Research Spotlight Series: Wildlife Evolutionary Ecology Lab

By Quinn Webber, Mike Laforge, Eric Vander Wal

Posted February 27, 2018

Editor’s Note: In our Research Spotlight Series we shine a light on exciting research going on in our province. In this post we showcase the Wildlife Evolutionary Ecology Lab.

Caribou on Fogo Island in summer 2017 (Photo by Quinn Webber)

The Wildlife Evolutionary Ecology Lab (WEEL) at Memorial University (MUN) studies a range of mammal species in Newfoundland and Labrador (NL), as well as across Canada. The majority of our research in NL focuses on the province’s woodland caribou populations. Specifically, we study questions about caribou ecology that bridge fundamental and applied biology with an aim to contribute to our understanding of caribou ecology as well as inform management and conservation practices. Currently, there are two Ph.D. students in WEEL studying caribou: Quinn Webber and Mike Laforge.

Quinn studies social behaviour of caribou on Fogo Island with a particular emphasis on the relationship between social behaviour and population size. As population size decreases, we might expect that the number and size of caribou groups will also decrease. However, little is known about how the relationship between population size and social behaviour influences the probability of female caribou successfully rearing calves. Quinn is also interested in Elaphostrongylus rangiferi, also known as ‘brain worm’, a parasitic nematode that infects caribou in Newfoundland. E. rangiferi has spread across much of Newfoundland and, by sampling slugs, the intermediate host for E. rangiferi, Quinn will survey for E. rangiferi and quantify the spatial abundance of this parasite in relation to caribou space-use. The purpose of this project is to determine whether caribou can successfully live in areas with high E. rangiferi and assess how caribou may change space-use based on the presence of E. rangiferi. Quinn’s Ph.D. thesis aims to shed light on the relationship between social behaviour and population size as well as better understand host-parasite dynamics in caribou, a federally threatened species.

Members of the Wildlife Evolutionary Ecology Lab at Memorial University conducting research on Fogo Island in summer 2017 (Photo by Maegwin Bonar).

Mike is examining the adaptability of caribou migration in response to the timing of spring “green-up”, or the timing of plant growth across years. Animal migration is generally considered an adaptation to exploit resources that vary in time and space—birds have evolved to migrate and rear young at the same time as insect abundance is at its highest in their breeding grounds. Climate change, however, is threatening this adaptation by affecting the annual timing of events at different rates for different species, resulting in a reduction in resources for migrants at key times in their life history and resulting in higher juvenile mortality. Migratory ungulates, like caribou, track the progress of new, and highly nutritious, plant growth which increases as spring progresses. Mike’s research aims to examine whether caribou in Newfoundland are able to adapt the timing of their migration to track changing green-up and how this affects their ability to obtain high quality forage resources. Mike is examining this problem from an individual perspective, testing whether certain individuals are more flexible in when they migrate than others. Mike’s research will help inform management and conservation of caribou in Newfoundland and elsewhere.

To learn more about research conducted in WEEL please see our website or follow us on twitter @wildlifeevoeco.