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Current Projects and Research


Landscape Genetics & Conservation Genomics

Canadian woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) populations have experienced significant declines in recent years. As a result, many of these populations have been listed as “Threatened” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). This large-scale project focuses on genotyping from winter-collected fecal samples. Non-invasive winter-collected material fecal material has provided greater than 95% success rate in generating high-quality genotypes and produces quality/quantity levels comparable to tissue/blood sampling from live animals (Ball et al. 2007). This has been demonstrated to be highly cost-effective and has initiated a multi-year genetics project with Manitoba Conservation, Parks Canada and the OMNR to evaluation of this species-at-risk. The project has subsequently expanded to include other provinces (Saskatchewan, Alberta) and collaborations with private partners, e.g. Manitoba Hydro. The overall project serving different stakeholders will provide valuable information for the Species-at-Risk Recovery Team and for Environmental Impact Assessments relating to identifying the boundaries for a new National Park in Manitoba and development strategies for Manitoba Hydro and other industry as well as government agencies.  

Polar Bears

Results generated through my research program in collaboration with Dr. Martyn Obbard of OMNR, have examined the seasonal presence and absence of sea ice as the landscape for polar bears has resulted in multiple breeding units of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in southern Hudson Bay that are independent of the summering areas along the coast. These results have significant implications for climate change in the Hudson Bay ecosystem.  This work is continuing with Wilson Lab Alumni, Dr. Stephen Petersen, now Director of Biodiversity at the Assiniboine Zoo in Winnipeg, MB.

Canada Lynx and Bobcat

Landscape Genetics & Conservation Genomics

This project, funded by the Strategic NSERC Program, is evaluating habitat selection patterns of lynx (Lynx canadensis) at the southeastern edge of their distribution in Ontario, as a means of validating a lynx Habitat Suitability Model being developed for the province. Specifically, we are evaluating coarse- and fine-scale movement patterns and determine the degree of concordance between observed landscape and habitat utilization patterns from empirical landscape genetic data and genetic dispersal estimates versus patterns predicted from the Habitat Suitability Model. 

A second component of the lynx and bobcat project is to assess the degree of introgressive hybridization and the potential selection on candidate genes important for adaption in hybrids but also across the range of both species, in particular the northern range margin of bobcat and the southern margin of Canada lynx.

Flying Squirrels

We are currently in a period of global warming that is having dramatic effects on species distributions worldwide. Geographic expansions of northern range boundaries are occurring for many species, while the range margins at their southern peripheral distribution are impacted by less suitable habitat and increased isolation resulting from anthropogenic activities and increased biotic stress. My project on flying squirrels (Glaucomys sp.), in collaboration with Dr. J. Bowman, studies a system that has undergone an important “natural experiment” in Ontario.  Southern flying squirrels expanded their range by approximately 200 km over a 10-year period, however, in 2003-04, the combined effects of a cold winter and low food caused the population to contract by an equivalent distance in one year.  This project surveys any surviving southern flying squirrel populations or hybrid northern x southern flyers that may have been adapted to the acute climatic event.

Candidate adaptive genes potentially involved in thermoregulation and reproductive timing that promoted local adaptation to the colder winter at the range front or in any surviving pockets will be characterized.  We are also examining the synergistic effects of warming trends and habitat fragmentation on flying squirrels as they expand through the developed Ontario landscape.  It will be important over the next few decades to increase our understanding the combined effects of climatic warming and increasingly random harsh weather conditions, such as the 2003-04 Ontario winter, on range expansions and local adaptation in wildlife populations.  This project is the basis for my NSERC Discovery grant.  See Flying Squirrel Project website and Daily Planet video.

Evolutionary Genetics of North American Wolves

As part of my PhD, I was part of the project that identified a new wolf species (C. lycaon) in eastern North America that evolved independently of the grey wolf (C. lupus). This wolf is identical or closely related to the endangered red wolf (C. rufus) in the US and is evolutionary more related to the coyote (C. latrans) than the grey wolf. These findings have provided important insights into canid evolution and hybridization. Furthermore, these findings have had a significant impact on the management of wolves within eastern North America as well as recovery programs in the US, e.g. the USFWS Red Wolf Program, and the potential reintroduction of wolves into the northeastern US states. I am continuing research on the evolutionary history of wolves and coyotes in North America by examining paternally inherited Y-chromosome sequence evolution.

Fisher and Marten Landscape Genetics

Projects in my research program on fisher and marten (Martes sp.) have applied genetic estimates of dispersal in a designed study to integrate genetic estimates in replicated landscapes to identify variables impacting the connectivity of populations. This work has been published in Oikos, Journal of Wildlife Management, Evolutionary Applications, PLoS One, Landscape Ecology and Molecular Ecology.

Moose Landscape Genetics

The main objective of this research, funded by a Strategic NSERC to Dr. D. Murray, is to identify factors affecting the distribution and abundance of moose (Alces alces) in their southern range in the mixed forests of North America, with specific emphasis on understanding limits on moose numbers in southeastern Ontario. This information will help refine appropriate population monitoring and management protocols in areas where moose are at their range periphery and therefore more susceptible to decline. The problem is a high priority because of recent moose declines in some jurisdictions in both Canada and the United States, with several harvests now being either closed or under review. This proposal involves collaboration between Canadian and U.S. universities, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and several other Provincial/State wildlife management agencies, as well as the involvement of a non-government organization. Movement and habitat selection patterns will be determined through GPS telemetry, whereas gene flow within a metapopulation matrix around the APPE will be inferred from extensive genetic sampling of hunter-killed animals. Parameter sensitivity for Ontario's existing moose harvest model will be evaluated in light of our research findings to help determine its potential efficacy for managing sustainable moose populations in the southern range. Finally, an individual-based spatially-explicit model will be developed to examine the potential impact of changes in habitat abundance or connectivity, or adjustments in harvest regimes, on moose population viability in southern Ontario and collaborating jurisdictions.

Application of DNA to the Wildlife Forensic Science

I completed my MSc and PhD as a part-time graduate student while working first as a Forensic Scientist and then as the Forensic Supervisor of the Wildlife Forensic DNA Laboratory from 1991-1997 at McMaster University then from 1997-2001 at Trent University. My MSc research focused on the development of DNA markers for individual-identification, species identification and gender identification of game animals and other species for non-human forensic applications. These protocols formed the basis for processing casework submitted to the laboratory from the OMNR and other provincial and federal agencies (RCMP, Environment Canada, Parks Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service).  

Most recently, we developed DNA databases for high sensitivity detection of highly processed material such as Asian medicines that may contain species listed under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). One project is establishing a TaqMan protocol for distinguishing African and Asian elephant material from each other and from mammoth DNA.

Evolutionary Genetics of the Cichlids of Lake Magadi, Kenya

As a graduate student, I worked on field studies and the genetic structure of Alcolapia grahami, a cichlid adapted to the most hostile environmental conditions (e.g. pH 10.0, 35-42◦C, anoxic night-time conditions) any teleost has been found to inhabit. In reconstructing the history of this fish using molecular genetic markers, the evidence supports balancing selection acting on the mitochondrial DNA given frequent and common haplotypes among physically and environmentally separated lagoons. As part of a large international research team, I participated in a comprehensive study of this cichlid that included ecological, genetic, biochemical, physiological and morphological studies. I contributed not only in the genetic survey of populations, but also examined the physiological differences related to survival and osmoregulation along a severe environmental gradient.

Adaptive airbreathing behaviour during anoxic (a lack of oxygen) in the water during the night.  Magadi cichlids adapted their swimbladders into primitve airbreathing lung likely within 5,000 - 10,000 years.

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