‘I always wanted to be the next Dian Fossey, Birutė Galdikas or Jane Goodall’

19 Jun 2019

Dr Ilona Naujokaitis-Lewis. Image: Environment and Climate Change Canada

Research scientist Dr Ilona Naujokaitis-Lewis is closely monitoring how species are responding to the developing climate emergency.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in biology and environmental science from Trent University, Dr Ilona Naujokaitis-Lewis spent two years in the Peruvian Amazon to track a species of titi monkey.

She followed this by completing a master’s degree at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and, after a stint working for a non-profit, returned to academia to complete a PhD on how the climate emergency and habitat loss influence long-distance migratory bird species.

She is now a research scientist working for Environment and Climate Change Canada.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Spending time in the Peruvian Amazon studying monkeys with a small team of scientists was life-changing. It was a pretty mind-blowing experience to achieve one of my childhood dreams of studying primates.

I had always wanted to be the next Dian Fossey, Birutė Galdikas or Jane Goodall. To be able to experience and get to know a place of such incredible biodiversity definitely informed my decision to pursue research. Interestingly, that experience sparked a whole new set of research interests.

I found myself asking questions like, ‘In what ways are species and ecosystems being affected by human activities? How do we make sure that natural ecosystems and biodiversity hotspots are protected and conserved into the future? How can we plan for biodiversity conservation in an era of global change?’

I think this experience was really the catalyst for my current research directions. While I continue to do ecological research that is much more applied in focus, my research is motivated by a need to act and to find solutions to complex environmental problems.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

A main part of my research focuses on understanding how species will respond to future climate change and other stresses, such as habitat loss. To do this, I look at how recent historical climate change influences native bees, birds and butterflies.

Studying the past can give us a lens into the future as this gives us a better understanding of how species are responding to climate change, and how and why different species are vulnerable this threat. I combine data I collect in the field with citizen science observations, and use statistical and simulation modelling to address the question of how can we improve our predictions of species’ responses to climate change.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Canada is warming at a rate approximately two times greater than the global average and this is already having a substantial impact on wildlife species and their habitats. Many species are already vulnerable and many more are going to be climate-threatened if the pace of climate change continues.

Nature-based solutions – such as conserving and protecting large intact natural ecosystems – is one essential strategy that can help prevent species extinctions, the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. As one example, having intact forested landscapes is one way to have habitat for many species. This can help us both adapt to climate change and mitigate some of its consequences via carbon sequestration.

My research contributes to understanding species and ecosystem vulnerability to climate change and then translates this knowledge into the identification of actions that can inform conservation of these species.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

We are living in an era where human activity is accelerating the extinction rates of plants and animals, and there is widespread destruction of habitats such as rainforests and coral reefs.

Some scientists are calling this the sixth extinction event – or the Anthropocene extinction – where the root cause is human activity. At times, it can be challenging to not feel despair in our situation and in the world we are leaving for the generations to come.

I do believe that, collectively, we can change our course. It is critical to remain hopeful and, perhaps more importantly, to act now and do the work that is needed to steer our trajectory in a different direction. Having a positive vision of the future can provide some hope and is also why my research is focused on providing some solutions to these grand challenges we are facing.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

One of the common misconceptions is that the amount of uncertainty about future climate change makes it impossible to plan biodiversity conservation when there are so many unknowns.

There can be many sources of uncertainties in climate change vulnerability models, including spatial or temporal resolution of the data used, and even in our models of wildlife species distributions and their population dynamics. At the same time, there are ways to account for uncertainties in our modelling so that outcomes – such as a decision aimed at conserving a species – are robust to uncertainties.

We can also consider multiple lines of evidence during climate change risk assessments and conservation decision-making. Finding agreement across different approaches can increase our confidence in the outcomes. I think it is important not to be paralysed by uncertainties but to understand and account for it in rigorous ways.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I think research that improves our understanding of the cumulative impacts of multiple threats – such as climate change and habitat loss on wildlife species – will be key.

In addition, moving from understanding threats and translating this into on-the-ground conservation actions is an indispensable piece of applied research. Using approaches like decision science that link ecological information and knowledge to inform actions aimed at conserving biodiversity is one essential research approach that can help with this.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.