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Scientist Spotlight: Laura Thompson Connects Adaptive Capacity Assessments to Management Decision Making

September 18, 2020

Learn about the work and research of Laura Thompson, Research Ecologist for the National Climate Adaptation Science Center.

Black bear cub in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, USA.
Thompson holding a back bear cub in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, USA. (public domain)

“I always had an interest in ecology because of my father, who was a forester with the state of Tennessee, where I grew up,” says Laura Thompson, Research Ecologist for the National Climate Adaptation Science Center (CASC). “He was constantly exposing me to nature and the outdoors.”

Thompson decided early on in her education that she wanted to pursue ecological research as a career path and hasn’t looked back since. This pursuit led to her current role with the National CASC, where she strives to help wildlife managers and other stakeholders understand the vulnerability of species to climate change and to incorporate information on the potential effects of climate change into their species adaptation plans.

“The National CASC was founded on species vulnerability projects,” says Thompson. “I think this work aligns with the center’s mission to better understand how different species are going to respond to climate change. This is ultimately accomplished by researching vulnerability and giving managers information they need to deal with those current or impending changes and make decisions.”

Thompson was first exposed to the importance of connecting managers to relevant science through her wildlife and fisheries master’s program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where she joined a project team studying black bear populations in historically rural areas facing land use changes. The study area, located near the coast of North Carolina, has a large black bear population and is currently undergoing increased urban development requiring massive highway expansions. At the time of Thompson’s research, wildlife managers were worried that these expansions might impact local black bear populations by fragmenting their natural habitats. The project team that Thompson participated in focused their efforts on these stakeholder concerns by conducting a study of black bear abundance and movement patterns before and after the construction of an expanded highway with wildlife underpasses. Outcomes from this work suggested some declines in black bear densities post-highway construction, but the wildlife underpasses were useful for facilitating gene flow between areas north and south of the new highway.

Her thesis work, and a stint as a research associate at UT Knoxville building habitat models, eventually led Thompson into landscape genetics research. She moved to Canada to pursue her Ph.D. in environmental and life sciences at Trent University, where she researched historical and current genetic patterns of caribou in boreal forests of Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. The results showed that genetic connectivity of caribou species decreased significantly along the southern periphery of their range, near the border of the United States and Canada.

“Historically, the southern range for caribou was much farther south than it is today, and our research showed that caribou were moving into northern regions,” says Thompson. She further explains that, like North Carolina black bear populations, caribou decline is also largely due to human population expansion. Thompson and her colleagues on the project also believe climatic changes could play a role in recent changes in caribou migration patterns and should be considered in future studies.

“I grew interested in climate change when I was in Canada because the polar regions are experiencing certain changes much more drastically than the southern United States. The winters are showing tremendous decreases in snowfall, and biologists in Canada have never seen anything like this before,” says Thompson. “That’s why the job at the National CASC was so enticing to me.”

Thompson was hired as a Research Ecologist for the National CASC in 2011, and she attributes much of her career success to her experiences working with a variety of stakeholders such as state wildlife management agencies, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and tribal organizations throughout the course of her master’s and doctoral research projects.

“I try to cater any products in a way that would be useful to our partner agencies in their decision-making processes,” says Thompson. “For my work at the National CASC, our partners are typically those who either conduct similar research or have similar research questions. That expertise is something we like to tap into, and maintaining these collaborative partnerships is definitely important for success.”

After years of working closely with managers and stakeholders as part of her role with the National CASC, Thompson has become familiar with decision-support techniques designed to reduce the uncertainties associated with climate change. When an aspect of scientific research is uncertain, such as future changes in climate or how species may respond to these changes, managers sometimes require additional information to help them make decisions about the resources they manage. One of the decision-support techniques that Thompson has implemented in her research is scenario planning, which is the act of developing several plausible climate futures or ‘scenarios’ for a specific location. This information can then be used by managers to determine the best course of action for protecting key resources under each alternative scenario. For instance, scientists might offer managers a few scenarios for how regional moose populations may increase or decline, should there be a future insect outbreak or temperature change.

“Scenario planning allows managers to imagine what a future would look like for a species in a few different ways, make decisions about the conservation of that species, and move forward with climate adaptation planning,” says Thompson.

Her interest in stakeholder engagement and decision-support has led Thompson to develop expertise in climate change vulnerability assessments. Her current work is focused on assessing the ability of species to change in a way that accommodates the effects of observed or predicted climatic shifts–known as its adaptive capacity. There are three general components for assessing a species’ adaptive capacity: 1) the ability of the species to migrate to a more suitable environment as conditions change, 2) its phenotypic plasticity, or its ability to exist in multiple types of environments, and 3) its evolutionary adaptive capacity, or the ability of the species to undergo genetic changes that make it more adept at surviving in its new, altered environment.

“I think to truly understand how vulnerable a species is to climate change, it’s important to understand how each species may respond to different impacts,” says Thompson. “Without considering this, researchers and managers may draw an incomplete picture of the level of vulnerability.”

This effort, led by the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center (NOROCK) and partially funded by the National CASC, led to the development of a framework for a trait-based tool designed to assess the adaptive capacity of any species. The tool works by first categorizing the species in question as migratory (like birds or certain mammals), having complex life cycles (like insects), ectothermic (including amphibians), or sessile (such as plants or many marine organisms). The species is then rated as having a high, medium, or low adaptive capacity based on seven identified traits for potential vulnerability: 1) demography or population size, 2) species distribution, 3) movement patterns, 4) evolutionary potential, 5) ecological role, 6) abiotic niche, and 7) life history.

Caribou in northern Ontario, Canada.
Aerial view of caribou in northern Ontario, Canada. Credit: Laura Thompson

Additionally, these seven traits are associated with 36 more specific attributes. For instance, attributes associated with movement include any characteristic describing an organism’s ability to move through a landscape, whereas attributes under the life history and demography complexes reflect an organism’s skill in accommodating changing climates in a stagnant location. Species with a majority of attributes ranking high in adaptive capacity, such as the red‐eyed leaf frog, are considered to have high overall adaptive capacity. In contrast, species with more attributes exhibiting lower levels of adaptive capacity, like the Dolphin and Union population of barren‐ground caribou, are classified as possessing a lower capacity for adapting to changes in climate. This tool has the potential to aid wildlife managers worldwide as they develop regional climate change adaptation plans for vulnerable species. The project was recently highlighted in an article published by the Ecological Society of America, written by lead author Lindsey Thurman and co-authored by Thompson.

Furthermore, although accounting for migration ability and phenotypic plasticity in vulnerability assessments is uncommon, managers have identified an even larger knowledge gap surrounding how to accurately analyze evolutionary potential in species. Thompson is currently leading another vulnerability project aimed at understanding evolutionary adaptive capacity (EvAC), the third component of the adaptive capacity framework which describes the ability of a species to adapt to changing environments through evolutionary processes.

“When it comes to environmental changes, a species can either adapt, move, or die. If the species doesn’t have the ability to move to more suitable areas under unfavorable conditions, the only opportunity it may have to persist is through evolutionary change,” says Thompson. “Getting a better handle on how species might possess evolutionary potential is going to be really important moving forward as we start seeing a lot of population extinctions under climate change.”

To better understand this phenomenon, Thompson organized a series of workshops in 2016 which brought together natural resource managers and evolutionary biologists to connect existing knowledge needs with available knowledge on evolutionary traits. Based on these workshops, Thompson has several publications in the works which will describe management strategies for different stakeholders looking for conservation solutions using EVAC assessments, and hopes this research will increase scientists’ and managers’ understanding of adaptive capacity at large.

In a slightly different co-production effort, Thompson recently worked with members of the American Fisheries Society (AFS) and The Wildlife Society’s (TWS) Climate Change and Wildlife Working Group to synthesize information on ecosystem transformation, a topic identified by both societies as an important emerging climate change issue in natural resource management. Thompson co-led a nominated group of experts to present a framework for responding to ecosystem transformation. This framework determines that managers can 1) resist change in favor of promoting the persistence of current or historical ecosystem composition, structure, and processes, 2) accept change because they cannot feasibly be stopped, they are not sufficiently impactful enough to warrant a response, or they are considered acceptable (perhaps even desirable) by stakeholders or society, and 3) direct change towards a specific alternative ecosystem configuration, because resisting change appears to be impossible and feasible opportunities exist to steward change towards a more-desirable outcome than that anticipated from accepting the default trajectory of change. This work was recently highlighted in a new article published by American Fisheries Society, for which Thompson was a lead author.

“It’s been really amazing to see how many scientists want their research and data to be better connected to management decision-making,” says Thompson, who also feels the most important aspect of National CASC science is the network-wide prioritization of facilitating management decision making.

“This is something that is fulfilling, trying to create information that will be useful to species conservation,” she says. “I want to be able to provide science that will help managers make informed decisions in preparing for and responding to future climate change, and I think this work will send us in the right direction.”

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Laura Thompson received both her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Wildlife and Fisheries Science from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She earned her Ph.D. in Environmental and Life Sciences from Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada in 2015, with her dissertation focused on historical and current genetic patterns of caribou in boreal forests. She was hired as a Research Ecologist for the National CASC in 2011, where she has worked for nine years. Thompson's current research is focused on providing the management community with science-based information that can assist with decision-making regarding adaptation options. In addition, Thompson served as an author with the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) on the Americas Assessment. She was also an author on the Fourth National Climate Assessment’s (NCA4) chapter on biodiversity.

Check out some of her adventures below!