Data Fuels Conservation Work for Biology Assistant Professor

Most folks recognize the image of scientists tagging birds and animals to study wildlife patterns and habits.

Christen Fleming, Ph.D. in the field

What’s less familiar is what happens with that data after they’re released back into the wild, and how researchers use that information to steer conservation work.  

That’s the expertise of Assistant Professor Christen Fleming, Ph.D., a new faculty member teaching “ecoinformatics” in the Department of Biology. He brings deep experience in the field to UCF, most recently at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.  

Fleming’s passion for numbers (his Ph.D. is in physics) and conservation will improve the quantitative bench strength of the department. For instance, he’s the lead developer of the “continuous-time movement modeling” (ctmm) software package. The program draws from more than 20 publications on models and methods for analyzing animal tracking data and improves on old methods that underestimated how much space animals use by factors of 2-20, on average.  

Sharing that enthusiasm for analysis with students and watching them perform high-level reasoning is his favorite part of teaching.  

“When my students can easily run calculations that most published researchers find intimidating, then I feel like I have accomplished something—like I am moving the field forward one person at a time,” he said.  

Fleming began teaching Methods in Experimental Ecology I in Fall 2024, which is the comprehensive statistics course for the integrative and conservation biology programs, covering both design-based and model-based inference. An upcoming revision will build on previous work by faculty and help balance the need to simultaneously teach beginning- to intermediate-level statistics and programming.   

In development are population ecology and spatial ecology courses, which will include material from Fleming’s research. Fleming has several research goals ahead:  

1) Expand the scope of phenomena and behavior that can be rigorously estimated from animal tracking data, including the estimation of wildlife corridors 

2) Expand the types of data that can be used in these analyses, including the Motus Wildlife Tracking System and the Florida Atlantic Coast Telemetry (FACT) network, which track migratory birds, fish, and sea turtles 

3) Grow the development and application of the same modeling framework in other biological contexts, which we are already doing with evolutionary data. 

Fleming’s work is inherently interdisciplinary, adopting tools from physics, mathematics, engineering, computer science, and geostatistics. It’s his hope to foster new collaborations across departments with researchers interested in applying their quantitative expertise to problems in biology and conservation. 

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