Michael Belitz wins 2021 GBIF Young Researchers Award

PhD candidate from the United States earns selection for linking new analytical approaches aimed at advancing understanding of phenological impacts of climate change

Michael Belitz, PhD candidate at the University of Florida and 2021 GBIF Young Researchers Award winner. Photo by Jeff Gage/Florida Museum of Natural History.

Michael Belitz, a PhD candidate at the University of Florida and the Florida Natural History Museum, has been named one of two winners of the 2021 Young Researchers Award during the 28th meeting of the GBIF Governing Board.

An expert jury has recognized Belitz, who was nominated by the GBIF United States delegation, for his data-intensive investigation of analyses and workflows that improve modelling predictions of the effect of climate change on the timing and frequency of insect reproduction.

Shifts in phenology—the periodic or seasonal timing of biological events—already represent a highly visible effect of global-scale climate change, as with earlier flowering plants. Insects, which are critically important across food webs, are particularly sensitive to changes in phenology, in part because their development is highly dependent on temperature. However, in-depth knowledge of insect phenology is geographically and taxonomically limited.

Belitz's research will explore a well-known group—butterflies of North America's eastern temperate forests—and use GBIF-mediated occurrence data to develop statistical methodologies for estimating their voltinism, or annual number of broods, a key phenological trait of insect reproduction. His first step involves modelling the timing and frequency of insect reproduction—an approach building on previous research that applies inferred-absence occupancy models in estimating population trends.

Reconfigured to express values of seasonal abundance such as brood emergence, peak dates and termination, these models in turn provide the basis for a deep-learning algorithm, trained on more structured (but less abundant) butterfly survey data, that leverages GBIF-mediated occurrences to infer temporal presences and absences. When combined with trait data, this workflow automates the assembly of insect phenology models that predict annual broods and changing trends in seasonal abundance while supporting further investigation, particularly when combined with field studies in areas projected to see an increase in voltinism.

"There have been tremendous efforts to advance statistical approaches that use inferred absence models to examine the distribution and occupancy of species, but these approaches have been less explored in phenological research," said Belitz. "By drawing upon these approaches to ask questions about the interaction between phenological traits and global change previously unanswerable with incidental data, I hope those monitoring both insects of conservation concern and agricultural pests alike can put the framework to immediate use."

"Mike Belitz is among the very best and brightest graduate students I have advised in over 20 years of PhD mentoring," said Robert Guralnick, curator at the Florida Museum at the University of Florida. "He is equally comfortable doing challenging field work, developing statistical estimates or writing code, and the techniques he's developing for using sparse, presence-only data from digitized specimens and community science to estimate complex, real-world phenological events holds promises for ecology and the broader life and physical sciences."

"Mike is a truly collaborative and innovative researcher with a rare aptitude for biodiversity informatics research that straddles global change and cyberinfrastructure development," said Leslie Ries, associate professor of of Biology at Georgetown University. "Given his aptitudes and interests, I expect his research will produce important computational and methodological breakthroughs that serve the wider community."

Belitz is the fourth U.S. national to win the award, following the most recent recipient, Vaughn Shirey. Belitz, Shirey and another previous winner, Vijay Barve, co-authored research published in January 2021 that relied on data from the GBIF network to analyse the inventory of occurrence data on North American butterflies.

Belitz shares the 2021 award with Julen Torrens Baile of the University of Navarra in Spain, and both winners will receive a €5,000 prize.

About the Award

Since its inception in 2010, the annual GBIF Young Researchers Award has sought to promote and encourage innovation in biodiversity-related research using data shared through the GBIF network.

About the Florida Museum of Natural History

The Florida Museum of Natural History is a leading authority in biodiversity and cultural heritage, using its expertise to advance knowledge, solve real world problems, and impact public policy and perception. Learn more.

About the University of Florida

The University of Florida (Florida, or UF) is a U.S. public land-grant research university in Gainesville. UF is home to 16 academic colleges and more than 150 research centers and institutes and administers 123 master's degree programs and 76 doctoral degree programs in eighty-seven schools and departments. Learn more >

Jury for 2021 Young Researchers Award