CELS professor transitions from studying ‘sky islands’ to oceanic islands

Photo submitted by Chris Floyd

KINGSTON, R.I. – December 19, 2016 – University of Rhode Island Associate Professor Chris Floyd has long been interested in the ecology of island populations of wildlife. But until he arrived in Kingston this fall, the islands he studied were not surrounded by water.

Instead, his studies have been on “sky islands” – small mountain ranges where animals living at high-elevations are isolated from populations on other mountain ranges.

Floyd’s research has focused primarily on yellow-bellied marmots, close relatives of woodchucks that live at high elevations in western North America. Most of his studies have taken place in the Great Basin of Nevada, where dozens of small mountain ranges are surrounded by desert lowlands, which reduces the likelihood that a mountain-dwelling species would travel from one range to the next.

“Marmots have presumably been isolated in these small mountain ranges for 10,000 years,” Floyd said, “so you’d think they would have very inbred populations. But my genetic work indicates that marmots occasionally cross the desert valleys and are genetically connected with marmots on other ranges.”

He has begun seeking out marmots living at the lower margins of the mountain ranges to learn how their ecological requirements may differ from those at higher elevations.

“Marmots are thought of as cold-adapted, heat-sensitive species,” Floyd said. “They are extinct in some of the mountain ranges in Nevada, but I have found that populations documented at low elevation sites 70 years ago are still persisting despite considerable warming during that period…[Read more]