Field Fun Friday

What do -38°C, a spacesuit and a wooden post have to do with songbird research?
I could only hold the camera for a couple seconds before my fingers froze. My field partner, Logan, and I had just snowmobiled a half an hour from our truck parked on an ice road ~80 km south of the Nunavut border, in the tundra of the NWT. We were not actually wearing spacesuits, but our big onesies, snowmobile helmets and steel-toed winter boots made it look like we were. Our task was to collect acoustic recording units (ARUs) deployed by Environment & Climate Change Canada (ECCC). The ARUs were deployed last year when the ice road was open, but started recording in the spring, after birds had arrived. Winter is the only time this northern boreal/tundra transition area is accessible. 100 ARUs, mounted on trees and wooden posts (when there are no trees), span a 400 km south-north transect along the ice road. After retrieval, recordings will be analyzed to identify bird species. This marks the start of a long-term monitoring project to identify and track the northern limits of songbird ranges, a topic of great importance in the face of a changing climate. Students from Dr. Erin Bayne’s lab collaborate with ECCC on songbird research using ARUs.
Collaborators: Samuel Haché (Environment and Climate Change Canada)
Location: Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road, Northwest Territories

-Post and Photo by Emily Upham-Mills

Winter Fieldwork in the Yukon

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.
– Robert Service, “The Spell of the Yukon”

Field assistant Bailey, Kluane resident Peter Upton, and Bubba the dog snowshoe across the ice on Kluane Lake.

I spent January of this year in the boreal forests of Kluane, Yukon. My goal was to collect pictures, fur samples, and tracks of Canada lynx in order to estimate density of lynx in the Kluane area. My Master’s project compares methods of density estimation to improve lynx research and management. Every few months I head to my field site in Kluane. I have experienced every season of the year in the Yukon, from the midnight sun in summer to the deep dark and cold of winter. No time of the year is quite like January. 

Most of my time in Kluane, regardless of season, is spent hiking. This becomes particularly challenging in winter. This year, temperatures dipped to -35 Celsius and snow was thigh-deep in many places. Bailey (my field assistant/ hiking buddy) and I looked to lynx for advice on how to traverse long distances in deep snow. Lynx have disproportionately large feet, making them look funny in summer but helping them keep up with their prey in winter. Their feet function as snowshoes to distribute their weight and help them float on top of the snow. So, Bailey and I got some snowshoes. Not just any snowshoes; modern, lightweight snowshoes were ineffective in snow that deep. In order to make it to all our remote cameras and fur snag sites, we had to borrow extra-large, old-school snowshoes from a local outdoorsman. After a steep learning curve where we learned to walk without tripping (sometimes), the snowshoes became indispensable to our everyday hikes. 

Bailey and I in our snowshoes, on a long hike through a frozen creek bed. We set out this day to collect lynx fur samples from a snag. (Photo by Lindsay Potts)

Cold temperatures were less easily dealt with. Lynx grow big fur coats every winter, with a beard around their neck for a scarf and thick fur between their toes for boots. All Bailey and I could do was outfit ourselves in the human-made substitutes. No matter how much we layered up, we still lost heat throughout the day and had to manage it as best we could. When temperatures were low, lunch breaks to eat our (frozen) sandwiches were limited at five or ten minutes, or until the cold caught up to us. Taking off our mittens even briefly to check cameras or to make a note was painful. Camera screens wouldn’t work, handheld GPSs would turn off mid-hike, and even pen ink would freeze. The Yukon cold did not make our fieldwork easy.

A Canada lynx notices a remote camera set atop a ridge in Kluane.

Despite the deep snow and the deep cold, Bailey and I headed outside each day to take advantage of every hour of daylight available. A key lesson that I learned this field season is that tough conditions are not as tough when you have a friend by your side to experience it all with you. Long sunrises and sunsets, Northern Lights to light up the night, and expansive white landscapes can help counter the extreme conditions with extreme beauty. And the real reward for the tough times was a lot of data. We collected about 250 pictures of lynx and 100 fur samples for analysis in that month. Every successful camera or fur snag and every lynx track in the snow is another piece of the puzzle to understanding lynx populations and improving our management of an ecologically, economically, and culturally important wildlife species.

The sun rises at 10 AM and lights up the sky above the Alaska Highway.

I will return to Kluane for the last time in June. I look forward to experiencing yet another side of the North. By June, everything will have turned from bright white to bright green. The winter challenges of cold and snow will be exchanged for mosquitoes and mud. Long days will keep me outside for hours on end, and I look forward to returning to camp every day tired and happy. But I will certainly miss the Kluane winter and everything it offers. Again in the words of Robert Service:

There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land – oh it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back- and I will.
– “The Spell of the Yukon”

Dream team.

Darcy Doran-Myers

Using playback of territorial calls to investigate mechanisms of kin discrimination in red squirrels

A little while back, I did a Master’s degree at the University of Guelph with Prof. Andrew McAdam. I worked on the Kluane Red Squirrel Project, a collaborative project between several universities in Canada and the U.S. This long-term project was started nearly 30 years ago by Prof. Stan Boutin at the University of Alberta. The project has involved many undergraduate, graduates, and post-docs over the years studying a variety of ecological and evolutionary questions on a population of red squirrels in Kluane, Yukon.

  • A red squirrel in Kluane, Yukon, one of the individuals in the study population.

For my Master’s project, I was interested in red squirrel territorial behavior and the vocalizations, known as rattles, used to defend their territories. Red squirrel rattles are individually unique and have been shown to be used to discriminate kin, though the mechanism underlying this ability is unknown. In a recently published paper in Behavioral Ecology, I sought to distinguish between the mechanisms of ‘prior association’, where animals learn the phenotypes of kin they associate with early in life, and ‘phenotype matching’, where animals use a template to match phenotypes, thereby allowing them to recognize kin without an association early in life. I recorded rattles from squirrels in the field, and used those recordings in playback trials to measure the behavioural responses of squirrels to rattles from familiar kin, unfamiliar kin, and non-kin. One of the major benefits of the Kluane Red Squirrel project is that there is pedigree information for each squirrel, which means that we know who their mother and father is and who their siblings are. Without this information, this project would not have been possible, and full pedigree information is difficult to obtain for wild populations of animals.

  • Recording rattles from squirrels in the field to use in the playback trials

For red squirrels, familiar kin consisted of pair of squirrels that shared a natal nest (e.g. mother-offspring pairs and siblings from the same litter), and unfamiliar kin consisted of pairs of squirrels that did not share a natal nest (e.g. father-offspring pairs, siblings from different litters). Initial analyses revealed that red squirrels did not discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar kin, but also did not discriminate between kin and non-kin, despite previous evidence indicating this capability. Post-hoc analyses showed that a squirrel’s propensity to rattle in response to playback depended on an interaction between relatedness and how the playback stimuli had been recorded. Rattles used as the playback stimuli were either recorded from squirrels as they moved freely around their territories (unsolicited), or from squirrels as they were released from a trap or in response to a broadcast rattle (provoked). Red squirrels discriminated between rattles from close kin (relatedness coefficient of at least 0.5) and rattles from less related kin or non-kin (relatedness coefficient of less than 0.5) when the rattles were recorded from provoked squirrels. Squirrels did not exhibit kin discrimination in response to rattles that had been recorded from unprovoked squirrels.

This figure show the probability of a rattle response from the subject squirrel during the playback period by relatedness coefficient calculated from the pedigree and the collection method of obtaining the rattle stimulus. Unsolicited rattles were recorded from squirrels moving freely around their territories (n = 67 trials), and provoked rattles (n = 38 trials) were recorded from squirrels as they emerged from a live-trap or from squirrels responding to a rattle playback

This is potentially quite interesting, but it is important to note that this relationship was identified through exploratory post hoc analyses and needs to be tested more rigorously. If these results are robust, however, they would suggest that a squirrel’s physiological state might influence the structure of its rattles, including those individually distinctive structural features that are presumably used in discrimination. This raises interesting questions about what kind of information may be contained in the rattles and suggests that rattles may reflect the current state of stress or aggressiveness of the squirrel.

Photos and post by Julia Shonfield

Julia Shonfield, Jamieson C. Gorrell, David W. Coltman, Stan Boutin, Murray M. Humphries, David R. Wilson, Andrew G. McAdam. 2016. Using playback of territorial calls to investigate mechanisms of kin discrimination in red squirrels. Behavioral Ecology arw165. doi: 10.1093/beheco/arw165.

The abstract and a link to the full text can be found here:

If you are unable to access the article but are interested in reading it, you can email me at julia.shonfield@gmail.com and I can provide you with a copy.

 

 

 

 

Thesis Defence Seminar on Red Squirrels

As part of her PhD thesis defense, Wild49 member Jessica Haines will be presenting a one-hour public seminar at 1pm on January 12, 2017, in room CCIS 1-243 at the University of Alberta. Her talk title and abstract are below.


Resources and Reproductive Trade-offs Affect Fitness, Life History Traits, and Sexual Selection in Red Squirrels
Animals face trade-offs throughout life between competing functions, such as between self-maintenance, reproduction, and survival. Resource allocation between these competing functions leads to different patterns of life history traits, changes in investment in reproductive effort, and different patterns of reproductive success. Reproductive investment is also influenced by the environment, for example by resource availability or mating opportunities. In this thesis, I test for evidence of reproductive and life history trade-offs, as well as for whether individual- and population-level resource availability affect reproduction and life history traits. I first tested whether there was evidence of age-related changes in reproductive success in male red squirrels, and in particular whether there was evidence of senescent decline in older ages. I also considered whether there was a trade-off between early-life reproduction and late-life senescence in male red squirrels. Next, I tested whether encountering a resource pulse affected life history traits. I also explored whether life history trade-offs and the fitness consequences of life history traits were affected by encountering a resource pulse called a mast year. Finally, I tested whether individual-level food availability was related with breeding season timing and reproductive success in male and female red squirrels.

 

Field Fun Friday

IMG_0073

Second year male in 2015 with a light, indistinct necklace.

20160607_072301(0) (1)

The same male captured in 2016, now an after second year male with a bold, distinct necklace.

During the breeding season, male songbirds often have brightly coloured and contrasting feather patterns to attract females. These patterns often become more pronounced and defined in older adult males. One of the distinguishing features of the Canada Warbler is the adult male’s dark necklaced feather pattern, which gets darker and more distinct after their second year. Not only did our banded male from 2015 return to the same breeding location, but he came back in 2016 sporting a beautifully developed necklace, and was accompanied by a nesting female! Looks like a year abroad did wonders for this warbler’s appeal. Post and photos by Anjolene Hunt.

Field Fun Friday

Picture1 Picture2

It’s always fun to change things up and work with a new species or in a new habitat. Songbird researcher Anjolene Hunt was happy to help Jesse Watson, Frank Pouw, and Walter the owl carry out Broad-winged hawk capture and transmitter attachment as part of the Migratory Connectivity Project, a collaborative effort between the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and the University of Alberta. Photos and post by Anjolene Hunt.

Public Outreach: Wetland Ecosystems Talk at St. Edmund Elementary/ Junior High School

Last week, Logan McLeod and myself travelled to St. Edmund Elementary/ Junior High School to give a presentation on wetland ecosystems to the grade 5 students. The students learned about wetlands, including the differences between wetland classes and what kinds of flora and fauna can be found in these habitats. We also introduced the students to our work with bioacoustics and had them identify some of the vocalizations of common wetland species. The talk ended in a brief meet and greet with three tiger salamanders, which we had brought along to show the students. The students took in a huge amount of information on wetland ecosystems and left the presentation ready to go explore the local wetlands in our city. One step to conserving our wetlands is understanding their value by experiencing them first hand.

image3

Text by Natasha Annich, photos by Christina Panizzon, grade 5 teacher at St. Edmund Elementary/Junior High school.

An Ode to the Boreal Forest

This week, PhD student Julia Shonfield wrote a blog post for Dispatches from the Field about her experience doing field work over multiple seasons in the boreal forest. The boreal forest covers a huge area in Canada, yet many Canadians don’t really know too much about how incredibly varied this ecosystem is or what it’s like to work there. Check it out on Dispatches from the Field. Each week you can tune in to that website to find out what field work is really like.