John Berini, University of Minnesota Ph.D. student and Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellow, connects the declining rates of moose in Minnesota with climate change in his research.
In his dissertation, entitled "Climate Cascade: Linking Temperature, Phytochemistry, and Vertebrate Demographics," Berini investigates how increasing temperatures and changes in forage quality in northeastern Minnesota may be impacting changes in the feeding and behavior of large, mammalian herbivores, such as moose. These changes in habitat-use behavior, in turn, may affect population growth on a landscape scale.
"There is an urgent need to develop a mechanistic understanding of how animals interact with changing landscapes," Berini says. He is interested in using controlled warming studies to research the effect of climate change on the chemical composition of plants, and discover how these changes will directly impact the animals that depend on plants for food.
The Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship gives Berini, a large-mammal ecologist, an opportunity to work with individuals studying forest ecology, plant physiology and climate change science. Working with scientists from a diverse range of fields will broaden his perspective and allow him to conduct more impactful research, he says.
Berini, who is one of seven children, was born in Florida and raised in a small town in rural Ohio. When he was 19, he joined the U.S. Air Force to pay for college. He completed six years of service before attending the University of Minnesota, where he received a bachelor's of science in conservation biology, making him the first member of his family to obtain a college degree.
As an undergraduate, Berini took the time to explore his broad academic interests, which included fish genomics, sustainable agriculture and wildlife management. "I forced myself to volunteer for a different lab each year as a way to gain exposure and experience to these different areas of interests," he says.
With Drs. David Mech and Dan MacNulty, he investigated how the winter habitat preferences of American bison in Yellowstone National Park's Pelican Valley changed due to the presence or absence of wolves. They discovered that when wolves were present in the valley, bison tended to use larger and less isolated habitat patches, likely because such areas allowed them to better defend themselves. His undergraduate work led him to pursue a master's degree in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, where he continued to study bison habitat use in Yellowstone.
When applying for graduate school, Berini considered the needs of his wife, a physician, and his seven-year-old son. He returned to the U for his Ph.D. after hearing of a new faculty member, James Forester of the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, whose research interests aligned with his own. Forester, like Berini, is interested in animal movement ecology, quantitative landscape ecology, and exploring how large, mammalian herbivores react to landscape changes.
Berini loves research and teaching, and hopes to find an academic position that would allow him to do both. He would like to continue his current research, which provides valuable insight into the reasons behind the moose population decrease.
"By linking temperature, phytochemistry [the study of the chemical composition of plants], and vertebrate demographics, my current research efforts will better define the mechanistic relationship between climate change and population decline in the moose of northeastern Minnesota," Berini says.