Researcher profile: Tobias Andermann
Every creature and plant on Earth makes up the biodiversity of the planet. Ever since humans made their mark on the world, biodiversity has been in decline. The reasons for this are many, but our use of the land/sea and exploitation of natural resources are among the strongest drivers of biodiversity loss. Whenever humans cut down forests to grow crops or food for animals, or dry a wetland to mine peat, the wildlife loses space to live in. In other words, the habitat is lost. Habitat loss can also occur from changes due to a warming climate.
Can the loss of biodiversity be quantified? Can we find out how fast it is going and how this rate of decline compares to previous extinction events in the Earth’s history? These are questions that Tobias Andermann wants to find the answer to.
“I was always interested in natural sciences and in observing the natural world”, he says. Then he learned about evolution in school and found that he wanted to learn more about the underlying processes.
“It was not until my graduate studies that I fully comprehended the scale of the current biodiversity crisis”, he continues. “I also discovered that there is a big gap in our understanding of how bad this crisis really is. How can we most efficiently fill these gaps in our understanding? We need quick solutions, because time is working against us.”
Computers make their entrance
To attack this problem, Tobias turned to an old interest, computers.
“During my studies I developed quite an obsession with programming and working with big data”, he says. “This has turned me from a general biologist into a computational biologist. It turns out there is a lot to add to our understanding of biodiversity based on data that already exists, by analyzing and visualizing them in novel ways. In particular, machine learning models offer unprecedented possibilities to detect patterns in large heterogenous datasets and help us understand the spatial and temporal dynamics of biodiversity”.
The most interesting thing he has discovered so far is based on taking a deeper look into data that have been accumulated by researchers over the last 100 years. When he analyzed data on mammal fossils and reconstructed their extinction dates, he was astonished how large of an impact humans have on the natural world and how it even stands out when looking at geological time scales of hundreds of millions of years. When he compared prehistoric extinction rates with the current rate, he discovered that the current rate is about 2000 times elevated compared to natural levels. If you also take into account the damage done to still living species and model their extinction probability, the expected rate of extinction by the end of the century will be even 10 000 times higher than before humans entered the picture. So, while extinctions are a natural process, they are currently happening at a rate that is comparable to that of the five big mass extinctions in Earth history, such as the one leading to the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs.
He stresses though, that nature is resilient and that populations can recover when conservation policies and other measures are being put into place to manage this crisis. We have seen several positive examples of this, but it is crucial that we set aside sufficiently large areas with a biodiversity conservation priority to allow species to recover. The decision by the UN to protect 30% of all surface area, resulting from the COP15 meeting in Montreal last year, is a big step in the right direction.
Scientist not an ordinary job
When asked what advice he has for a young person who wants to be a scientist, he says that you should follow your interest, but to use it more like a compass rather than a strict roadmap. “Try to be flexible and seize promising opportunities (e.g., thesis projects or research positions) that open up to you, even if these are not exactly what you had in mind. Once you are in charge of a research project or in a new position, shape it as much as possible into the direction of your interest.” Further, he says: “Be aware that being a scientist is not like a conventional job. It demands more of your time and energy. However, it is very interesting and has upsides in terms of freedom and flexibility”, he continues. “And finally, my advice is to never forget that there are more ways of experiencing the world than through a strict scientific perspective. Maintain relationships, read literature, and have hobbies outside of science.”, he says.
When he is not working, he likes to spend time with his wife. He also likes beer brewing, boardgames, hiking and going on runs, but can also enjoy to relax at home with a good movie or a game of Civilization.