By Matt Miller, senior science writer
Many kids grow up watching squirrels roam around a backyard or a city park. Perhaps they chase them up trees, or feed them peanuts. Anne Trainor’s fascination went a bit deeper.
“I wondered about those squirrels,” she says. “I have always had a curiosity about where they would go next, what motivated where they went and what influenced them to stop in an area.”
That early fascination set her on a later course of detailed research into wildlife movement patterns. And with her NatureNet Fellowship, Trainor now expands her research even further, as she investigates how to maintain ecosystem function across the United States in the face of expanding energy development and infrastructure.
Trainor, currently a post-doctoral associate in Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, formerly studied wildlife in very specific contexts. Following her undergraduate degree, she researched tortoise behavior in the Galapagos Islands. Later, she radio-tracked a rare but controversial mouse in Colorado’s Front Range to gain understanding of how the species was impacted by encroaching development and grazing. She has also conducted small mammal surveys in Kenya, participated in a lynx reintroduction project in Colorado and studied dispersal behavior of red-cockaded woodpeckers.
“I have always been motivated to not only look at wildlife movement behavior, but to incorporate conservation into my research,” she says. “I have always thought about how the environment influences wildlife’s ability to navigate across the landscape, and what features deters them from moving into other areas.”
Her fellowship research focuses on a much broader scale—that of a whole country. She’ll look at how wildlife can continue to move and migrate across the landscape—what conservation scientists call connectivity—in the face of development.
“Energy development is growing rapidly,” Trainor says. “The landscape is changing. My research will work towards build an approach that can help conservationists keep landscapes functional and connected while also meeting our energy needs.”
She believes that looking at regional and national scales allows for better conservation outcomes. “This fellowship gives me the flexibility and creativity to try new approaches and to find what works for both nature and people,” she says. “The Nature Conservancy has a history of working across jurisdictional boundaries. That’s how we should think if we’re going to balance energy and ecosystems.”
Despite the broad scale of her research, she believes her experience with fine-scale wildlife studies will play a vital role. “I want to drill down into very specific areas,” she says. “I want to look at the energy demands in each region and what the trade-offs will be for ecosystems.”
Trainor has worked in different regions and understands that a “one size fits all” strategy will be impossible for energy development. “Each region has different challenges, different cultural attitudes and different approaches to conservation,” she says. “My goal is to create optimal strategies in each region to balance growing energy demands while maintaining healthy ecosystems.”
And she wants to see those strategies on the ground; in fact, Trainor was most attracted to the fellowship program because it allowed her to combine her passions of research with on-the-ground results.
“I know that my work has to be applicable to stakeholders and conservation practitioners on the ground, but I also have to make sure my research is scientifically rigorous,” she says. “That is very appealing to me. It is exciting to take robust science and see it implemented on the ground with actual, effective activities. And The Nature Conservancy has a long history of doing just that.”