From muddy boots to mathematics: Advancing the science of ecosystems and biodiversity

Written by
Morgan Kelly, Princeton Environmental Institute
Aug. 14, 2020

Princeton’s vital research across the spectrum of environmental issues is today and will continue to be pivotal to solving some of humanity’s toughest problems. Our impact is built on a long, deep, broad legacy of personal commitment, intellectual leadership, perseverance and innovation. This article is part of a series to present the sweep of Princeton’s environmental excellence over the past half-century.

Captivated by birds at a young age, David Wilcove was in grade school when he became aware of the precipitous decline in the population of birds such as peregrine falcons and bald eagles, both victims of pesticide contamination.

“That triggered within me a desire to do what I could to protect wildlife populations and the natural ecosystems in which they live,” Wilcove, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs and the Princeton Environmental Institute, recalled.

Wilcove joined the Princeton faculty in 2001, becoming part of a remarkable legacy of scholars who, particularly during the past half-century, have been at the forefront of understanding and preserving ecosystems and biodiversity. Unfortunately, the challenge of protecting Earth’s natural systems is now more urgent than ever.

While laws protecting birds and banning certain pesticides ultimately allowed the iconic birds of Wilcove’s youth to recover, the world is now undergoing the largest mass extinction to occur since the end of the dinosaurs. This accelerated loss of plant and animal species — known as the sixth mass extinction — is driven by human activity. At least 25% of the world’s mammals and 12% of birds are threatened with extinction, Wilcove said.

“Around the world, we’re seeing natural ecosystems being destroyed or developed in ways that diminish their ability to sustain life and to provide important services for humanity,” said Wilcove, whose research focuses on habitat restoration, the wildlife trade, and the effect of climate change and human activity on species.

“We need healthy ecosystems for us to maintain a healthy life,” he said. “We can’t exist in a world that consists solely of cornfields and cities.”

Fortunately, we have more conceptual and technological tools than ever to get this right. From mathematical models and gene sequencing, to climate models and satellites, the study of biodiversity has expanded during the past 50 years to consider and capture the structure and interconnectedness of living systems.

Many of the tools and theories scientists use in the lab and field today have their roots at Princeton. Princeton scientists continue to lead the way in applying new techniques to the study of natural systems, modeling the dynamics that govern all systems, and studying how species behave and respond to their environment in ways that can be used for conservation.