Nelson and the Bear Project
By Madison Irving
Does climate change affect black bear growth? A study at the University of Memphis, involving five to six hundred black bear skulls from all over the western United States and southern Canada, has set out to prove that it does. It appears that the size of bears correlate to the climate conditions in the range where the bear lived. Using skulls kept in natural historymuseums, researchers have not only been able to study familial relationships between bears but they have also found that the bears tend to be larger where the climate is colder. The additional goal of the study is to determine whether climate change and specifically global warming is causing changes in black bear growth.
Global warming is an issue that has intrigued Dr. John Nelson, an environmental studies teacher at Bethel University, for a long time. Nelson received his doctorate from University of Memphis and has kept in touch with a mentor at U of M, Dr. Michael Kennedy. Kennedy, knowing Nelson’s involvement in the study of global warming, asked him to come on board for the bear project in order to create a connection between global warming and its effects on wildlife. There have been many studies done before of the same nature so they are using past data as well as data they have collected themselves. As new information comes in it is sent over to Nelson for analysis. “No evidence is in hand yet, but warmer temperatures are bound to have some effect. What is unknown now is what the ultimate effects will be on each species. I am not real familiar with the scientific literature that deals with temperature effects on wildlife, but my own dissertation research showed that high temperatures do put a stress on females that are carrying young in the womb. And those youngsters showed the stress in minute levels of asymmetrical development in skull structures”, explained Nelson.
Doing a project like this is bound to take a lot of time and effort, but Nelson seems to pack it all in. “The time that I will spend on the project will largely be determined by my course load at Bethel University. Right now the Biology Department is severely overloaded. In the current semester the 5 full-time faculty members taught the equivalent of 9 faculty positions. It will probably turn out that I spend lots of time during breaks and weekends working these kinds of projects.” This project is very important to Nelson, as he explained, “the project will give me a chance to get re-involved with wildlife research. It is also a project that will allow researchers a chance to potentially show that global warming is real, and that it is having real, and measurable effects on the wildlife in our country.”
Dr. Kennedy is applying for and hopes to receive a grant from the National Science Foundation in order to create a research program that operates to create a connectiondirectly from Bethel University to the program at U of M. Unfortunately, due to the large number of projects currently underway and the limited grant funds available, it may be difficult to receive funding. A project of this nature would make it possible for students at Bethel to participate in research and analysis outside of text books and the classroom curriculum, giving them valuable hands-on experience.