Scientist Spotlight: Toni Lyn Morelli: First-hand Approaches to Conservation in the Face of Climate Change

Release Date:

Toni Lyn Morelli has no shortage of enthusiasm for her job as a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at the Department of the Interior Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center.

Toni Lyn Morelli and Mary Ratnaswamy Hold a Squirrel Trap in the Woods

Toni Lyn Morelli (left) and Mary Ratnaswamy (right); White Mountain National Forest, NH; trapping red squirrels

(Credit: Alexej Siren. Credit: Alexej Siren)

Toni Lyn Morelli has no shortage of enthusiasm for her job as a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at the Department of the Interior Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center.

“Oh, man, I love my job. It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she says. “It just allows me to do this very relevant science.”

When asked what her job entails, Morelli tries to be concise, though it’s clear her portfolio is expansive. Her focus lies on the impacts of climate change, but this comprises a wide variety of projects spanning many years, a number of territories, and countless plant and animal species. She has worked in the West where intense summer aridity is causing a sharp increase in wildfires and a subsequent decline in forest coverage. She has spent time in the Northeast studying red squirrelswhich, distanced from their snowy habitats due to shorter winters, may be moving higher up mountain ranges where they prey on threatened bird species that live there. She even has a side project through the University of Massachusetts which takes her as far south as the mid–Atlantic where warming climates are slowing syrup production, as the quality of sugar maple sap depends on daily freeze and thaw cycles.

“So the general statement of what I do is I study the impacts of climate change on wildlife and landscapes in order to improve management and conservation,” says Morelli. There are only a handful of permanent federal research scientists working for the Climate Adaptation Science Centers so her job, at times, is both extensive and challenging. “It’s always better to have more people working on stuff. The upside is I can kind of pick and choose what I work on, as there are so many stakeholder needs.”

For starters, her most current work involves analyzing climate change consequences on subarctic, boreal communities. This frigid landscape, generally associated with snowy countries like Canada, Russia, and Scandinavia, as well as the state of Alaska, also includes a small piece of the midwestern and northeastern United States. Here, in the boreal sections of New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont, Morelli has been conducting her most recent research on the relationship between moose and climate change, which is manifesting as a species of tick that is surviving the winter due to a global rise in temperature. These ticks can each grow to the size of a quarter, and thousands of them at once can prey on individual moose. Baby moose, according to Morelli, are being fatally “sucked dry.”

Her other projects include working with wildlife managers in the Northeast to understand climate change impacts on vernal pools. These are temporary bodies of water that fill up depending on the season, during which they provide habitats for animals like salamanders. She will also lead a meeting in Vermont to analyze how climate changes are affecting cold-water streams, the potential impacts on resident fish species such as salmon and trout, and actions local wildlife managers might take to alleviate these impacts.

“The reality is that the world is changing,” says Morelli. “We need to allocate conservation resources as thoughtfully and responsibly as possible.”

Inside the ecosystems of boreal communities, cold-water streams, and vernal pools you can find areas that are buffered from the effects of climate change known as climate refugia. Wildlife managers can focus on them to protect plant and animal species given limited resources. Refugia research is Morelli’s expertise.

“The goal is to look for places that aren’t predicted to change as much and try to preserve them,” she says.

Many current conservation management practices involve using vital resources in an attempt to rectify climate–change–related damage that will be done to landscapes, such as forest loss due to wildfire. The refugia concept is a more conservative approach to environmental preservation which advocates targeting places that won’t be as affected for conservation and restoration.

“The reality is that the world is changing” says Morelli. “We need to allocate conservation resources as thoughtfully and responsibly as possible.”

These projects specifically involve mapping refugia and delivering these data to wildlife managers to help them make informed conservation decisions. Morelli says the ability to visually model refugia locations is “pretty cutting edge” because refugia have yet to be mapped in most regions and ecosystems.

In addition to research, Morelli’s work involves fostering conversations between managers and scientists. She uses a concept called translational ecology to engage managers in trusting relationships with scientists involving two–way communication from the moment scientific research on a subject begins.

“Trying to figure out what research will help managers take action in protected areas is really the center point of the work that I try to do,” says Morelli. “The most challenging part is how to design your work so that it will ultimately be useful, in the best sense of the word.”

Conducting useful research became a personal mandate for Morelli after seeing the harmful effects of climate change while working in Madagascar as a graduate student. She switched careers during her post–doctoral research and was given her first opportunity to work on climate adaptation in a forest service office by her now close friend and colleague Connie Millar, senior research ecologist at the Pacific Southwest Research Station.

“It was really someone giving me a chance when I probably didn’t deserve it,” says Morelli. “Connie kind of lit this fire in me for refugia.”

“Trying to figure out what research will help [managers take action] in protected areas is really the center point of the work that I try to do. The most challenging part is how to design your work so that it will ultimately be useful, in the best sense of the word.”

Morelli has since found her niche at USGS and has been a research ecologist for three years. She attributes her success to her supportive husband, her persistent personality, and the fact that she was guided almost exclusively by women role models into the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). These role models include Connie Millar and Mary Ratnaswamy, the USGS Director at the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center.

“I am really remarkably lucky that I have had these women along the way—Connie, Mary—they’re the people who pushed me into the field for the first time,” says Morelli, whose colleagues are mostly men.

Motherhood also currently plays a large role in Morelli’s life, although she says making the decision to have kids is often difficult for women in STEM. The physical recovery needed after childbirth alone can take months, and early–career scientists are hesitant to take time off from research. Morelli wants future women scientists who are struggling with this decision to see that they don’t have to choose between science and motherhood if they don’t want to. Her own son, Darrow, is now four years old. A short break in her travels last week was long enough for her to make an appearance at Darrow’s pre–school and speak to his class about her sugar maple project. Needless to say, her presentation, which included samples of maple syrup, was a hit with the toddlers.

“I think a big part is knowing that there are other people out there doing this,” says Morelli. “Knowing other women are out there making it work, even if there’s not that many of them, makes a huge difference.”

###

Morelli loved animals as a child, which led to her decision to major in zoology as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. There she gained experience working in a research lab and was introduced to the idea of graduate school by her supervisor. She earned her Ph.D. in Ecology & Evolution from Stony Brook University, studying primate behavior in Madagascar, before switching her focus to climate adaptation and refugia.

Check out some of her adventures below!