Dr. Elizabeth L. Bennett is the Vice President for Species Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City. The UK native has a zoology degree from Nottingham University and a PhD from Cambridge University, for which she conducted research on the ecology of primates in Peninsular Malaysia. Upon concluding her academic studies, Bennett spent nearly two decades in Sarawak, Malaysia, including observing Proboscis Monkeys and studying the effects of hunting and logging on wildlife. She also helped to write and implement a comprehensive wildlife policy for the state, which included providing technical input for new wildlife laws and educational programs as well as a plan for Sarawak’s protected area system.
Currently, Bennett oversees WCS’s species conservation programs in more than 60 countries across the globe as well as WCS’s Living Institutions (Bronx Zoo, New York Aquarium, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo and Queens Zoo) throughout New York City. She was awarded a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2005.
Can you tell us a recent or near future instance where either changes in climate, terrain or food chain supply has or will force an animal to acclimate to extreme conditions or different social behaviors in order to survive? Do you think this animal will be successful in adapting or be forced into extinction?
Dr. Bennett: Four species of Flamingos are adapted to breeding at extreme high altitudes, in very saline lakes. So in the case of the Lesser Flamingo — more than 90 percent of all Lesser Flamingos breed in one saline lake, Lake Natron in Tanzania. That lake is an extreme environment subject to climate change and possibly to extraction of minerals, either of which would change its mineral composition. The Flamingos would have a very hard time adapting to that. With 95 percent of the birds of the species all breeding in that one lake, the risks to the population are high. When breeding, they have an extraordinary behavior, like other species of flamingos — all of the many hundreds of breeding birds in a huge flock build themselves up into a breeding frenzy by dancing through the lake together. If that lake disappears or it salt composition changes so that it’s not suitable for the birds, as a result of climate change, mining, road construction, or some other sort of development, then the whole system might collapse.
Which animal have you come across that has little to no ability to adapt to new or extreme environments and can only thrive in their existing conditions?
Dr. Bennett: One such species is the Polar Bear because its range is going to shrink very significantly through global warming. Large areas of the Polar ice are just disappearing and there’s nothing that the bear can do to combat that.