Joseph Burant

Dr. Joseph Burant

Tenure Track
Send message

Visiting Address

Droevendaalsesteeg 10
6708 PB Wageningen

+31 (0) 317 47 34 00

The Netherlands



How does seasonality in the timing of environmental stressors affect animals and their persistence, from individuals to populations?


I joined the Department of Animal Ecology at NIOO-KNAW in September 2022. My research focusses on understanding how wildlife respond to environmental change, with a particular eye to the role that seasonality plays in shaping the lives of animals. I take an integrative approach to studying these questions, looking at how changes in individual traits like morphology, behavioural, and physiology scale up to affect the dynamics of populations and communities of birds. My work is centred on the fantastic long-term studies of hole-nesting passerines carried out by researchers at NIOO-KNAW since 1955. These extensive time series —some of the longest in the world— offer amazing opportunities to understand how avifauna have and continue to adapt to an ever-changing world.

I completed my B.Sc. at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where I was fortunate to get an early start in research working on threespine stickleback. Next, I traded the majestic scenery of the Coast Mountains for the beautiful streets of Amsterdam, where I completed my M.Sc. at the University of Amsterdam in 2016. During my first stint in the Netherlands is when my passion for birds really took flight through my work with Dr. Judy Shamoun-Baranes (UvA) studying differential migration in lesser black-backed gulls and Drs. Kimberly Mathot and Eva Kok exploring behavioural ontogeny in red knots at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ). I returned to Canada to complete my Ph.D. working with Dr. Ryan Norris at the University of Guelph (Ontario), trading birds for the quintessential model species, fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster). My Ph.D. made use of laboratory populations of flies to examine how the seasonal timing of environmental stressors like habitat loss influences the way in which populations decline. I was also able to continue working with birds through collaborating on the long-term demographic study of Savannah sparrows breeding on Kent Island, a fog-swept island in the Bay of Fundy (New Brunswick). There, I gained a deeper appreciation for the struggles of studying animals in the wild and a greater understanding of the nuances field observations can bring to the questions we ask. I finished my Ph.D. in the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic and was lucky to land a postdoctoral position with the inspiring Living Data Project, an offshoot of the Canadian Institute of Ecology and Evolution (CIEE), which trains graduate students in open science best practices and partners with data stewards to help preserve valuable, yet inaccessible, environmental data.


Key publications

  • Ecology Letters

    Simple signals indicate which period of the annual cycle drives declines in seasonal populations

    Joseph B. Burant, Gustavo S. Betini, D. Ryan Norris
    For declining wild populations, a critical aspect of effective conservation is understanding when and where the causes of decline occur. The primary drivers of decline in migratory and seasonal populations can often be attributed to a specific period of the year. However, generic, broadly applicable indicators of these season-specific drivers of population decline remain elusive. We used a multi-generation experiment to investigate whether habitat loss in either the breeding or non-breeding period generated distinct signatures of population decline. When breeding habitat was reduced, population size remained relatively stable for several generations, before declining precipitously. When non-breeding habitat was reduced, between-season variation in population counts increased relative to control populations, and non-breeding population size declined steadily. Changes in seasonal vital rates and other indicators were predicted by the season in which habitat loss treatment occurred. Per capita reproductive output increased when non-breeding habitat was reduced and decreased with breeding habitat reduction, whereas per capita non-breeding survival showed the opposite trends. Our results reveal how simple signals inherent in counts and demographics of declining populations can indicate which period of the annual cycle is driving declines.
  • Journal of Animal Ecology

    Early warning indicators of population collapse in a seasonal environment

    Joseph B. Burant, Candace Park, Gustavo S. Betini, D. Ryan Norris
    Recent studies have demonstrated that generic statistical signals derived from time series of population abundance and fitness-related traits of individuals can provide reliable indicators of impending shifts in population dynamics. However, how the seasonal timing of environmental stressors influences these early warning indicators is not well understood. The goal of this study was to experimentally assess whether the timing of stressors influences the production, detection and sensitivity of abundance- and trait-based early warning indicators derived from declining populations. In a multi-generation, season-specific habitat loss experiment, we exposed replicate populations of Drosophila melanogaster to one of two rates of chronic habitat loss (10% or 20% per generation) in either the breeding or the non-breeding period. We counted population abundance at the beginning of each season, and measured body mass and activity levels in a sample of individuals at the end of each generation. When habitat was lost during the breeding period, declining populations produced signals consistent with those documented in previous studies. Inclusion of trait-based indicators generally improved the detection of impending population collapse. However, when habitat was lost during the non-breeding period, the predictive capacity of these indicators was comparatively diminished. Our results have important implications for interpreting signals in the wild because they suggest that the production and detection of early warning indicators depends on the season in which stressors occur, and that this is likely related to the capacity of populations to respond numerically the following season.
  • Proceedings of the Royal Society B

    Data rescue: saving environmental data from extinction

    Ellen K. Bledsoe, Joseph B. Burant, Gracielle T. Higino, Dominique G. Roche, ..., Diane S. Srivastava
    Historical and long-term environmental datasets are imperative to understanding how natural systems respond to our changing world. Although immensely valuable, these data are at risk of being lost unless actively curated and archived in data repositories. The practice of data rescue, which we define as identifying, preserving, and sharing valuable data and associated metadata at risk of loss, is an important means of ensuring the long-term viability and accessibility of such datasets. Improvements in policies and best practices around data management will hopefully limit future need for data rescue; these changes, however, do not apply retroactively. While rescuing data is not new, the term lacks formal definition, is often conflated with other terms (i.e. data reuse), and lacks general recommendations. Here, we outline seven key guidelines for effective rescue of historically collected and unmanaged datasets. We discuss prioritization of datasets to rescue, forming effective data rescue teams, preparing the data and associated metadata, and archiving and sharing the rescued materials. In an era of rapid environmental change, the best policy solutions will require evidence from both contemporary and historical sources. It is, therefore, imperative that we identify and preserve valuable, at-risk environmental data before they are lost to science.
  • Ecology

    Natal experience and pre-breeding environmental conditions affect lay date plasticity in Savannah sparrows

    Joseph B. Burant, Eric W. Heisey, Nathaniel T. Wheelwright, Amy E. M. Newman, Shannon Whelan, ..., D. Ryan Norris
    Phenotypic plasticity allows organisms to adjust the timing of life-history events in response to environmental and demographic conditions. Shifts by individuals in the timing of breeding with respect to variation in age and temperature are well documented in nature, and these changes are known to scale to affect population dynamics. However, relatively little is known about how organisms alter phenology in response to other demographic and environmental factors. We investigated how pre-breeding temperature, breeding population density, age, and rainfall in the first month of life influenced the timing and plasticity of lay date in a population of Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) monitored over 33 yr (1987–2019). Females that experienced warmer pre-breeding temperatures tended to lay eggs earlier, as did older females, but breeding population density had no effect on lay date. Natal precipitation interacted with age to influence lay date plasticity, with females that experienced high precipitation levels as nestlings advancing lay dates more strongly over the course of their lives. We also found evidence for varied pace of life; females that experienced high natal precipitation had shorter lifespans and reduced fecundity, but more nesting attempts over their lifetimes. Rainfall during the nestling period increased through time, while population density and fecundity declined, suggesting that increased precipitation on the breeding grounds may be detrimental to breeding females and ultimately the viability of the population as a whole. Our results suggest that females adjust their laying date in response to pre-breeding temperature, and as they age, while presenting new evidence that environmental conditions during the natal period can affect phenological plasticity and generate downstream, population-level effects.
  • Animal Behaviour

    Complex dynamics and the development of behavioural individuality

    David N. Fisher, Matthew Brachmann, Joseph B. Burant
    Behavioural differences may arise in the absence of genetic or environmental variation. Chaotic dynamics may influence behavioural development and among-individual variation. We discuss methods and experimental designs to test this idea. Nonlinear and chaotic behavioural development may explain much of natural variation.