Sara L Zeigler, Ph.D

I am broadly interested in the interface between landscape ecology and population biology  - how do landcover change, natural and human-caused disturbances, and habitat availability and connectivity affect a species’ population dynamics and extinction risk?  In addition, how can scientists and managers use this information to support the conservation of at-risk species?


Before coming to the USGS as a Mendenhall Fellow in 2014, I worked in a wide variety of systems. I was introduced to – and fell in love with - the discipline of conservation biology early in my undergraduate career when I was invited to assist on research on human-wildlife conflict with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia. During this time, I spent a summer in Baja, Mexico, learning about conservation approaches for sea turtles. I went on to complete a professional degree in conservation biology at the University of Maryland, where I was exposed to a wide curriculum in economics, policy, ecology, and geography – including a summer semester in tropical ecology in Costa Rica. I moved to the Department of Geographical Sciences at the University of Maryland to complete my PhD under the co-advisement of Drs. Ruth Defries and Bill Fagan. I studied the effects of habitat and connectivity loss for golden-headed lion tamarins in the Atlantic rainforests of Brazil. My post-doctoral research was completed at Virginia Tech under Dr. Jeff Walters, where we developed decision support tools for the conservation of red-cockaded woodpeckers on military installations in the southeastern U.S. Throughout this time, I’ve assisted in conservation workshops as a member of the IUCN’s Conservation Planning Specialist Group.

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B.A. 2004 – Environmental Science (mathematics minor), Franklin and Marshall College

M.S. 2006 – Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development, University of


Ph.D. 2011 – Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland

Post-doctoral research 2011-2014 – Biological Sciences, Virginia Tech

Science and Products

Forecasting the effects of sea-level rise on piping plover habitat and utilization

Policy-makers, individuals from government agencies, and natural resource managers are under increasing pressure to foster coastal areas that are economically, socially, and ecologically sound as sea levels rise. To support related decision-making, my colleagues and I conduct research needed to create tools for identifying suitable coastal habitats for species of concern – or, conversely, areas of high hazard exposure for humans and infrastructure - today and into the future. We forecast the most likely (1) shoreline change rate, (2) barrier island characteristics, and (3) piping plover habitat availability under different sea-level rise rates and storm regimes.

Gutierrez, BT, NG Plant, EA Pendleton, ER Thieler. 2014. Using a Bayesian network to predict shoreline-change vulnerability to sea-level rise for the coasts of the United States. United States Geological Survey open file report 2014-1083. 26 pp.

Gutierrez, BT, NG Plant, ER Thieler, A Turecek. 2015. Using a Bayesian network to predict barrier island geomorphologic characteristics. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface. 120: 2451-2475.

Thieler, ER, LA Winslow, MK Hines, JS Read, JI Walker, SL Zeigler. 2016. Leveraging low-cost mobile platforms for large-scale shorebird science: application to biogeomorphic attribute classification of Charadrius melodus nest sites. Plos One. 11(11): e0164979.

Sturdivant, EJ, ER Thieler, SL Zeigler, LA Winslow, MK Hines, JS Read, JI Walker, Biogeomorphic classification and images of shorebird nesting sites on the U.S. Atlantic coast: U.S. Geological Survey data release. 2016. doi: 10.5066/F70V89X3

Zeigler, SL, ER Thieler, BT Gutierrez, NG Plant, M Hines, JD Fraser, DH Catlin, SM Karpanty. In Press. Smartphone technologies and Bayesian networks to assess shorebird habitat selection. Wildlife Society Bulletin.

Piping plover population dynamics, extinction risk, and conservation

Changes to the natural disturbance regime and an increase in human-mediated habitat loss have threatened piping plovers throughout the species’ range. I work with USGS colleagues and partners at Virginia Tech to understand how these threats influence habitat availability, movement between populations, population dynamics, and extinction risk for this species.

Zeigler, SL, DH Catlin, M Bomberger-Brown, JD Fraser, L Dinan, K Hunt, JG Jorgensen, and SM Karpanty. 2017. Effects of climate change and anthropogenic modification on a disturbance-dependent species in a large riverine system. Ecosphere. 8(1): e01653.

Catlin, DH, M Bomberger-Brown, L Dinan, JD Fraser, KL Hunt, J Jorgensen, and SL Zeigler. 2016. Metapopulation viability of an endangered shorebird depends on man-made habitats: piping plovers and prairie rivers. Movement Ecology. 4(6): 1-15.

Biogeomorphological responses of barrier islands to sea-level rise

As my colleague, Dr. Erika Lentz, found, coastal landforms will respond in a variety of ways to sea-level rise, with some areas responding dynamically while others are inundated. I am working with Erika and others to better understand the nature of these dynamic responses. We are currently examining likely biogeomorphological changes that Fire Island, New York, will experience under varying rates of sea-level rise.

Lentz, EE, ER Thieler, NP Plant, SR Stippa, R Horton, and DB Gesch. 2016.  Evaluation of dynamic coastal response to sea-level rise modifies inundation likelihood.  Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate2957

Decision support tools for managing sea-level rise

As sea-level rise affects coastal landscapes, information related to those effects will be relevant to people from diverse backgrounds, from prospective homebuyers researching their investment, to community planners evaluating facility construction for recreational beach users, to natural resource managers attempting to protect optimal shorebird habitats. My colleagues and I are working to convert models of sea-level rise, barrier island biogeomorphology, and coastal response to no-cost open-source software that will be imbedded in an interactive web-interface. In this interface, users can view how changes to model parameters influence the likelihood that their area of interest will be inundated under different SLR scenarios. We are ultimately developing a mechanism where interdisciplinary USGS science and models can be placed in the hands of decision- and policy-makers as they attempt to plan for sea-level rise.