MSU ecologist awarded Swedish professorship to further study of Africa’s carnivores
BOZEMAN – A Montana State University ecologist who has spent three decades researching predator-prey relationships and working to conserve Africa's top carnivores has received a prestigious professorship that will allow him to spend a year focusing on his efforts.
Scott Creel, professor in the Department of Ecology in MSU's College of Letters and Science, has received the 2018 KSLA Wallenberg Professorship from the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry. He is the fifth recipient of seven professorships — one awarded each year — with the aim of establishing ties with prominent international scientists who can contribute to the renewal of Swedish science in the green sector and to Swedish universities and academic institutions.
"It was eye-opening to receive the medal in the Stockholm City Hall Blue Room – the same room where the Nobel Prizes are awarded — with a closing speech by the prime minister," said Creel, who received the award at a ceremony held Jan. 27 in Stockholm. "To see that sort of respect for science was inspiring."
As a Wallenberg Professor, Creel will spend a year beginning next fall at Sverige Lantbruksuniveristet — the Swedish Agricultural University — in Umea, Sweden. He plans to use the time to strengthen an existing relationship between his MSU research group and Umea's molecular ecology group, with whom he is collaborating on research involving African carnivores and on how human activities isolate ecosystems.
At Umea, he will work closely with Goran Spong, senior lecturer in the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Environmental Studies, to incorporate cutting-edge genetic approaches into their research.
"The wildlife and fisheries group at Umea has a strong emphasis on the use of genetics," Creel said. "The applications of molecular genetics to conservation are changing at an incredible rate these days."
Creel's research in Sweden will be based on data from a long-term collaboration with the Zambian Carnivore Programme, a nonprofit headed by MSU alumnus Matt Becker that works to conserve Africa's large carnivores and the ecosystems in which they live. Four of Creel's graduate students recently conducted studies on carnivore-herbivore interaction that involved cheetahs, leopards, lions, hyenas and African wild dogs on three protected national parks in Zambia – Liuwa Plain, South Luangwa and Kafue. Creel's hope is to use Umea's expertise to determine how the carnivores in the three sites may be genetically connected to one another, for all five species.
"If you look at where Zambia is located in Africa, it's really a pivotal area for the whole region," Creel said. "Because of the way those ecosystems are aligned with each other, it's easy to assume they could still be genetically connected, but maybe they're not.
"For example, wild dogs are very good at moving great distances, so it could be that all the ecosystems are still well-connected for wild dogs, but not for cheetahs. There's a lot of area in between these ecosystems that is unprotected and populated by people, agriculture, roads and other things that are incompatible with large carnivores."
Knowing what barriers isolate these three ecosystems from each other and keep them from working as one "mega-ecosystem" can play an important role in species conservation on a regional level, Creel said. And, with new molecular genetics tools, it is now possible to address that question, although the analysis is complex. The data comes from hundreds of individuals – each with 10,000 genotypes — from three ecosystems and five species.
Creel said that while he will miss teaching during this, his first sabbatical in his 21 years at MSU, he is eager to use the year in Sweden as an opportunity to delve into the information gleaned from those recent advances and use it to answer questions about what isolates the three ecosystems, what can be done about it and whether it's the same across all five species.
"If you have a different answer for each of those five species, all of a sudden it's really hard to manage connections between protected areas," Creel said. "But, if you have the same answer for all five species, what needs to be done in terms of keeping these ecosystems connected is more obvious. The question is not rocket science, but getting the answer is very important for the conservation of these species, which are now all threatened or endangered."
Creel, who did postdoctoral research at Oxford University, said he would also like to use the professorship to reach out to colleagues at Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit who are conducting similar conservation research.
"They're interested in a lot of these same questions and are working on them in other places," he said. "So, we plan to strengthen connections with them as well, and scale this project up to look at all those same issues regionally, rather than nationally."
Diane Debinski, head of MSU's Department of Ecology, noted that Creel has made extensive contributions to teaching, research and service at MSU.
"It is wonderful that his contributions to science have now been recognized at this prestigious international level by being awarded the 2018 KSLA Wallenberg Professorship," Debinski said. "His sabbatical will be a well-deserved opportunity to enhance and expand his research and to foster international collaborations. I have no doubt that he will return to MSU with new ideas that can be incorporated into his teaching and research."