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Integrated animal model answers questions about environment

MADISON - Birds were dying on an island off the coast of Florida, and people didn't know why. A group of conservationists wondered if the culprit might be a pesticide sprayed into the air to wipe out mosquitoes. The explanation quickly came from an unlikely source in Wisconsin.

For several years, Warren Porter, a professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been working with faculty and staff across campus to develop a computer model that could predict how animals, living on a real landscape anywhere on Earth, would respond to specific changes in the environment. The model could answer questions, such as how warmer temperatures would alter the activity patterns of squirrels in southern California or how removing the forest canopy in Yellowstone National Park would affect the elk that took cover under it during winter.

"If we fail to answer questions like these, we will continue to lose species - and their genomes, the biological libraries that have accumulated information for billions of years - from this planet," says Porter.

But many of the models that had been designed to address ecological concerns, he adds, were inadequate: They didn't take into account the complexity of factors involved in the interaction between animals and their environment. To achieve a more sufficient model, Porter needed to integrate animal morphology, physiology and behavior with features of the climate, topography and vegetation of a particular area.

"Models are always an approximation to reality," he explains. "You design them to ask specific questions. As the questions become more complex, the models become more complex. As computers have gained more power, we have been able to continue to add complexity and to solve very difficult problems."

At the heart of Porter's integrated model is an understanding of energy transfer between animals and their surroundings. For instance, the animal's physical properties - body size, fur
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Contact: Warren Porter
wporter@mhub.zoology.wisc.edu
608-262-1719
University of Wisconsin-Madison
29-Jan-2004


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