Researching AUM  Gabriel Costa studies biodiversity

Photo: AUM assistant professor Gabriel Costa. 

A faculty member at Auburn University at Montgomery for just 2 years, Gabriel Costa’s research is already producing results. He was recently a recipient of a National Science Foundation grant to study biodiversity – an area of biology that focuses on investigating the variety of plants and animals living in a particular habitat or ecosystem.

“By understanding what factors influence how biodiversity changes across space, we can quantify, predict, mitigate, and possibly manage the growing impacts caused by human activities,” explained Costa, an assistant professor in the Auburn Montgomery Department of Biology and Environmental Science.

He’s especially interested in studying the latitudinal diversity gradient, a well-known ecological pattern in which biodiversity increases from the earth’s poles to the tropics. Costa also studies influencing factors such as regional temperature, precipitation, and predators.

“I strive to understand what controls the spatial distribution of biodiversity by disentangling the roles of these factors in different regions of the world and also in different kinds of organisms such as mammals, birds, and reptiles.”

Although much of his research is conducted with collaborators and via computer these days, past fieldwork has taken Costa to remote places.

“My first ever field trip as an undergraduate student was to the Amazon forest on the border of Brazil and Bolivia,” he recalled. “I stayed in the field for 55 days sleeping in a tent and bathing in a nearby creek. The work was intense but at the same time very rewarding. We cataloged many different species that were never recorded for that region. At the end of the trip, I had to throw away my tent because it was torn to pieces as a result of the many days under the sun and rain!”

Of special interest to Costa are the grasslands and dry forest ecosystems of Central and Northeast South America and their distinct biological communities such as the Cerrado, a large tropical savanna region in Brazil.

“For the past eight years, I have been part of a large international collaboration group that focused on gathering, compiling, and analyzing global data sets of environmental, trait, distribution, and extinction risk for all tetrapod (amphibian, bird, mammals and reptile) species in the region,” he said. “I have a strong commitment to long-term data collection and to use this information to describe and document species in the region, to describe basic biodiversity patterns, and to understand the evolutionary and ecological factors structuring this biodiversity.”

Like many scientists, Costa’s interest in research developed in high school and was later reinforced through college projects which he now continues with his own students.

“Because AUM is a smaller institution, students can work closely with faculty on projects,” he says. “So it’s a great place to conduct research.”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 700 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.com).