Viorel Popescu – Conservation Biology Lab

Conservation Biology Lab

quantitative wildlife ecology and conservation science

Welcome to the Conservation Biology research group at Columbia University E3B. We work on applied wildlife and conservation research across many systems: from Ohio’s deciduous forests, to mountains of the Pacific Northwest and California, the Romanian Carpathians, and subtropical China. Our research interests are diverse, spanning large carnivores, reptiles and amphibians, and we use experimental, observational and computational approaches to tackle current conservation issues. We work on a variety of applied ecology and conservation issues, such as sustainability of carnivore hunting, impacts of roads on wildlife populations, carnivore population ecology, systematic conservation planning, and impacts of stressors on amphibian populations.

REFERENCES for the 2021 “Fundamentals of Conservation Biology” 4th edition (Mac Hunter, James Gibbs and Viorel Popescu) textbook available for download as a .RIS file

Summer 2023: Our lab is moving to Columbia University in New York City… stay tuned!

Summer 2022 was a big Summer for our lab!!! In addition to lots of papers featuring graduate and undergraduate authors, a lot of exciting developments…

Congratulations to newly-minted Dr. Cassandra Thompson (@Hotherps) for successfully defending her dissertation on amphibians and climate change in July! With 3 chapters already published and another 2 on the way, Cassie has started a postdoc in amphibian ecology and modeling at Case Western Research University (with collaborator Dr. Mike Benard).

Huge congrats to Ryan Brown, who defended his MSc thesis on Eastern Hellbender ecology in August!!! Keep an eye for upcoming papers on experimental research debunking some long-standing ‘myths’ in hellbender ecology!

PhD student Marissa Dyck won the highest graduate student award from the American Society of Mammalogists (the ASM Fellowship) for her work on interspecific interactions between terrestrial carnivores in North America and Europe.

PhD student Matt Kaunert is starring as the hellbender scientist in an upcoming documentary around the fight (and victory!) of a small Pennsylvania community against the fossil fuel industry. HELLBENT (@hellbenderfilm) was created by Justin Grubb (Running Wild Media) and freelance journalist Annie Roth and is out August 2022.

Spring 2022: After a 2-year process, the fruits of a collaboration with colleagues at Harvard University, University of East Anglia, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and TNC China are ripe! Check our new Nature Communications paper on using DNA from terrestrial leech meals (or iDNA) to monitor vertebrate biodiversity in SW China. This research also allowed us to evaluate the effectiveness of the protected areas for conserving vertebrate biodiversity. We found many IUCN-listed species (amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds) in terrestrial leech meals; pioneering genomics and bioinformatics work (led by Dr. Doug Yu) and colleagues in China combined with Multi-Species Occupancy Models (led by Dr. Chris Baker) are a powerful combination for rapid biodiversity surveys!

Ji, Y., Baker, C.C.M., Popescu, V.D. et al. Measuring protected-area effectiveness using vertebrate distributions from leech iDNA. Nat Commun 13, 1555 (2022).

ab Observed species richness in each patrol area in the LSU and SSU datasets respectively. Note missing data (no shading) in approximately half of the patrol areas. Data with missing patrol area IDs are not represented in this figure, though they are incorporated in our occupancy model. cd Estimated species richness for each patrol area in the LSU and SSU datasets respectively. Note that our occupancy model provides estimates for patrol areas with missing data, in addition to augmenting observed values to account for false negatives. ef Scatterplots of estimated species richness against environmental covariates in the LSU and SSU models respectively. Histograms along the y-axes show the distribution of species richness estimates across the patrol areas.

Fall 2021: It’s all about carnivores in N America! First off, a great collaboration between PhD students Marissa Dyck and Eileen Wyza led to the first assessment of competitive interactions between bobcat and coyotes in North America (published in Mammal Review). Second, paper on the #RealBobcatsofOhio habitat suitability and connectivity is out in PeerJ; this is a collaboration with Ohio Division of Wildlife and the Peterman Lab at Ohio State University. We added another piece of the puzzle that is bobcat recovery in Ohio!

Summer 2021: New letter in Science hot off the press: Popescu, V. D., M. I. Pop, and L. Rozylowicz. 2021. Trophy hunting undermines public trust. Science 372:1049 LP – 1049. This perspective piece provides a critique of the current wildlife management in Romania, which is tolerant of trophy hunting for brown bears despite the species protected by EU legislation and payment for trophies being banned since 2016. Read more about the events that threw Romanian wildlife management in turmoil here.

Winter-Spring 2021: Lots of exciting news!!! We started 2 camera trap projects in Ohio and Romania aimed at evaluating interspecific relations between terrestrial carnivores (keep an eye on Twitter updates!). Also, after 4 years of sustained work, “Fundamentals of Conservation Biology” 4th edition textbook (with mentors Mac Hunter [University of Maine] and James Gibbs [SUNY-Environmental Science and Forestry]) is finally out!

  • August 2020: We are welcoming Ryan Brown as a new MSc student in the lab! Ryan has been engaged with research in our lab since 2018, first as a undergraduate research assistant, then as a Lab Manager for the last year. Ryan obtained a degree from Hocking College prior to joining Ohio University, has a broad set of field skills, and is an encyclopedia of natural history knowledge. Ryan will work with Matt Kaunert exploring the lives and reproductive ecology of Eastern Hellbenders and contribute to proposing sound conservation strategies for hellbenders in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
  • November 2019 – Heidi Bencin’s MSc research on road mortality in Ohio’s bobcat population is out in Scientific Reports! Heidi’s study integrated roadkill data across two decades, a GPS telemetry dataset to evaluate road-crossing behaviors, and theoretical estimations of road mortality risk at the population level to ultimate valuate predictors and hotspots of roadkill. Interstate highways were the top threat with high chance of mortality during crossings, and overall, we estimated that 6 – 18% of Ohio’s bobcat population may be affected by direct mortality from vehicle strikes. This finding is critical for projecting future population trajectory, which is the next step in the Ohio DNR funded project in the lab.


The main research directions in the lab are: (1) amphibian ecology and conservation, (2) carnivore ecology and conservation, and (3) spatial conservation planning, but incoming students may to develop their own projects focused on other conservation topics of interests.

Dr. Viorel D. Popescu
Associate Research Scientist
Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, Columbia University
New York, NY 10027

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