Enhancing population viability analysis with human population data to save endangered species

Population viability analysis (PVA) has emerged as a critical tool for conservation biologists to better understand the impacts of human-mediated threats to endangered wildlife species, to assess the future risk of extinction as a result of those threats, and to help choose between alternative management strategies designed to reduce that risk. PVA is typically done by using computer simulation models, and they can be sophisticated representations of biological systems. However, most of these models make simplifying assumptions about how local or regional human populations will impact that biological system in the future. In fact, many analyses assume that human populations will not change in number, distribution, or in activity patterns across the coming years or decades. As a result, our projections of wildlife population stability in the face of an expanding global human footprint are incomplete and should be improved. 

The Biocomplexity Incubator for Species Conservation is a new collaborative applied research effort between the Saint Louis Zoo, Washington University – Saint Louis, the IUCN’s Conservation Planning Specialist Group (CPSG), the University of Missouri – Saint Louis, and Missouri Botanic Gardens. The proposed Incubator project intends to explore new methods for integrating diverse types of wildlife and human population data to improve the process and outcomes of population viability analysis in support of endangered species conservation planning. Specifically, we want to apply the concept of shared socioeconomic pathways – a set of future scenarios built on plausible descriptions of human economic, education, migration and urbanization policy – to projections of future human population abundance and structure in a given geographic region and to then assess the resulting impact of those changes on the viability of an endangered wildlife species of interest to conservationists. Currently, our species target is the Hungarian meadow viper (Vipera ursinii rakosiensis), an extremely rare venomous viper found in southeast Central Europe. Incubator members are starting a collaborative planning project with European colleagues to create a basic population model to guide species management planning. The postdoctoral fellow will build additional complexity into this model through the analysis and integration of local/regional human population data into our understanding of meadow viper population dynamics. The ideal applicant will be familiar with PVA methodologies and have a strong background in population biology, statistical analysis of wildlife population data, and manipulation of datasets for custom analysis.

Contact information for project advisors:

Philip Miller, CPSG (pmiller@cpsg.org)
Lisa Kelley, WildCare Institute, Saint Louis Zoo (lkelley@stlzoo.org)
Jonathan Losos, Living Earth Collaborative (losos@wustl.edu)
Justin Elden, Curator of Herpetology, Saint Louis Zoo (elden@stlzoo.org)

Microbiome connections to biodiversity conservation

The Ling Lab at Washington University in St. Louis welcomes applicants for a postdoctoral position to collaborate on research examining the relationships between host microbiomes and biodiversity conservation. The position will build on and extend the Ling group’s existing research exploring microbes’ roles in 1) Box turtle conservation in collaboration with Dr. Sharon Deem’s group at the Institute for Conservation Medicine in St. Louis Zoo, and/or 2) freshwater ecosystem regulation in collaboration with the Knouft Lab at Saint Louis University. Applicants with prior experience in environmental microbiology, genomics, and related areas are particularly encouraged to apply. Please contact Dr. Ling (fangqiong@wustl.edu) for more details about specific projects.

Planetary Health Post-doc

The post-doc position is jointly offered by the E3 Nutrition Lab at Washington University and the William Brown Center for Ethnobotany at the Missouri Botanical Garden. This individual will have the opportunity to contribute to our collaborative work on public health nutrition and conservation in Madagascar, under the paradigm of planetary health. Our current collaboration, funded by the LEC, involves a nutrition and conservation assessment examining wild edible plant species in a sacred forest of Madagascar and the nutritional status of neighboring communities. We plan to expand this research into testing transdisciplinary interventions aimed at simultaneously preserving biodiversity and dietary diversity. The post-doc will have the opportunity to build from this work and other ongoing projects for their own research program. The E3 Nutrition Lab works on solutions to maternal and child nutrition that are environmentally sustainable, equitably accessed, and evolutionary appropriate, in Ecuador, Haiti, Kenya, and Madagascar with translational policy work at the global level. The mission of the William L. Brown Center is to study useful plants, understand the relationships between humans, plants, and their environment, the conservation of plant species, and the preservation of traditional knowledge for the benefit of future generations. Applicants from a variety of disciplines are welcomed (e.g. natural sciences, public health, anthropology).


Lora Iannotti, PhD 
Director, E3 Nutrition Lab, Washington University

Armand Randrianasolo, PhD 
Curator, William L Brown Center for Ethnobotany, Missouri Botanical Garden

Robbie Hart, PhD 
Director, William L Brown Center for Ethnobotany, Missouri Botanical Garden 

Biodiversity and Environmental Adaptation of Millet

There has been considerable recent momentum in understanding the domestication history and biogeography of some 40 cultivated taxa (e.g., broomcorn, foxtail, finger, pearl, barnyard millet, fonio and teff) originating from several continents and collectively known as millet. Today, these minor crops are consumed less frequently, thus attracting little scientific attention in comparison to their high-yielding, large-grained counterparts such as wheat, barley and maize. However, they were once among the most expansive food crops in geographical terms, sustaining ancient populations in Africa, Asia, and Europe. The ecological merits of millets—in their drought/stress tolerance, short growing cycle, hardiness, and C4 photosynthetic pathway—make them particularly important in the context of food security and the necessity of agricultural development in marginal environments. In 2022, The FAO Governing Bodies and the UN General Assembly endorsed the proposal of the International Year of Millets in 2023 exclusively acknowledging their deep domestication history and potential for future utility. The resolution was supported by over 70 countries. In this context, we welcome applications from candidates who have active lab or field projects concerning domestication, cultivation history, genetic diversity, stress tolerance of millet and/or social and historical implication of millet cultivation. A successful applicant should demonstrate one or more methodological strengths (examples include but are not limited to: genetic research, stable isotope study, archaeobotany, growing experiment, agricultural landscape/history etc.) who will work closely with LEC fellows Prof. Xinyi Liu (Anthropology; liuxinyi@wustl.edu), Prof. Kenneth Olsen (Biology; kolsen@wustl.edu) and Director Robbie Hart (William Brown Center of the Missouri Botanical Garden; robbie.hart@mobot.org) serving as co-mentors.

Conservation of Urban Pollination Networks

Given the scale and intensity of human-driven environmental change, the future of conservation rests largely in human-dominated landscapes. However, it is unclear how human land use decisions impact the underlying mechanisms that affect biodiversity. Depending on which mechanisms dominate in urban environments, different conservation actions may be more effective for supporting biodiversity than others. For instance, human-dominated landscapes tend to be more highly fragmented, resulting in smaller and more isolated habitat patches, which in turn may support lower species and interaction diversity. Alternatively, urban environments tend to be more heterogenous than suburban environments, which may support higher species turnover and/or unique interactions, resulting in support of higher biodiversity. Our collaborative team is interested in understanding if and how urbanization affects the relationship between spatial scale, bee diversity and foraging behavior, and interaction structure. We are open to projects loosely in line with that goal and would welcome novel ideas and approaches for tackling them. 

In 2020, we established the Shutterbee Citizen Science Program (Shutterbee.net) to engage the public in surveying bee foraging behavior in backyard and community gardens throughout the St. Louis region. Each year, roughly 120 citizen scientists monitor bees in a greenspace of their choosing. Survey locations occur along the exurban-urban gradient representing variation in the environmental landscape of the St. Louis. Since 2020, citizen scientists have recorded over 30,000 bee-plant interactions, providing a large foundational dataset on which to explore these ideas. In addition, we have a comprehensive reference collection for the city of St. Louis and historical records from nearby natural and residential areas that may be complementary, depending on the research question. 


Nicole Miller-Struttmann (nicolem42@webster.edu)

Gerardo Camilo (gerardo.camilo@slu.edu)

Adam Smith (Adam.Smith@mobot.org)

Semi-Automated Camera Trap Annotation

The integration of passive monitoring devices (e.g., camera traps and acoustic recorders) into ecological research has advanced our understanding of a wide range of taxa, particularly among nocturnal or cryptic species. For example, motion-triggered infrared cameras document animal presence 24 hours a day with minimal disturbance to study subjects. While passive monitoring devices continue to improve and become more affordable, ecologists are limited by their ability to process the enormous volumes of data that these devices collect. Human annotation of these datasets is time-consuming, costly, and limits the practical utility of passive monitoring devices.

To overcome this problem, there is a need for semi-automated systems to rapidly annotate project imagery. Such systems must carefully combine human expertise with advanced computer vision algorithms. In close collaboration with Dr. Adalsteinsson, an expert in wildlife ecology, and Dr. Jacobs, an expert in learning-based computer vision, the postdoc will develop an independent research program focused on the development of a data annotation system that integrates recently developed computer-vision algorithms for automatically detecting animals in camera-trap images. The postdoc will have opportunities to use existing camera trap datasets and collaborate with a broad network of researchers as part of projects such as the St. Louis Wildlife Project, the Urban Wildlife Information Network, and wildlife monitoring programs at Tyson Research Center.


Solny Adalsteinsson (solny.adalsteinsson@wustl.edu)
Staff Scientist, Tyson Research Center, Washington University

Nathan Jacobs (jacobsn@wustl.edu)
Professor, Computer Science & Engineering, Washington University in St. Louis

Microbiome connections to biodiversity conservation

The Ling Lab at Washington University in St. Louis welcomes applicants for a postdoctoral position to collaborate on research examining the relationships between host microbiomes and biodiversity conservation. The position will build on and extend the Ling group’s existing research exploring microbes’ roles in 1) Box turtle conservation in collaboration with Dr. Sharon Deem’s group at the Institute for Conservation Medicine in St. Louis Zoo, and/or 2) freshwater ecosystem regulation in collaboration with the Knouft Lab at Saint Louis University. Applicants with prior experience in environmental microbiology, genomics, and related areas are particularly encouraged to apply. Please contact Dr. Ling (fangqiong@wustl.edu) for more details about specific projects.

Ethnobotany and Paleoethnobotany of East Africa

Natalie Mueller (Washington University Anthropology; ngmueller@gmail.com) seeks a postdoctoral researcher with interests and experience in the ethnobotany and/or paleoethnobotany of eastern Africa. The researcher will work in collaboration with the William L. Brown Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden and regional herbaria in eastern Africato conduct ethnobotanical research while building a comparative collection for use in paleoethnobotanical analyses in this region. Eastern Africa is a contemporary hotspot of both biodiversity and agrobiodiversity. Archaeological and paleoecological research could shed light on the histories of human-mediated landscapes in this region. However, such research is currently stymied by a lack of comparative materials for identification of ancient plant remains. Potential projects could include conducting ethnobotanical and archaeological fieldwork, specimen collection and curation, building collaborations with regional herbaria and museums, and working on identifying and interpreting spreciems in existing archaeobotanical collections.  Preferred qualifications include: experience conducting ethnographic, botanical, or archaeological fieldwork in eastern Africa, fluency in one or more languages spoken in the region, experience in curation of biological or archaeological specimens.

Plant-Animal Interactions and Gene Flow in the Tropics

On a broad level, theory and empirical evidence agree that population genetic structure within plant species should be strongly impacted by the animal mutualists that disperse their genes via pollination and seed dispersal.  However, the specific impacts of different types of animals are still poorly understand, particularly for tropical ecosystems, which tend to have higher levels of pollinator diversity and ecological complexity than their temperate counterparts. Initial work  shows that pollination by hummingbirds and euglossine bees provide greater gene flow than small insects for six species in cloudforests of Ecuador.  How do other pollinator types impact gene flow, and how does seed dispersal layer into population genetic patterns? This project will generate and analyze population genomic data (radseq) and gather ecological data (on pollinators and seed dispersers) for tens of other species in these Ecuadorian cloudforests to refine our understanding of the impact of mutualists on gene flow.  As ecosystems around the world become increasingly more fragmented, such information will be vital to the conservation of plant species by highlighting the pollination and seed dispersal systems that will be most in danger to genetic declines in response to population fragmentation.

Contact information for project advisors:

Nathan Muchhala (muchhalan@umsl.edu)

Christy Edwards (Christine.Edwards@mobot.org)

Kenneth Olsen (kolsen@wustl.edu)

Detecting Historical Effects of Allopolyploidization on Grass Phylogeny, Geography, and Ecology


Toby Kellogg (ekellogg@danforthcenter.org) – Danforth Plant Science Center

Michael Landis (michael.landis@wustl.edu) – Washington University


The potential for species to adapt to new or changing ecological conditions is fundamentally linked to its genetics. While mutation is well-known as a source of novel genetic variants, genome doubling (polyploidization) is also a powerful force for instantly increasing the number of genes and amount of genetic variation for adaptation. When combined with hybridization, a process known as allopolyploidization, two disparate genomes are combined in a single organism potentially making it more evolutionarily labile when compared to its parental genomes. In other words, allopolyploidization events gather ‘raw material’ that may fuel major changes in species morphology, ecology, and/or biogeography. However, the complex process of allopolyploidy also poses challenges for standard analytical tools, which generally assume that species do not hybridize. 

Our proposed project will examine repeated instances of allopolyploidization in the grass tribe Andropogoneae (ca. 1200 spp.). Andropogoneae includes maize (a well-known tetraploid) and major prairie grasses, most of which are also polyploid. Because Andropogoneae grasslands cover over 15% of the Earth’s land surface, understanding their evolution and function is critically important for climate change models and conservation planning. The overarching goal of this project will be to identify and reconstruct cases where hybridization and allopolyploidization are likely to have triggered episodes of morphological, ecological, or geographical change. For these inferences, the postdoctoral fellow will have access to enormous and rich data sets that include high contiguity genomic sequences for 33 species, plastid genomes and nuclear genetic markers for 400+ species, and population-level genetic data for 10 wild and 2 agricultural species, along with geospatial data for temperature, precipitation, soil composition, fire conditions, and wind speed, and morphometric data that include digitized spikelet images and spikelet pair measurements. The postdoctoral fellow will also be encouraged to develop and deploy newer phylogenetic network methods to reconstruct relationships among lineages and reconstruct how traits evolve throughout networks. Ideal applicants will have a background in plant systematics, phylogenetics, population genetics, and/or computational modeling and methods, and will take a leading role in defining their project to best suit their strengths, interests, and career goals.