Big Data for Biodiversity: A Conversation with Biologist Jamie Kass

July 5, 2023

The Biology alumnus uses data to predict patterns of biodiversity and recently began a tenure-track position at Tohoku University in Japan.

Digital nature related concept - image of forest overlaid with data imagery
(Credit: Getty Images)

Where are species likely to move due to climate change? And which invasive species stand to benefit the most from rising temperatures?

These are some of the many questions that biologist Jamie Kass aims to address with ecological modeling, mapping, and big data. The Queens native uses statistical models to predict patterns of biodiversity and drivers of ecosystem change.

The work involves programming and analysis of various kinds of data. “You can basically explain it as data science for ecology,” said Kass (Ph.D. ’19, Biology, Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior), a new tenure-track associate professor at Tohoku University who spoke to the Graduate Center from Japan this month.

“We take data from different sources, including big online databases and local field studies, process and clean it, and then use it to build statistical models and make biodiversity predictions.”

Jamie Kass headshot
Jamie Kass 

Data Science for Ecology

Kass is the leader of the school’s Macroecology Lab. “In macroecology, we build models that make predictions of species habitat requirements, ranges, or abundance, but also of the diversity of whole ecological communities,” he said. “Then we can use these models to make predictions for times and places we haven't sampled.”

Kass uses these models to make maps. “The model estimates species relationships with the environment, and we can make model predictions on a map to make range estimates,” he said.

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Biodiversity models also help to predict the risk of invasive species. “If you bring an organism with natural competitors or predators in its native range to a place that lacks them, there's a lack of biological pressure on that organism,” said Kass, who highlighted the small Indian mongoose as an example of an invasive species that exploded on the scene in Okinawa, Japan. “In Okinawa, the mongoose has few biological limitations, like predators, so it is a big management problem.”

Native to parts of the Middle East and South Asia, the little carnivore has a voracious appetite for bird eggs, amphibians, reptiles, other small mammals, and insects. In fact, on Okinawa Island, the mongoose is responsible for the near extinction of the Okinawa rail.

“It's a flightless island bird,” explained Kass. Though it’s good at avoiding snakes, he said, the bird had almost no defenses against other wild ground predators when the mongoose was introduced to the island to control venomous snakes in 1910.

In the past century, the mongoose has eaten its way through the Ryukyu Island chain, southern Pacific islands, the Caribbean, parts of South America, and eastern Europe. Current biodiversity models predict it will continue to spread due to warming temperatures. “With climate change, it’s expected to move further north and cause more damage to native ecosystems,” said Kass.

Predictions for Climate Change

Indeed, much of the data Kass works with comes from climate modeling.

“Specialists in climate modeling make global models of climate,” he said. “They have predictions for current climate, but also for the past and the future, based on different climate-change scenarios.”

Scenarios that could spell disaster for certain trees. The Douglas fir, highly valuable in the North American timber industry, is one tree of concern. But biodiversity models have begun to help scientists forge solutions to ecological threats brought by climate change.

“For example, tree species prefer particular climates,” Kass said. “If the climate changes, even slightly, some species might go locally extinct. So, populations will often need to move north to escape warming conditions.”

Though, oftentimes, they’re unable to disperse their seeds far or quickly enough to outpace climate change. “Dispersal is not just a problem for trees, but for a wide variety of organisms, particularly those living at high elevations where there are not many places to escape to,” he said.

Obstacles such as farmland and mountain ranges can sometimes prove to be insurmountable barriers. “So now, there is increasing interest in assisted relocation, which involves physically moving species to escape climate change so they don't go extinct,” said Kass.  

Species distribution models and other biodiversity models can estimate where areas with suitable climates may serve as habitats for trees and other imperiled organisms, Kass says. And biodiversity models are helping to shed light on how climate change will affect tropical regions.

“The tropics have been basically overlooked, because there was an assumption that tropical species won't really be affected by climate change as much as species in temperate and colder regions,” said Kass. “But now, scientists are predicting there will also be big effects from climate change in the tropics."

Tropical species tend to be less tolerant of temperature changes than temperate species, said Kass, so increased heat from climate change could be devastating.

Ecosystem services for humans

Kass says biodiversity models can also give us vital information about “ecosystem services.”

“Humans depend on biodiversity in many ways,” he said. “Our well-being depends on ecosystem services and functions. For example, clean water, decomposition, soil nutrients, all these things that nature provides to people are produced by biodiversity, by the many different interactions between many different organisms. All that biodiversity doing its work results in services for humans.”

One example is water filtration. “Take freshwater mollusks — clams and other shellfish. Many mollusk species filter pollutants and sediment in the water and make it clean for humans to drink,” Kass said. “Healthy forests and other terrestrial ecosystems around freshwater areas also help by filtering runoff from farms and other developed areas.”

In the past, ecosystem services models didn’t include much biodiversity data. “Until recently, biodiversity data did not typically enter these models directly," he said. "A new area of research is figuring out how best to add that biodiversity element, and that's one research direction I want to pursue here at Tohoku University.”

Kass says biodiversity modeling can tell us a lot about understudied groups of plants and animals, including insects. Many insects remain unknown, and even well-studied insects like ants are under-sampled in some parts of the world, said Kass, who co-led a study with Professor Benoit Guénard, at the University of Hong Kong, on the global distribution of ants, while he worked as a postdoc under Professor Evan Economo at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University. The study was published by Science Advances last year.

“There are many undescribed insect species that we know nothing about,” he said, and yet they provide us with incredibly important ecosystem services. “Compared with other animals … insects dominate most ecosystems. If you want to preserve ecosystem services like water filtration, decomposition, pollination, we need to prioritize areas with high insect diversity.” 

For part of his dissertation, when mentored by Professor Robert P. Anderson (GC / City College, Biology), Kass was the lead developer of a software application called Wallace EcoMod — an open-source interface that provides access to cutting-edge biodiversity modeling tools, still in active development.

The work can be complicated, Kass notes, and there are many variables that go into how a certain species model might behave. Importantly, he adds, models that predict how climate change affects biodiversity still have high levels of uncertainty.

Nonetheless, biodiversity models are powerful tools that educate us about the natural world, he said. “It’s progress,” Kass said. “The more that we know about these global biodiversity patterns, the better we can inform conservation priorities.”

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