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UAlbany Biologist to Develop Framework for Biodiversity Conservation Project in Central Africa

UAlbany biologist Mary Katherine Gonder is renowned for inferring the genetic histories of chimpanzees and humans. (Rob Spring Photography)

ALBANY, N.Y. (December 17, 2012) – University at Albany biologist Mary Katherine Gonder will conduct an international biodiversity conservation project in Central Africa. In collaboration with the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) program, Gonder will develop an evolutionarily-informed framework for protecting Central African biodiversity under climate change, while grounding the results in the socioeconomic realities of the region.

Gonder with people in a Cameroon Village

Gonder at a camp in a Cameroon village.

Gonder will lead twenty undergraduate U.S. and African students to improve biodiversity conservation strategies in Central Africa, a region expected to experience drastic changes as global climate continues to warm. The project unites 150 senior investigators, junior researchers and students from the U.S., Africa, and Europe in a common research and education plan centered in Gabon and Cameroon.

While Gonder is renowned for inferring the genetic histories of chimpanzees and humans, this new research aims to improve biodiversity prediction and conservation strategies in Central Africa. Her work is highly collaborative and occurs within a diverse, international network that includes academic researchers, conservation professionals and decision-makers.

In support of this initiative, Gonder received a $975,868 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).  She is a co-principal investigator, along with Nicola Anthony of the University of New Orleans. Thomas B. Smith of the University of California, Los Angeles, is the principal investigator.  The funding is part of a $4.95 million five-year grant awarded through the NSF’s PIRE program.

Using new genetic technology, biological data, and environmental data to identify hotspots of biodiversity and determine how they are likely to change as the climate changes, PIRE will contribute to conservation planning in Central Africa. The project includes studies of multiple species, including plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

Gonder will also conduct research to identify hotspots of biological diversity in chimpanzees and in a flowering plant that constitutes up to 30 percent of the annual diet of chimpanzees. She will work with socio-economists as they assess conservation potential near hotspots by mapping local socioeconomic trends. Participants will also conduct interviews with local people to understand how conservation action in the hotspots will affect their lives, which will assist policy makers with conservation planning.

“The rainforests of the Congo Basin and Gulf of Guinea are among the most important centers of biological diversity in the world, harboring roughly 20 percent of all known species of plants and animals,” said Gonder. “The future of the rich biodiversity of this region is in peril. UAlbany is proud to play a substantial role in this project.”

Gonder’s students will visit several sites across Gabon and Cameroon, including sites near the Sanaga River in Cameroon, where she made the discovery that two subspecies of chimps had separated.

According to Gonder, chimpanzees are threatened by the loss of their habitat to farming and logging. They are hunted for their meat and live chimpanzees are traded on the black market. “Their population numbers have plummeted by over 75 percent in just a half century. Only about 150,000 chimpanzees remain in Africa today,” said Gonder.

The project will provide workshops for young African scientists, advanced graduate students and post-docs, with the goal of helping U.S. and African students and scientists develop research networks to address conservation issues using a variety of new technologies. Workshops will be offered by scientists on the project and by project partners working with the Committee on the Advancement of Women Chemists (COACh), an organization that provides mentoring and support to women scientists worldwide.

Learn more about the Department of Biological Sciences.

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