Think bigger, GBIF award winner urges biologists

Miguel Bastos Aráujo, Portuguese winner of the prestigious GBIF Ebbe Nielsen Prize for 2013, plans to build an 'Ecotron' experimental facility to test model predictions of the impacts of climate change on species distributions.

A scientist from Portugal designing large-scale experiments to uncover the processes behind patterns of species distribution is the 2013 winner of the prestigious Ebbe Nielsen Prize, awarded annually by the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).

Miguel Bastos Araújo will use the €30,000 prize towards developing an ‘Ecotron’ experimental facility to test predictions for how environmental change will affect the combination of species found in different locations – helping to inform conservation decisions.

The 2013 GBIF Young Researchers Award goes to a PhD student from Mexico, Emma Gomez-Ruiz, looking at bat ‘nectar corridors’ and a master’s student from France, Nathan Ranc, identifying data gaps to help target mobilization of new data through GBIF.

Araújo is a research scientist at the Spanish Research Council’s National Museum of Natural Sciences, and visiting professor at the University of Évora, Portugal, and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

In making the selection, the GBIF Science Committee recognized Araújo’s groundbreaking research in deploying biodiversity informatics to model and forecast environmental phenomena, specifically the effects of different climate change scenarios on regional and global biodiversity patterns.

Araújo believes the next step in improving our understanding impacts of climate change is to design ambitious experiments to test the predictions from theoretical models – observing how species actually respond to environmental change under controlled conditions.

He is currently creating a ‘mesocosm’ of 120 artificial ponds in various parts of Portugal and Spain to observe how species interact in various contrasting environments. These ponds will be exposed to different stresses like heat and drought to see how the species communities respond – simulating the impacts of climate change.

With the help of the GBIF prize, Araújo will develop a proposal for the €3m ‘Ecotron’, an artificial landscape designed to test mathematical models about the distribution of lizard species and how they may respond to change. It will consist of 48 chambers connected by corridors, in a fully controlled environment that will enable experiments on how lizards would distribute under different conditions. As well as climate, factors such as competition from other species and the presence of predators can be brought into these experiments.

Miguel Araújo believes ecologists have been thinking too small in the science they are doing. "In order to answer these big questions that we are facing, and that society is demanding us to answer, we need to think bigger. We need to work collaboratively, with big networks, and the budgets that we need to be aiming for are comparable to what the physicists and astrophysicists are getting.

It's difficult to understand why so much money has been given to try to figure out if there is life on other planets, and so little money has been spent to understand life on our own planet.

The Science Committee also announced the two winners of the €4,000 Young Researchers Award, which fosters innovative research and discovery by graduate students at universities in countries participating in the GBIF network.

Emma Gomez-Ruiz, a Mexican PhD student currently based at Texas A&M University in the United States, plans to map the ‘nectar corridor’, the migratory path of the endangered Mexican long-nosed bat(Leptonycteris nivalis), using models derived from GBIF-mediated data. The nectar-feeding bats follow agave blooms during their annual migration from central Mexico to the southern United States, and are important pollinators for several plant species. Gomez-Ruiz aims to improve understanding of the corridor including the effects of climate change, to support conservation of the species.

Nathan Ranc, a French master’s student at Stockholm University in Sweden, will assess biases in GBIF-mediated data by comparing records for 269 mammal species in the Mediterranean region, available through the GBIF network, with a database that he plans to draw up independently. Ranc’s project, in association with La Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, will help design data mobilization strategies by identifying species and areas for which there is little available data.

Photo:Miguel Bastos Araújo, winner of the 2013 Ebbe Nielsen Prize. Credit: Ciprian Vizitiu, GBIF


The Ebbe Nielsen Prize was established by the GBIF Governing Board to honour the memory of Dr Ebbe Schmidt Nielsen, who was an inspirational leader in the fields of biosystematics and biodiversity informatics.The prize is awarded annually to a promising researcher, usually in the early stages of his/her career, who is combining biosystematics and biodiversity informatics research in an exciting and novel way.The nominations are submitted by GBIF Participants to the GBIF Science Committee, which selects the recipient. The prize is awarded each year at the GBIF Governing Board meeting. It consists of 30,000 Euros, to be used by the recipient to further his/her research. For past winners, visit this page.

The Young Researchers Award (YRA) is an annual award aimed at graduate students from countries participating in the GBIF network. The objective of the award is to foster innovative research and discovery in biodiversity informatics, and to stimulate use of the data made accessible through GBIF. For past winners, visit this page.