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Why Study Stoneflies? Climate Change Biologist Scott Hotaling Explains

Scott Hotaling
Courtesy Idea Festival
Scott Hotaling

Our climate is changing, and that means that some organisms will likely change with it. That’s the research focus of climate change biologist Scott Hotaling, who will present at the Idea Festival in Louisville this week.

Hotaling is a postdoctoral researcher at Washington State University who studies organisms like polar fishes and stoneflies who live in glacier meltwater. As climate change affects these habitats, Hotaling’s research focuses on whether the genomes of these species evolve to adapt to warmer water.

Listen to our conversation in the player above.

On searching for a single gene that may be evolving in a species due to climate change:

“What we’re trying to figure out is, if you take the entire genome which is the template for everything these stoneflies, the template for everything we do, our genome, our behavior, our hair color, our eye color,  everything about us, and you look across it, huge swaths of that genome, most of it, we’ll say 99 percent, is not going to have anything to do with surviving warmer conditions. But some of it might. Finding the thing that is associated with thermal tolerance in a stonefly that’s never been studied that lives in the meltwater of a glacier is a pretty big challenge.”

Hotaling says as a postdoc, he’s insulated from a lot of the public funding controversy about climate change research. But he says he actively seeks out opportunities to discuss his research and climate change in general:

"It’s something that I, as a climate change biologist, I wake up every day and embrace. I openly discuss my work in coffee shops and bars and wherever I go. I invite people to talk about it with me. And I don’t want them to feel like they’re wrong or feel like it’s something they can’t understand or I’m smarter than them or something because I have a graduate degree. It’s a conversation we all need to have.”

On the universal implications of climate change research:

“It affects us all. It affects you if you live in Miami, it affects if you live in Kansas, it affects you if you live in Alaska. It affects you if you buy insurance with the way climate change affects things like hurricanes. It’s not something that just matters to stoneflies living in the meltwater of glaciers. Like, certainly that’s an interesting evolutionary question, and it’s important to figure that out just from a scientific standpoint and a conservation standpoint. But understanding how climate change is linked to warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico, which contributes to more intense hurricanes, is an equally viable and human relevant, very human relevant, topic of discussion.”

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