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Earlier this month, the journal "Science" published an article that identified the places on Earth where eight species that turn white in winter to avoid predators were evolving to survive warmer winter temperatures. In fact, some hares, weasels and Arctic foxes stayed brown all year.

Put another way, the scientists, including four University of Montana graduate students, had discovered "hot spots" where species can more quickly evolve to withstand climate change. In those "polymorphic zones," winter brown and winter white creatures live together.

"These areas hold the special sauce for rapid evolutionary rescue," said UM Professor Scott Mills, lead author of the paper.

The BBC covered the paper, the outcome of an analysis of 2,713 samples of winter coat colors from 60 countries. So did the Atlantic and National Geographic. "Science" is considered the leading scientific journal on the planet in terms of circulation and peer review, covering the most relevant research emerging across fields.

For lead author Mills, though, one significant outcome is the identity of his fellow authors, the UM graduate students. Mills has been studying hares for a couple of decades, and he wanted to know how hares and other "coat change" species might be able to adapt to climate change.

In a lab, he and students brainstormed before diving into libraries and museum archives around the world. Last week, those students threw open the windows to the work that took place behind the scenes before it culminated in a prestigious journal publication.

Brandon Davis, first in his family to go to college, works on weasels, and he's finishing his master's degree.

Jen Feltner is a fourth year doctoral candidate at UM and a U.S. Army veteran.

Marketa Zimova is a researcher from the Czech Republic who studied as a high school exchange student in Frenchtown.

Alex Kumar is a Ph.D. student who is a whiz with data analysis and has traveled to India for elephant research.

"In multiple ways, they represent the awesome diversity and quality of UM graduate students," Mills said in an email.

***

Davis, at the hare pens at Fort Missoula earlier this month, said the research results were built on collaboration with scientists across the globe. Typically, he works with weasels, and he currently has 57 remote cameras placed on an 11- or 12-mile loop near Seeley Lake.

"Weasels are notoriously hard to study in the field," he said. (And, wait for it.) "They're weaselly little critters."

Before any fieldwork, though, the scientists do brain work in the labs. Before Mills returned to UM, he worked at North Carolina State University, and Davis worked with him there, where the "hot spot" percolation began.

There, Mills mentored the younger scientists. The team of researchers — a geneticist, physiologist, mammologist and other specialists — talked through the project.

"We had these big early brainstorming sessions. All of us would be there talking about the project and ideas," Davis said.

This project meant collecting information about species that change coat colors, and Davis dove into the library at NC State and pored through "old, old books." He was looking for species that stayed brown in winter.

Davis, who first started studying weasels in West Virginia, found that in that area, the weasels stayed brown all year, but the hares turned white.

When Mills returned to UM, Davis followed, and he jumped into the Philip L. Wright Zoology Museum on the Missoula campus. There, he tracked down information about the coats of lemmings and Arctic fox, and he documented colors and collection dates and shot pictures for validation.

"(The museum is) an awesome resource, and I got some data points on coat color species," Davis said.

***

Feltner is a big organizer, and a research project that involves 60 countries and 26 museums and more than 2,000 specimens requires organization.

As the UM team started gathering specimens, Feltner created a process to document all the data points from thousands of sources, like old books, museum records, photographs, even websites.

"I just helped in developing some of the systems for recording information," Feltner said.

The data points included geographic information so the team could map the ranges of various species and identify the polymorphic zones. 

Feltner has a background in Chinese language and literature, and she used her old skills in the search for information about hares and weasels in east Asia. She unearthed records from western explorers traveling to the wilds of Asia for the first time, and she found a polymorphic zone in northern Japan where Japanese hares live.

"It's another species that our group hadn't thought that much about until we did this big data gathering project," Feltner said.

In 2014, Feltner attended a conference at UM before she studied here, and she won a raffle ticket to have coffee with Mills, whose research with hares she'd been aware of. She ended up transferring to NC State when Mills worked there, and then she moved to Wyoming for her own field work and was ecstatic when Mills returned to UM.

Now, she's a wildlife biology graduate student at UM, and she said she's pleased to be at a "phenomenal" institution whose minds have helped push up the level of research she can produce.

Her own work is in mountain lion ecology in the southern part of the Yellowstone ecosystem. As the research team's color coat project advanced and entered the wordsmith phase, Feltner did some of the writing and editing and image creation. 

"We're just very proud of this project and everything we have here at the University of Montana," Feltner said.

***

When Zimova was an exchange student in Frenchtown years ago, her host family took her to visit the Missoula campus. She wanted to study biology, and she returned to UM after getting her undergraduate degree in Prague.

In Missoula, she met Mills, and he showed her the snowshoe hares and his work in the field, and she ended up working on those animals as part of her master's degree. When he went to North Carolina, she did too, but she's now a doctoral student through UM.

Zimova said the initial idea for the research was to describe polymorphic zones across the world and connect them to climate variables. She's among the researchers who traveled to record data, including, at times, the names of the collectors such as conservationist Teddy Roosevelt.

She described the first time the scientists stepped into a secure area at the Smithsonian Institution and opened a drawer. After hours of discussion in the lab, the crew finally had brown and white weasel specimens from all over the world right before their eyes.

Zimova recalled the thrill on Professor Mills's face. After so much preparation, the researchers had launched their investigation, and it would bear fruit.

"It was a dream come true," Zimova said. "It was not like getting a Ferrari, but second, or close to it, for biologists."

Initially, the team looked at 21 color-molting species, and it later narrowed down its focus to eight.

Zimova traveled to museums in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Stockholm. She said the Mills team and other international researchers joined forces, collecting data for each other to maximize the information gleaned from their respective trips.

In some places, museum officers allowed the researchers to touch specimens with their bare hands, she said. At other places, they watched their every move opening drawers and handling skins, at least until they grew bored and saw the teams were trained in the art of data collection.

The work paid off, Zimova said: "It's a life achievement for a scientist. I certainly thought I would never publish in 'Science.'"

***

After all the numbers were tucked into a spreadsheet, someone had to understand the story told in the data, and for this project, those masterminds were Eugenia Bragina, who was a postdoc under Mills when he was in North Carolina, and Kumar.

Over the course of a year, Kumar helped lead the data analysis. He ran modeling to figure out which variables to use to predict which species would be white or brown, and he figured out probabilities and tweaked analyses. He looked at GPS coordinates, snow cover, and other factors that relate to temperature.

"It was interesting that it all came together and worked and predicted what we thought it would in a really compelling way," Kumar said.

Good models don't always validate, but in this case, Kumar used a special technique to see if the model would confirm predictions. He divided the data into five different groups, and he built a model off four groups to predict the fifth. In seven out of eight analyses, he said the model was correct 80 percent of the time.

In other words? "This was a good model."

Kumar had followed Mills from UM to North Carolina and back because he wanted to be with a good adviser. Like Mills, he's working with hares.

"I like to think of them as the cheeseburger of the forest. Pretty much anything will eat them," Kumar said.

***

Now, the work is done, and Kumar and others on the team hope the lessons resonate. They also celebrate the amount of UM brainpower that went into the work, with UM affiliates making up nine out of the 15 coauthors.

Lead author Mills, recruited to North Carolina in 2013 after 19 years at UM, returned to Missoula just three years later. He said the decision wasn't easy from a personal, professional or financial perspective.

On the other hand, he said it was a slam dunk when it came to research compared to the other "big name, East Coast" universities he visited.

"Actually, University of Montana was a more top tier research and teaching powerhouse in the realm of global environmental change than anywhere else," Mills said. "That continuing global excellence for UM is a very big deal."

The most recent study appears to be a big deal too. So many times, Kumar said research shows how a species will be negatively impacted by climate change, but this project offered a sliver of hope.

"It's encouraging that we found these areas that potentially will allow species to coexist in the face of climate change," Kumar said.

Animals are resilient, and they're working hard to evolve, he said. If people want them to survive, though, they need to work to reduce emissions, and they need to protect those areas where species are adapting.

According to the journal article, protected areas cover just 13 percent of the world's terrestrial area. And polymorphic zones are poorly represented, only as much as 5 percent "in the most strict protected areas described by the International Union for Conservation of Nature."

"There's potential for species to evolve, but we need to give them a chance," Kumar said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.