Skip to main content

Ashwin Sivakumar

Ashwin Sivakumar

Age: 16
Hometown: Pasadena, CA

Science: “Fossil-Augmented Species Distribution Models Recontextualize the Ecology of California Avifauna”

About Ashwin

I'm Ashwin Sivakumar, a rising senior at Flintridge Preparatory School in Southern California. 
As a lifelong birder with a passion for wildlife and habitat conservation, I like to share my love of nature with others by leading nature walks and showing others how to identify birds. I founded the NativeBiota Project to promote community engagement with nature through citizen science and bird-friendly landscaping. Apart from scientific research, I enjoy speech and debate, geography, and environmental and natural history. I'm a saber fencer in my free time and have played trumpet for my school jazz band.
Skip testimonial carousel

"I am extremely honored to have been named a Davidson Fellow this year and am thankful to the Davidson Institute for supporting me in my future educational endeavors and inspiring me to continue my science research in college and beyond. For me, becoming a Davidson Fellow not only means being part of a group of highly gifted and intellectual scholars that are quite literally changing the world in a multitude of ways, but it also means inspiring future generations of scientists and engineers to continue seeking out innovative solutions to our world’s most pressing problems."

Project Description

A major challenge when addressing wildlife conservation and management dilemmas is the fact that we don’t know where species would be distributed in the absence of human influence. For example, efforts to reintroduce populations of the California Condor, a giant vulture of the American west, are complicated by the fact that without knowing the limits of the species’ natural range, it is difficult to know which specific regions offer truly suitable habitat for the species. Additionally, we can’t determine whether introduced Wild Turkeys in California are invasive and harmful or actually beneficial because the living area and ecological function of the California Turkey, a similar native species of turkey in the region that went extinct 10,000 years ago, is also unknown.

In my study, I use fossil data to construct models for the distribution of the California Condor and the California Turkey during the Ice Age and project those models forward into present-day climatic conditions in order to reconstruct what those two species’ ranges would be today without human influence. Leveraging fossil data to this end yielded many fascinating, novel, and useful insights, such as that some, but not all, of the proposed condor reintroduction areas in the Pacific Northwest are likely to be suitable for condors and that, at least in specific areas and to a certain extent, Wild Turkeys might be fulfilling an analogous ecological role as the extinct California Turkey.

Deeper Dive

Since childhood, I have been fascinated by nature and wildlife, especially birds. Birding has given me a keen appreciation for the interconnectedness of the natural world and the importance of preserving critical habitat for wildlife. Unfortunately, due to climate change and various anthropogenic stressors, birds in North America and throughout the world are in trouble. This biological burden we all face motivated me to explore ways by which I could help save birds and their habitats. In my project, I used fossil records and paleoclimatic data to study two birds in my state of California—the iconic California Condor and the Wild Turkey. Through my research, I developed ways to predict current habitats suitable for the condor by analyzing fossil locations and the climate of the distant past. This work is significant because my model can be used for predicting how the habitat of condors will shift due to climate change in the future, providing critically useful information for wildlife managers and conservationists. I also used similar fossil and climate data to determine whether the present-day Wild Turkey occupies the same niche as the extinct California turkey during the Ice Age. Such large-scale substitution of one species for another similar one can be important for preserving ecosystems and offering a potential tool for wildlife managers in the future.

Programming, statistical analysis, ecology, geographic information systems (GIS), modeling, machine learning were all areas that I was unfamiliar with when I embarked on my research. However, I spent a substantial portion of my time familiarizing myself with these concepts by referring to books, journal papers, online courses, articles, tutorials, and talking to my mentor, Dr. Alexis Mychajliw, as well as other subject matter experts. I self-taught myself R and Python to find the most efficient techniques to deal with the large amount of noisy data. Further, troubleshooting software bugs also often presented a challenge, but the online community I found on StackExchange forums and from the creators of open-source software packages, like Professor Townsend Peterson and his student Marlon Cobos of the University of Kansas, have been essential when seeking help and advice to further my research. Being able to figure out the nuances of these modeling tools by reaching out to members of the online scientific community saved several weeks’ worth of time in my research schedule and left me proud and empowered by this community of helpers.

My AP Biology teacher at school, Ms. Laura Kaufman offered support and motivation through my entire scientific journey in high school and offered feedback on my scientific writing and presentation. Joining the speech and debate club in my school also greatly helped me build confidence with presenting in front of unfamiliar audiences. While the pandemic forced the cancellation of several conferences I had been planning to attend to share my work, going online provided a solution once again as I discovered virtual conferences where I was able to present my work and network with other conservationists. All life on this planet is intimately connected to each other, and is, in turn, influenced by the health of the planet. Birds are often the harbingers of trouble in the ecosystem as they are so widely dispersed and occupy every biome on Earth. My condor study showed how climate change is likely affecting the habitat of these magnificent birds. I hope that the research techniques I employed can be used by others to understand and address the effects of climate change on all living beings. On the other hand, my second project on the Wild Turkey is a story of resilience of how an extant introduced species can fulfill the niche left vacant by an extinct species. It shows how the quality of an ecosystem, and hence the collective health of all creatures that inhabit it, can be preserved or enhanced through science.


What’s the best thing you’ve bought so far this year?

 A few months ago, I bought a new bird bath for my yard – it’s been drawing in all kinds of new wildlife like a charm!

If you could be on any TV show, which one would it be?

I’d be a videographer on a nature documentary series like Planet Earth II – it would allow me to travel the world and see all kinds of cool natural phenomena and wildlife.

There’s a round-trip free shuttle to Mars. The catch: it’ll take one year of your life to go, visit, and come back. Are you in?

 Absolutely, even if it was 10 years of my life! It would just be too rare and amazing of an experience to reject. 

Click image to download high resolution files

In The News

Los Angeles – The Davidson Fellows Scholarship Program has announced the 2021 scholarship winners. Among the honorees are 18-year-old Stanley Liu of Arcadia and 16-year-old Ashwin Sivakumar of Pasadena. Only 20 students across the country to be recognized as scholarship winners each year.

Download the full press release here