Dr Shannon Conradie
Dr Shannon Conradie wants to know how hot is too hot for animals to carry on as normal. She was shortlisted for the JWO Research Grant for her proposal entitled “Linking physics and biology to inform wildlife conservation under global change: an interdisciplinary approach”.
Her research interests “focus on modelling the biological limitations of species distribution and ultimately survival in arid to semi-arid systems”, and her current research “explores survival and reproduction of desert birds under extreme environmental conditions through modelling the risk of lethal dehydration and / or hyperthermia, and the sublethal fitness costs of behavioural decisions under current and likely future conditions.”
She then combines this “into mapping birds’ vulnerability to climate change in order to determine areas critical for conservation and management action. I am additionally interested in advancing the field of eco-physiology using biologically informed process-based modelling techniques for endotherms.”
She lists her key topics of interest as: Avian and mammalian ecophysiology, endotherm behaviour, climate change, mechanistic distribution modelling, biophysical ecology, and predicting species responses to future climate scenarios”.
Conradie says that “global change is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity, driving population declines in wildlife species globally. However, understanding and predicting the effects of global change on population persistence is complicated by species’ temperature sensitivities, behaviour and their surrounding environment.”
She believes that “technological advancements in terms of remote-sensing, drones and satellite imagery are incredible and these are going to become some of the most powerful tools for biodiversity monitoring”.
Hence, the crux of her proposal is that “the advancement of remote sensing technology, thermal drone technology and biophysical modelling provides a unique opportunity to investigate these changes across large spatial scales and link them to biological outputs.”
She wants to use this technology to “understand and predict wildlife species’ thermal vulnerabilities, breeding outcomes and population stability of wildlife under global change scenarios across Africa.”
Scenario modelling will then allow her to “understand how changes in our land-use practices, deforestation, rising temperatures, access to surface water and other global change factors may impact biodiversity. The techniques developed here will be applicable to most wildlife species, and over large geographical scales ranging from regional to global. Filling this knowledge gap, will enable us to highlight areas of refuge, and areas in need of conservation management and action.”
She cautions that “thermal vulnerability models often simplify habitats and do not capture the complexities of real-world habitats in terms of topography, vegetation structure and thermal niches. Further thermal vulnerabilities tend to overlook the importance of habitat structure in defining thermal limitations and realized thermal risks”, and so “creating a process-based framework that translates the complex thermal landscape into thermal niche profiles available to species is imperative to our understanding and management of the thermal risks associated with rapid habitat loss and climate change.”
Conradie says she honed her skills during her Ph.D. when she “evaluated the performance of a biophysical model to predict species thermal responses to heat. This taught me about the thermodynamic connection between animals and their environment and the tools we can use to model these responses. I found that the model works really well and can adequately predict these thermal responses, which was incredibly exciting and I thoroughly enjoyed the computational side of thermal biology.
“I then spent a couple of months doing field work in the Kalahari Desert region, and in the heart of this arid landscape I found myself engaging with the realities of climate change and the implications thereof. The harsh and unforgiving nature of this environment reignited my desire to understand the connection between thermal landscapes, habitat structure and population persistence. Further, this time armed me with insights, knowledge and first-hand experience of field biology needed to bring a better degree of biological realism into the computational models I work with.”
She believes that the “mismanagement of natural resources, loss of natural habitats/ land degradation and pollution of our rivers” presents big environmental and conservation challenges for Africa. “Africa is a continent that is rich in natural resources, however, these are being depleted at an alarming rate together with the transformation of natural landscapes. It is concerning that the long-term consequences of these actions are not always considered or openly discussed, and these actions have the potential to lead to irreversible damage to delicate ecosystems. Additionally, the mismanagement of natural resources can lead to shortages and direct consequences to human well-being. In terms of our river systems, the improper disposal of waste, agricultural run-off and industrial waste have lead to these once pristine ecosystems becoming toxic conduits. This threatens biodiversity within and surrounding the systems, but also communities that depend on them.”
Conradie says if she wins the JWO award she would immediately “start planning for the commencement of the project, recruit students (or as I like to see them, future leaders in thermal biology) and further develop the project. I aim to further build my career in thermal biology and the impacts of global change on biodiversity and this award directly relates to that, and will launch myself and the students I aim to train into that sphere.
Conradie is not afraid of the long haul, either in research or in sport. She says “I am currently training to compete in my first triathlon later this year and aspire to do an Ironman in the next year … And maybe the Comrades in a few years.”
Dr Shannon Conradie is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Cape Town. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, and her thesis was entitled “Novel approaches integrating physiology and behaviour into process-based models of the impacts of climate change on desert birds”.