This week, I joined an army of far over 200 biogeographers at the conference of the International Biogeographic Society in Evora, Portugal. Biogeowhat, you might ask? Well, biogeography is the study of the distribution of species, in the past, the present and the future.
Most of our own work fits that definition, as we are studying what drives plant species distribution in mountains. While I focus mainly on the present, there is this whole branch of paleobiogeography that I only really discovered here. Studies on the extinction of megasharks, on the effects of past climate change, or on the impact of thousand-year-old effects on the current distributions of species, it almost feels like an art how these paleo-people can find such intriguing patterns in such scarce and long-buried data.
Cause pattern-finding, that’s the true skill of a biogeographer. We often work with large datasets, at a global or continental scale, linking whatever distribution data we have to environmental drivers like climate and land use (change). There is a lot of advanced statistical modelling involved as well, turning the artform even more into magic. But for a paleobiogeographer, this data is even harder to come by. They rely on a tooth or a jawbone or the identification of plant pollen, yet can still tell you that climate is driving species size, and which direction species have travelled to cope with changes in this climate.
These studies of the past are teaching us a lot about the present as well, what the current global changes will do to our species distributions. I did learn a lot about adaptation, for example: the notion that many species not only move when climate changes, but that they also have a certain flexibility to adapt, either just as an individual or genetically. And that’s why I really start liking paleobiogeography.
(Pictures of patterns in the old city of Evora more or less related – as pattern-searching is our life)