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Into the Wild


By Bekah Wright

Published Jan 1, 2012 12:00 AM


UCLA scientists lead the way in conservation science, and their work brings them up close and personal with all sorts of creatures, including island foxes, grey wolves — even buffalo.

"I was born with the desire to study wildcats," says graduate student Laurel Klein Serieys. "Even as a child, I knew that meant a Ph.D." Serieys landed at UCLA, where she's co-advised by the university and by the National Park Service. The focus of Serieys' research: how urbanization affects carnivores.

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Find out more about UCLA's fascinating explorations into ecology and evolutionary biology at

Add wolves, oaks, hornbills, frogs and other beasties, and you see the breadth of Westwood's involvement in advancing conservation science — and, in the process, becoming a go-to resource for others around the country and the world.

Serieys, for example, works to raise awareness of the impact on wildlife of anticoagulant poisons — the type used to keep pests like gophers, squirrels and rabbits from trashing the lawns of homes, parks, commercial buildings and golf courses. Anticoagulants are used globally, but in the seven to 10 days it takes for the poison to kill pests, it finds its way into other aspects of the wilderness.

"It may alter behavior of the animal that's been poisoned — they're out more during the day and become easier prey," she explains.

Serieys hopes to educate the public about threats to local wildlife populations through her website, . Here, she informs the public about the dangers of anticoagulant poisons on local wildlife and shares research on bobcats and mountain lions being done by UCLA and its National Park Service collaborators.

Meanwhile, Professor Robert Wayne of the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has had his research take him from Yellowstone to work on the Wolf Genome Project to the Channel Islands to study island foxes. Wayne's research with wolves shows how some conservation issues are being tackled.

"There are two ways we're leading in the field," says Wayne. "One is understanding genetic variability and how it's distributed across the landscape. This knowledge will allow us to manage natural resources better."

One example of the research into variability is the Wolf Genome Project. "In 1995, gray wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone," Wayne says. "It's been the most successful large-carnivore reintroduction ever." Fine-scale genetic mapping is used to learn the process of adaptation and how gray wolves respond to environmental conditions.

The second area is molecular ecology. Says Wayne, "We're leading the way in using whole genomes. The field has relied on a handful of molecular markers. We try to infer patterns across the whole genome. There are millions of markers and only looking at 10 or 12 doesn't show much. We're looking at tens of thousands and even partial genomes."

Overall, there are 48 faculty affiliated with UCLA doing research in areas such as Ecuador, Cameroon, Brazil, Australia and Colombia. "We've been involved in mapping ecological and evolutionary processes," explains Thomas B. Smith, the director for UCLA's Center for Tropical Research. "This is important as we face climate change; we need to prioritize where variation in populations is maximized."

The processes come in many forms, from those that generate new species to the ways in which birds and monkeys move seeds and ultimately regenerate rainforests. "To effectively conserve regions, we need to protect the pattern and also the fundamental processes that generate and sustain biodiversity," Smith says.

This extends from the rainforest and savannahs to people's backyards. "For urban residents, this may mean using native plants in landscaping that don't require much water use," says Smith.

How do the public and policymakers obtain this information? UCLA is working on that, too. "We're trying to stimulate science-based conservation policy and education," says Victoria L. Sork, professor and dean of life sciences at the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Sork, whose research focuses on oak trees, adds, "We need to manage landscapes to preserve local habitats and also to maintain connectivity between plant and animal populations … It's not as easy as just planting another oak stand. We have to preserve the ecological processes that will allow them to evolve in response to future changes."



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