Jonathon Stillman has a window on a warmer future. Hundreds of small
crabs are providing the view.
Inside the University's Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies,
Stillman is uncovering clues about climate change by studying the porcelain
crab. By testing its physiological responses to varying air and water
temperatures, he has shown that some species can adjust to these changes
more than others.
"For some animals high on shore, their heat tolerance is right
at their limit so small changes would impact them. If the temperature
rises 2 degrees Celsius, they won't be able to survive," Stillman
Warmer temperatures would force these species to migrate to lower ground
where they would face other challenges. "These animals that have
evolved to live in higher regions have done so to escape predation,
so if they move lower they could be preyed upon more," Stillman
says. "We might find changes in latitudinal range distributions,
species moving northward and other populations localizing southward."
Meanwhile, he has found that species dwelling in cooler climates would
be better equipped to survive global warming.
With funding from the National Science Foundation and by the Joint Genome
Institute, Stillman and his students are studying how crab genes are
regulated. "We're looking at the thermal performance of these organisms,"
Stillman says. "When it changes, what's happening in their cells?
"We're building a really integrative picture of the activity of
genes, looking at the level of genetic regulation through the organism's
physiology to ecological responses to changes in climate."
Graduate student Eric Galassi says that working in Stillman's lab has
given him firsthand knowledge of molecular physiology techniques. "Jonathon
is very different from typical professors," he says. "He prefers
to teach by providing guidelines for a project and allowing the students
to perform everything independently, while he offers assistance. This
is a very beneficial experience … students can directly learn
the procedures of actual research."