by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, will build on these prior successes with a broader study that examines the impact of prehistoric climate change on ecosystems in the same region.

“The University at Buffalo is deeply committed to addressing climate change and the ongoing sustainability crisis,” President Satish K. Tripathi said when the award was announced. “With this National Science Foundation award, our world-class scientists will be able to further climate science research, ultimately contributing to the understanding and mitigation of one of the predominant issues facing our nation and world.

“I am proud of our entire UB team and grateful for Sen. Schumer, Sen. Gillibrand and Congressman Brian Higgins’ unwavering support for climate research, and for the National Science Foundation’s recognition of the important role UB can play in combatting one of society’s most pressing problems,” Tripathi said.