This PhD student can predict where species will go extinct

Student experience
Portrait of Peter Soroye
PhD student Peter Soroye and his research partners developed a method to predict bumblebee extinction related to climate change. The best part is, the tool can be used to predict extinction in all other animals too.
Portrait of Peter Soroye

Peter Soroye has always been interested in learning about the birds and the bees. And no, that’s not a euphemism. His love of science and animals—and his lack of enthusiasm for anatomy—inspired him to alter his course from a pre-med track to a PhD in biology and conservation science at the University of Ottawa. 

Now, he’s the lead author of a new research paper published in Science that explains how climate change is driving bumblebees to extinction and outlines the method they used to accurately predict where bees would thrive and where they would struggle to survive. 

The best part is, this method can be applied to predict climate change-related extinction in all animal species. 

The study, which primarily looks at declining bumblebee populations in North America and Europe, is a collaboration between Soroye, uOttawa Biology Professor Jeremy Kerr and Tim Newbold, a research fellow at University College London. 

The research team, which Soroye affectionately calls “the Avengers of Ecology,” came up with the concept for this study during an “epic brainstorm” that took place over a Thanksgiving long-weekend in October 2017.

A bumblebee on a flower.

Taking the sting out of bumblebee extinction 

By analysing 115 years of geographical data from 66 different bumblebee species across North America and Europe, Soroye and his research partners were able to demonstrate how “climate chaos” – decades of extreme temperature changes and more frequent heatwaves and droughts – was contributing to the alarming decline of the most important pollinators we have. 

“We were able to see how bumblebee populations have changed by comparing where bees are now to where they used to be historically,” explains Soroye. “We found that populations were disappearing in areas where temperatures got hotter than these bees had had to tolerate previously. Knowing the maximum temperatures that these animals can handle, we were able to predict changes both for individual species and for whole communities of bumblebees with surprisingly high accuracy.” 

The team looked at approximately 500,000 records gathered from museums and community science programs and found that, in the course of a single human generation, the likelihood of a bumblebee population surviving in a given place has declined by an average of 31%. 

“But it’s not all doom and gloom,” says Professor Jeremy Kerr, who holds the University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation. “This method can show us which species will be at risk from climate change and where those risks are most severe, but also where species might be doing well because they escaped to areas with more favourable conditions. Most importantly, this method can be applied universally, to determine the risk of extinction in any living organism.” 

Born to be a conservation scientist 

Soroye learned to appreciate nature from a young age. Growing up in North Bay, Ontario, he spent a lot of time outside and went on many camping trips to Algonquin Park with his parents and his younger siblings. He also watched a lot of David Attenborough documentaries and always had National Geographic magazines lying around the house. 

“Growing up, I read all these great stories about exotic people and faraway places, but I was really aware that they might not all be there by the time I got a chance to see them,” he says. “So, that’s part of what drove me to switch to biology in university. Ultimately, I want to help fix things in a more immediate way, through applied conservation—implementing solutions on the ground, in policy, and finding ways to turn the tide on all the extinctions that are happening.” 

Peter Soroye with an afro cheering on the Gee-Gees at a Panda Game

Role models are important motivators 

“Science can sometimes wear you down,” says Soroye. “You’re spending so much time doing research only to find out you’re wrong. It can be a grind and it doesn’t always feel productive.” 

When Soroye is in a funk, he puts on Planet Earth or some such nature documentary to remind himself of what he’s striving to protect. He also looks to his role models for inspiration. 

“I’ve sort of associated that grind in research to the hustle that rap artists or athletes go through,” he says. “People like Jay-Z, who started from nothing and is now a critically-acclaimed artist. Or Kobe Bryant, who had this endless determination. People who have that are really motivating to me. And I think part of it is that these people look like me. I can relate to them and we share common interests. I don’t see that in a lot of other scientists. So, I think it’s easier for me to hold people like Jay-Z and Kobe as role models.” 

Soroye knows full well that biodiversity is important for a thriving ecosystem. He also knows that diverse perspectives in research are crucial for driving innovation. That’s why he dedicates time to planting that seed whenever he can, by contributing to articles and research projects that address matters of diversity in science and academia. 

“There aren’t a lot of scientists that look like me,” he says. “My nickname for a while was ‘Puffy Pete,’ because I had a huge afro for at least eight years, and it made me so recognizable on campus. When I was growing up, I think it would have meant a lot to see somebody like me doing what I’m doing now. So, I try to be emblematic of that. I think it’s really important to support the idea of diversity in science and to take down the invisible barriers that block people’s paths. There are many groups out there who would benefit from seeing themselves represented. I think universities and governments have been great at taking some of those barriers down, but there are still a lot left.”