NTNU researchers have been studying house sparrows to discover which factors determine the chance of an island population becoming extinct or not.Foto: Thomas Kvalnes, NTNU

Prestigious EU support to save species

An NTNU professor has been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant to investigate how species can survive a changing environment.

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded a prestigious EUR 2.5 million Advanced Grant to Professor Bernt-Erik Sæther at the Department of Biology at NTNU.

The five-year grant goes to learn more about how we can save species that are in danger of becoming extinct.

“The aim is to develop rules of thumb to identify what is needed to prevent a species from dying out in an area in the short term. At the same time, we must ensure that a population’s ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions is permanent over time,” says Sæther.

Species rapidly dying out

The extinction of species is one of the biggest challenges humanity now faces, Sæther said. Species are disappearing to an extent that has hardly happened before in Earth’s history. Since species are the building blocks of all ecosystems on earth, the consequences are great when species die out quickly.

Professor Bernt-Erik Sæther. Photo: Per Henning, NTNU

“The ecosystem services we enjoy from the natural world that we all depend on are in danger of being lost,” Sæther said.

Sæther’s five-year project is called Eco-Evolutionary Rescue of Fragmented Populations (EcoEvoRescue).

European Research Council grants

• The European Research Council (ERC) was established by the EU in 2007 and is the leading European funding organization for outstanding research. Every year, the ERC funds the very best, creative researchers to run projects based in Europe.
• The ERC grants are divided into: Starting, Consolidator, Advanced and Synergy Grants.
• ERC has been part of the Horizon 2020 programme, It continues as part of the framework program Horizon Europe.

Human activity main reason

Species die out mainly due to environmental changes caused by various forms of human activity.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has identified these main causes in priority order:

• Changed land use, such as clear-cutting of forests and drainage of marshes to make room for agriculture, industry and housing for an ever-increasing human population.

• Second worst is the direct exploitation of nature’s many species, from hunting and overfishing to gathering firewood.

• Next comes climate change, ahead of pollution and alien species spreading into areas where they do not belong.

Relies on mathematical models and house sparrows

Sæther and his group will use advanced mathematical models to describe the viability of house sparrow populations on islands along the Helgeland coast.

Researchers at NTNU have worked here since the early 1990s. They have detailed knowledge of almost all house sparrow individuals found within a large geographical area.

They will use this model system to uncover which factors determine the chance of an island population becoming extinct or not.

“Using advanced molecular genetic techniques, we can also construct pedigrees for several tens of thousands of house sparrows in this system, Sæther said.

The researchers will use this information to figure out which characteristics make some individuals better than others at passing on their genes to subsequent generations.

House sparrows in a tree

The house sparrow population on the Helgeland coast has been studied in great detail for decades. Photo: Henrik Jensen, NTNU

Very comprehensive analysis

Researchers rarely have control over almost all individuals of a species within a large geographic area.

“This makes this project one of the most comprehensive analyses of Darwin’s basic theory of evolution through natural selection that has ever been carried out in a wild population,” Sæther said.

These results will in turn be used to understand how quickly animals and birds can adapt to changed environmental conditions, and thus survive.

Long-term investment pays off

This interdisciplinary EU project is the result of a long-term investment in this type of research at NTNU.

“If we manage to get the ground-breaking results we are aiming for, this will undoubtedly be important for drawing up concrete measures that can reduce the extent of the natural crisis also on a global level,” Sæther said.

The project is therefore an important part of the Gjærevoll Centre for Foresight Analyses of Biodiversity. This multidisciplinary research centre was established by NTNU to ensure a green transition and sustainable development.

An overall aim of the centre is to form an arena for the rapid implementation of top basic research into practical management. This EU-funded project will help make this possible.