Faculty Research Lecture Event

Due to the coronavirus threat, the Faculty Research Lecture will be rescheduled for fall 2020. The event page will be updated once the new date has been set.

The 54th Annual Faculty Research Lecture will be given by Professor Terrie M. Williams, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the Music Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Complex.

Touching Extinction: Biological Achilles' heels and the survival of big, fierce animals

The rate of animal extinctions has accelerated in recent years, such that the calculated average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is 72-100 times greater than expected from natural background rates.  As field biologists, we are now witness to the underlying mechanisms driving this sixth mass extinction during our scientific lifetimes. This affords a unique opportunity to predict, and perhaps even alter, the paths leading to further accelerated species loss. In this talk, Professor Williams will examine how evolutionary processes in animal design conspire with modern human-derived pressures to challenge the survival of marine-living mammals. Marked biological modifications that once allowed ancient mammals to transition from land to the sea not only represent remarkable benefits, they also provide insights into biological vulnerability (Biological Achilles’ heels) to the growing presence of humans on global landscapes.

Professor Williams, and her students and colleagues have found that the most recently evolved marine mammals, represented by polar bears and sea otters, incur higher costs for locomotion and thermoregulation than marine species from older lineages as represented by cetaceans and manatees.  Fur insulation and paddling forms of swimming leaves marine bears and otters vulnerable to the impacts of catastrophic oil spills. While extreme specialization for aquatic thermoregulation, swimming, and deep-diving by species such as cetaceans avoids these problems, such extreme body designs can lead to increased susceptibility to environmental disturbance including extreme temperature changes and oceanic noise. Thus, preventing extinctions will depend on species-specific solutions based on the recognition of how animals were originally built to survive.