Arctic Field Course Turns Students Into Researchers

Undergrads say northern experience stirs a passion for biological research

Integrative biology professors Sarah Adamowicz and Ryan Gregory.

 

Monica Young arrived at Guelph with a leopard on her shoulder. Crazy for big cats, she’d had the tattoo done at age 16. Beginning an ecology degree at U of G in 2006, she’d planned to work one day in wildlife conservation.

Young still loves cats. But she’s fallen for a different kind of critter – so much so that she’s pursuing grad studies with a new career in mind, not to mention plans for a fresh tattoo. Picture a giant mite, she says. “He’ll be walking across my ankle.”

A mite?

Blame that Arctic ecology field course she took in 2009. Offered at least every two years, the course has seen hundreds of Guelph students visit the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) in Manitoba.

Run independently since 1976, this subarctic research and teaching facility is located at the meeting place of the northern boreal forest and the tundra, where the Churchill River empties into western Hudson Bay.

It’s a conjuring chamber of sorts, says Prof. Sarah Adamowicz, Integrative Biology. People enter as undergraduates – often on their first-ever field trip and usually on their first trek this far north – and emerge weeks later as fledgling researchers primed to become what she calls the next generation of Arctic scientists.

The field course takes 20 students at a time. Integrative biologist Paul Hebert started the course in 1992 in Igloolik, Nunavut. Environmental scientist Peter Kevan, now University professor emeritus, helped deliver many of the early courses, held in Igloolik or Resolute, Nunavut. It’s been offered for about a decade in Churchill.

“The University of Guelph is offering one of the few Canadian field courses in Arctic ecology at Churchill,” says Adamowicz, who led the 2009 group along with Hebert. “It’s the draw of the north.”

And none too soon, as change looms over that part of the world. Shrinking summer ice cover in the Canadian Arctic may threaten wildlife, including iconic polar bear populations. Scientists also worry about new pressures from increased shipping and resource extraction in a warmer North.

At Churchill, annual temperatures have increased during the past 40 years and sea ice forms in Hudson Bay weeks later than it used to. “There is significantly less time with ice in the bay,” says Adamowicz.

Having returned to campus this spring from maternity leave, she plans to visit Churchill next summer for further research. She helps to lead two biodiversity projects intended to compile an inventory of all organisms there. Under those projects, researchers identify and catalogue Arctic species using DNA barcoding technology.

Integrative biologist Paul Hebert, right, started U of G’s arctic ecology field course in 1992 in Igloolik, Nunavut. For the last decade, the course has been offered in Churchill, Man., where he’s pictured with Prof. Sarah Adamowicz.

 

DNA barcoding was developed here at Guelph by Hebert, a method that allows scientists to distinguish species by looking at a telltale stretch of genetic material found in all organisms. Scientists worldwide are adding species to a growing barcode library under the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) initiative. Based at U of G under Hebert’s direction, that global genomics project aims to catalogue 500,000 species by 2015.

Home base for iBOL is the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO) here on campus, where experts sequence genetic material to gather those barcode records. Construction began this year on the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, an $18-million expansion of the BIO to open in early 2012.

That campus construction project mirrors renovations completed this year at the Churchill centre intended to improve facilities for field course students and researchers.

So far, biologists working at Churchill have collected genetic barcodes for almost 50,000 specimens. Those represent more than 5,000 species of organisms, mostly insects, mites and spiders, plants, crustaceans, worms and molluscs.

Now the team plans to zero in on smaller and more cryptic species, says Adamowicz. “We want to really dig down and understand at smaller size scales the diversity up there.”

As with other places around the world, learning which species of animals and plants already live at the site will give scientists a baseline for ecological studies and for monitoring local changes, she explains. U of G researchers have already reported ecological results from Churchill, including integrative biology professor Alex Smith, who has found higher-than-expected diversity of parasitoid wasps and major changes in species composition over the past 50 years.

Working with these and other Guelph faculty, students are also exploring research projects at Churchill and elsewhere in the Arctic.

Nick Jeffery took the 2007 field course while studying marine and freshwater biology. Now working on a PhD with integrative biology professor Ryan Gregory, he’s studying genome size diversity in marine invertebrates such as crabs and shrimps.

These cold-climate creatures are known to have larger genomes and slower development than many of their warm-weather cousins. The Guelph scientists want to know whether a warmer Arctic will draw more southerly species primed to out-compete the natives for resources.

Referring to various species of sea crustaceans that provide food for larger organisms, Jeffery says, “They’re very important for food webs of the entire Arctic ecosystem, but we don’t know how diverse these things are.” He plans to collect and barcode specimens to help answer these questions.

Guelph students discuss the day’s work of collecting marine specimens; for many the field course in Churchill is their first taste of ecological research.

 

Elizabeth Boyle took the Arctic field course in 2009, a year before she completed her zoology degree. Now working on her M.Sc. with Adamowicz, she studies freshwater insects to learn about natural communities of organisms. That will help in understanding competition and environmental processes, says Boyle.

She’s using barcoding to identify insects collected in Churchill, especially caddisflies. Like mayflies, these insects have aquatic larvae used by scientists to assess water quality in lakes and streams. About 12,000 species of caddisflies have been described worldwide. So far, Boyle has ID’d almost 70 species from the tundra ponds that dot the Hudson Bay Lowlands.

“I’ve fallen in love with research,” says Boyle. “I thought I might like research, but certainly I didn’t expect I would fall in love with invertebrates. The field course sheds new light. Before, I was all about vertebrates.”

Here in U of G’s science complex, Boyle shares an office with Young. The cat lover also finished her B.Sc. last year and has begun grad studies with Hebert.

While taking the 2009 field course, Young found herself pressed into collecting a different organism. Since then, she’s amassed about 500 species of mites from Churchill.

Mites are among the most diverse invertebrates on the planet. About 45,000 species have been described out of an estimated total of one million species worldwide. Name almost any environment on Earth and you’ll likely find one of these nimble arachnids adapted to live there.

It was in leaf litter near Churchill where another collector recently found a new mite. Young brought it back to Guelph for barcoding. She thinks this could be not just a new species but a new genus, a rung higher on the classification ladder. Hoping to verify that, she plans to run the specimen again through barcoding at the BIO. She’ll also likely seek opinion from an acarologist (a specialist in mites and ticks).

Young says knowing about mites is serious business. Many species help to recycle soil nutrients for plants. But others are notorious for destroying agricultural crops.

She now hopes to become a full-time acarologist. Meanwhile, she plans to get a new tattoo of that magnified mite in time for this year’s international acarology meeting in Ohio.

Says Young: “The field course started everything. Unless you get into the field, you don’t know where your passions are.”