UW News

October 17, 2023

UW’s Briana Abrahms chosen as a Packard Fellow for 2023

UW News

Briana Abrahms uses an antenna to pick up signals from GPS-collared predators in Botswana.David Bessenhoffer/University of Washington

Briana Abrahms, a University of Washington assistant professor of biology and researcher with the UW Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, has been named a 2023 Packard Fellow for Science and Engineering, according to an Oct. 16 announcement from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. As one of 20 new fellows across the country, Abrahms, who holds the Boersma Endowed Chair in Natural History and Conservation, will receive $875,000 over five years for her research.

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Learn more about Briana Abrahms’ research on climate change and human-wildlife conflicts in Africa here

Keep up with the Abrahms group’s research here

Abrahms studies how wildlife across the globe are changing behaviors in response to human-caused environmental change. Her research probes both the specific causes and consequences of behavioral changes, like altering migration routes, pursuing different food sources and changing the timing of important life events, such as breeding. She is particularly interested in how climate change is bringing large animals — from whales to lions — into more frequent contact with people. Abrahms and her team have shown that climate change is increasing human-wildlife conflicts globally.

“While we know that climate change is having profound impacts on both ecological and human communities, there is very little understanding of how these effects interact with one another,” said Abrahms. “The Packard Fellowship will allow my research group to push the boundaries of ecology to understand how species’ responses to environmental change are creating unforeseen feedbacks in the complex socio-ecological systems in which we all live.”

Two African wild dog pups playing. Abrahms’ research has shown that climate change is affecting when these wild canines are breeding.Peter Blinston

For her research, Abrahms incorporates data from diverse sources — including government databases, studies by other research groups and field studies by her own team. Some examples include:

  • Using GPS collars to track the movements of large predators in Botswana, including African wild dogs and lions, to understand how environmental conditions shape their behavior and interactions
  • Analyzing large, complex datasets on predator demographics collected by the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels that show the impacts of climate change, such as four decades of data on Magellanic penguins in Argentina
  • Analyzing data on specific types of human-wildlife interactions, such as whale-ship collisions off the U.S. West Coast, and how these are affected by changing environmental conditions

By analyzing these diverse sources of data and modeling animal behavior, Abrahms and her team have started to pinpoint the causes and consequences of wildlife responses to environmental change and open the door to developing mitigation efforts. For example, Abrahms collaborated on a project to create an online tool that alerts shipping vessels in California’s Santa Barbara Channel and the San Francisco Bay Area if there are whales nearby so that they may avoid collisions.

Magellanic penguins at a large summer breeding colony in Punta Tombo, Argentina. Using data collected by her collaborators at the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, Abrahms has studied how both short- and long-term climate trends have shaped this population over four decades.

Studying animals’ different ecosystems can also help scientists try to understand which species may be able to adapt to rapidly changing environmental conditions, which ones may struggle, and why. These studies can alert conservationists to species or ecosystems in need of interventions against specific climate change hazards.

More recently, Abrahms and her team have started to develop new methods for sorting and analyzing large datasets. One project, for example, uses AI tools to help classify behavior from “bio-loggers” — collars that collect behavioral data — as part of ongoing efforts to study climate change impacts on large carnivores in Botswana. Her group is also leading expanded efforts to map whale-ship collision risk globally, especially as whale migration routes and feeding behaviors shift due to climate change.

For more information, contact Abrahms at abrahms@uw.edu.