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Karen Mager
Assistant Professor of Environmental Sustainability

Karen Mager is an ecologist interested in how wildlife populations respond to environmental change. Her research is interdisciplinary — drawing on ecological field studies, population genetics, and historical and ethnographic research. Karen loves to work with students outside the traditional classroom. She regularly involves students in her research in Alaska and Indiana, as well as field- and community-based class projects, outdoor education expeditions, and off-campus study programs.

Contact Info

Campus Mail
Drawer 77



206 Dennis Hall


  • Biology
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • Anthrozoology Integrated Pathway
  • Art, Nature and Conservation Integrated Pathway
  • Sustainability and Management Integrated Pathway
  • Sustainable Agriculture Integrated Pathway


  • Ph.D., University of Alaska at Fairbanks
  • B.A., Earlham College

Selected Courses:

ENSU 151 Environment, Science, and Sustainability

ENSU 341 Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation

ENSU 353 Environmental Application

ENST 488 Environmental Sustainability Senior Capstone

BIOL 111 Ecological Biology

BIOL 346 Vertebrate Zoology

BIOL 360 Conservation Biology

BIOL 399 Southwest Field Studies May Term

BIOL 357 Animal Behavior

ENSU 482 Human-Wildlife Conflict seminar

AWPE 220 Outdoor Trip Leadership

My work focuses on how mammal populations respond to both natural and human-caused changes in their environment. Animals may respond behaviorally, numerically (population growth or decline), or evolutionarily. I’m especially interested in how these three “responses” interact, such as how a decrease in the number of animals in a herd due to predation can cause the herd to shift its migratory patterns, resulting in reproductive isolation. “Big picture” questions that require an interdisciplinary approach are especially interesting to me.  For example, when I studied the impact of introduced, domestic reindeer on populations of wild caribou in Alaska, I interviewed Alaska Native reindeer herders and caribou hunters to understand the behaviors of reindeer and caribou when they interact, and I used population genetics to understand how interbreeding between the two subspecies — both at times of population decline and of abundance — influenced the genetics of their descendants in the wild caribou populations today. In addition to caribou, I also study small mammal communities in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park that are impacted by climate change, and mammal communities on Indiana conservation lands undergoing reforestation.

My lab is currently involved in three ongoing research projects. If you are a student interested in one of these projects, or with an idea of your own, please contact me!

  • Ecology of Myodes and Microtus voles in a glaciated landscape
    Populations of small mammals fluctuate quickly in response to changes in food supply or predation, and can serve as indicators of ecosystem change in boreal and alpine ecosystems. Wrangell St.-Elias National Park (WRST) in Alaska is experiencing rapid deglaciation and elevational shifts in plant communities as a result of climate change. How will small mammal populations respond?  We use live-trapping to monitor the diversity and abundance of small mammals in different habitat types, and to collect DNA for genetic analysis.
  • Wildlife community change in eastern Indiana forests undergoing restoration
    Protected forests that belong to Earlham and to local landowners provide patches of habitat for forest mammals within our predominantly agricultural and urban landscape. Which animals live here, how do they interact, and how will the density and genetic connectivity of animal populations change as more land is reforested? We explore these topics with motion-activated cameras, live traps, conversations with landowners, and as curious naturalists. If you have an idea for a local project that interests you, I’d be happy to talk to you.
  • Genetic connectivity of Alaskan caribou herds differing in population size and behavior
    Some small, less-migratory caribou herds are genetically isolated from large, migratory herds nearby. What promotes this isolation? And, how might herd connectivity change if caribou shift their movement patterns and behaviors in response to changes in herd size, habitat, and climate? We analyze DNA samples and location data from rarely-studied, small herds to answer these questions.

Mager, K. H., Colson, K. E., Groves, P., Hundertmark, K. J. (2014) Population structure over a broad spatial scale driven by non-anthropogenic factors in a wide-ranging migratory mammal, Alaskan caribou. Molecular Ecology 23: 6045-6057. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mec.12999

Colson, K. E., Mager, K. H., and Hundertmark, K. J. (2014) Reindeer introgression and the population genetics of caribou in southwestern Alaska. Journal of Heredity 105: 585-596.

Yannic, G., Pellissier, L., Ortego, J., Couturier, S., Cuyler, C., Dussalt, C., Hundertmark, K .J., Irvine, R. J., Jenkins, D. A., Kolpashikov, L., Lecomte, N., Mager, K. H., Musiani, M., Parker, K. L., Røed, K. H., Sipko, T., Þórisson, S. G., Weckworth, B. V, Guisan, A., Bernatchez, L., and Côté, S. D. (2013) Genetic diversity in caribou linked to past and future climate change. Nature Climate Change 4:132-137.

Mager, K. H., Colson, K. E., and Hundertmark, K. J. (2013) High genetic connectivity and introgression from domestic reindeer characterize northern Alaska caribou herds. Conservation Genetics 14: 1111-1123.

Mager, K. H.(2012) “I’d be foolish to tell you they were caribou:” local knowledge of historical interactions between reindeer and caribou in Barrow, Alaska. Arctic Anthropology 49(2): 162-181

The Wildlife Society
Society for Conservation Biology

I love that Earlham aspires to be a community where we think deeply and question ourselves critically, but do so from a place of love and respect for one another. Earlhamites care passionately about the world and their engagement with it — both the microcosm of their world at Earlham and the global world that we all live in. This in itself isn’t unique to Earlham, but the Quaker-based principles and practices that guide our engagement are. I was drawn to Earlham’s egalitarianism. I learn from my students as they learn from me, and I value my relationships with them. I also came to Earlham because of its commitment to learning through direct experience. Learning together in the “real world” is what made me want to teach in the first place, and it remains my favorite way to teach today.

Earlham students are curious, motivated, and passionate about addressing injustice. Their thirst for learning and doing creates the educational magic that happens at Earlham. Students are determined to make positive change in the world, and they do — I see it happen every year! I am constantly inspired by my students.

Students have several options for off-campus study with me:

  • The Southwest Field Studies may term immerses students in natural history and sustainable living in the U.S. desert Southwest. We live in community while traveling, with opportunities for students to lead and teach each other in the outdoors.
  • Students are regularly involved in my summer field research on small mammals and caribou in Alaska. These internships give students professional experience in hands-on field ecology research that prepares them for graduate school and careers in biology, environmental science and studies.
  • I also teach with our Outdoor Education program at Earlham, which offers year-round opportunities for wilderness travel and place-based adventure education. Students can get involved as participants and as leaders, and many of our students go on to careers in education and outdoor leadership.
  • In the future, I will be leading off-campus semester programs as well, such as Earlham’s New Zealand semester.

Hiking, canoeing, running, cycling, cooking, international and wilderness travel, playing with my daughter, and looking around with curiosity at the natural world.

Earlham College, an independent, residential college, aspires to provide the highest-quality undergraduate education in the liberal arts and sciences, shaped by the distinctive perspectives of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

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Earlham admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin, age, gender and sexual orientation to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin, age, gender and sexual orientation in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.