Current Research

Research Highlight – see the recent research profile featured on UC Berkeley’s Research IT website that describes my use of Berkeley Research Computing supercomputer Savio to analyze large current and historic datasets for broad-scale conservation planning of montane species under climate change. This work is part of my Smith Conservation Research Fellowship.


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New paper featured on the cover of Indian Birds – read a new paper in Indian Birds describing the distribution of White-browed Shortwing in the western Himalayas, lead by Gunjan Arora. The White-browed Shortwing has a disjunct range, with very few records west of Nepal. I observed and recorded the song of this species in Sarmoli village near Munsiyari, Uttarakhand in May 2014, one of only a few records in the state.

 


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Research featured on the cover of the February 2017 issue of Ecology

Caption: Mixed coniferous forest at 2900 m in Great Himalayan National Park, India, in December 2012. Stark habitat transitions, such as those between mixed coniferous forest (foreground) and upper temperate forest (seen in background), limit the elevational distributions of many Himalayan birds, but temperature dominates as the primary range-limiting factor. See Elsen et al. in this issue (doi: 10.1002/ecy.1669). Photo credit: Paul R. Elsen


Disentangling the factors limiting species distributions

A fundamental yet unresolved question in ecology is why species occur where they do, and not elsewhere. I explore this question utilizing unique natural climatic and species richness gradients in the Himalayas. Through fieldwork and abundance modeling, my research attempts to disentangle three leading hypotheses – climate, habitat, and

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Treeline above mixed Rhododendron and upper temperate forests, Uttarakhand, western Himalayas

competition – thought to limit bird elevational ranges. Results from this work have revealed surprising differences in Himalayan bird communities compared to previous foundational work in the tropics. Whereas the majority of tropical bird species are thought to be primarily limited by competitive interactions, the majority of birds from the temperate Himalayas are primarily limited by temperature. These results suggest that contrasting mechanisms may be limiting species across latitudinal gradients. Furthermore, my findings underscore a significant sensitivity of Himalayan birds to temperature that suggests their distributions may be substantially influenced by ongoing climate change.

Related Publications:

Elsen, P. R., Tingley, M. W., Kalyanaraman, R., Ramesh, K. & Wilcove, D. S. 2017. The role of competition, ecotones, and temperature in the elevational distribution of Himalayan birds. Ecology 98, 337-348. Link PDF

See media and news related to this work:

Princeton University Press Release

TheWire


 

Determining the impacts of agriculture and grazing on Himalayan birds

The Himalayas are a global biodiversity hotspot containing nearly 10% of the world’s birds. At the same time, the region has undergone rapid deforestation, largely driven by the expansion and intensification of agriculture and grazing. My research attempts to understand how the conversion of natural forests to agriculture impacts Himalayan bird communities in terms of abundance, species richness, and community composition, as well as understand the ultimate drivers of species loss. My results from fieldwork studying bird communities across a gradient of agricultural intensity suggest that low intensity ag lands (consisting of small-scale subsistence agriculture within a matrix of lightly used forest) as well as medium intensity at lands (consisting of mixed terraced agriculture)

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Terraced mixed agriculture in Himachal Pradesh, western Himalayas

harbor significantly greater abundance and bird species richness than high intensity ag lands (heavily grazed pastures), but also greater than primary forest. Surprisingly, this finding was true both during winter, when forest resources are scarce and birds migrate to lower elevations into human-dominated landscapes, as well as during summer, when species are breeding. However, primary forests harbored unique species during both seasons, and had a distinct community composition compared to agricultural lands. Furthermore, intensifying agriculture through heavy grazing significantly reduced both abundance and bird species richness, and led to homogenized communities. My results suggest that low intensity agricultural lands are important for the majority of Himalayan birds throughout their annual cycle. Conservation strategies in the Himalayas must therefore go beyond establishing protected areas and prioritize retention of low intensity agricultural lands, minimizing their intensification, given their relatively high conservation importance for Himalayan birds.

Related Publications:

Elsen, P. R., Kalyanaraman, R., Ramesh, K. & Wilcove, D. S. 2017. The importance of agricultural lands for Himalayan birds in winter. Conservation Biology 31, 416-426. Link PDF

See media and news related to this work:

Blog article summarizing research by Fred Singer

India Water Portal (in Hindi)

CatchNews (in Hindi)


 

Developing priorities for montane species conservation

Montane species are expected to be particularly threatened by climate change as warming temperatures drive species’ ranges upslope. This is based in part on the assumption that species are squeezed into ever-smaller areas as they ascend, leading to population declines and eventual extinction. I conducted a global analysis of topography to illustrate that a diversity of area-elevation patterns exists within the world’s mountain ranges, which suggests that population responses will be specific to their local,

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Complex topography beyond Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, western Himalayas

topographic context. Accounting for underlying topography in conservation planning can therefore target critical “pinch points” where species’ range shifts result in significant area reductions. Protection of these key “topographic corridors” may facilitate species adaptation to climate change. Within this theoretical framework, for my current Smith Fellowship I am developing and implementing a novel approach to conserving montane species under climate change across US mountain ranges, with particular focus on California ranges. Results will identify both priority regions for montane conservation and context-specific recommendations for stakeholders to guide climate-informed, proactive conservation strategies for species adaptation under climate change.

Related Publications:

Elsen, P. R. & Tingley, M. W. 2015. Global mountain topography and the fate of montane species under climate change. Nature Climate Change 5, 772-776. Link PDF

See media and news related to this work:

Washington Post

Grist

Carbon Brief

Atlas Obscura

MinutePhysics Video