DURHAM, N.C. – The sustainability of North American forests depends on trees’ ability to produce seeds and seedlings that can survive and grow in a changing climate. A new Duke University-led research initiative aims to help boost their odds of success.

With more than $2 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, scientists from five institutions are launching a continental-scale study designed to collect a wealth of new data on climate change’s impacts on forests and the birds and mammals that depend on them for habitat and food.

The study’s findings, and the tools and platforms the scientists develop to integrate, analyze, and share the newly collected data, will help resource managers, conservationists and policymakers better project and plan for future impacts.

“Knowing how much seed is being produced and how much of it survives to become new forests is essential for projecting the forests of the future. But for tree species across most of North America, we still have only limited data on seed production and seedling survival based on sampling from comparatively tiny plots. Our study will help change that,” said James S. Clark, Nicholas Distinguished Professor of Environmental Science at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Using newly developed monitoring and data-synthesis methods, Clark and his colleagues aim to collect data on seed production, seedling success (also called recruitment), and wildlife populations at sites across the continent, including many sites monitored through the NSF’s National Ecological Observation Network (NEON). The scientists will then integrate this data into a “biogeographical network,” or monitoring platform, on tree fecundity and recruitment. This, Clark said, “will allow us to quantify the changes in forests that are happening now, the impacts these changes are having on forest food webs, and the habitat changes that are causing them.”

One critical trend he hopes the new data will shed light on is how, or if, tree species are shifting their ranges northward via seed dispersal as rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns make their historic ranges less habitable. Wildlife populations both depend on seeds, nuts, and fruits produced by trees, but they also regulate forest recruitment. Understanding the effects on wildlife and their feedback effects on forest change is a goal of the study.

Clark and his team at Duke will work with scientists from the University of California Merced, the University of California Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the North Carolina Museum of Natural History on the new initiative. Duke’s share of the total $2,011,601 NSF grant will be about $655,000.