Science Behind the Scenes

People are at the heart of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC)’s science. Over half of ECCC’s workforce is in science and technology. Science behind the scenes gives you a glimpse of some of their work.

  1. Tracking fantastic flying machines with technology
  2. Testing wood frog ecosystems
  3. Patrick Thompson helps Canada Measure Volatile Organic Compounds
  4. Passionate about Sewage
  5. Problem-solver keeps facility flowing
  6. Our Environmental Effects Monitoring used in pilot projects in Brazil
  7. Snotty biofilm feeds millions
  8. Drone gives bird’s-eye view of wetlands
  9. Photo sparks reptile research
  10. New way to detect global sulphur dioxide emissions
  11. Feisty Rufous Hummingbirds get help
  12. Do smaller field sizes help bees?
  13. Long-term research examines population changes in Arctic breeding geese

Tracking fantastic flying machines with technology

Technology gave Dr. Keith Hobson, a research scientist in the Wildlife and Landscape Science Directorate of Environment and Climate Change Canada, an unexpected window into bird migration. It also helped his Colombian graduate students, Ana-Maria Gonzalez and Camila Gomez.

Last year, they used recycled radio transmitter tags the size of a dime and weighing half a gram to track the migration of 19 grey-cheeked and Swainson’s thrushes from their wintering grounds to Canada’s boreal region.  

The study was originally intended to find out where these thrushes stop over and winter in Colombia. However, it resulted in unexpected information on the movements of these birds far beyond these sites.

“Numbers of recoveries from banding have been inadequate to give us much of a picture of their migration,” said Dr. Hobson. In more than a century of banding, only a few thrushes have been re-sighted. Given the odds, Dr. Hobson and his students did not expect any information beyond the movements of birds at their Colombian study site.

When the thrushes flew into North America, their tags were detected on the MOTUS towers operated by Bird Studies Canada. Even more surprising, Dr. Hobson had a 50 per cent re-sighting rate from all tags put on the grey-cheeked thrushes.

“These are iconic long-distance migrants. If you don’t know where they are going, it’s difficult to conserve them,” said Dr. Hobson.  “If we can conserve their habitat in Colombia, and we know they stop there to eat fruits and berries near shade coffee plantations, we can take steps to help these fantastic flying machines.”

Photo: Thrush with a radio transmitter tag

Dr. Hobson

top of page


Testing wood frog ecosystems

Late last spring, at the National Wildlife Research Centre on the campus of Carleton University, wood frog tadpoles transformed into adult frogs in 25 repurposed, 300-litre, cattle watering tanks. Shade cloth covered the tanks, both to mimic forest light levels and to keep water in the tanks from heating up.

Once the wood frogs’ tails disappeared, Dr. Stacey Robinson, an ecotoxicologist in Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Science & Technology Branch, brought them into her lab to do behavioural research. She and colleague Vance Trudeau at the University of Ottawa wanted to know if the nervous systems of wood frogs were affected by neonicotinoids (common pesticides used in farming).

Using a standard aquarium lined with moss, water and a hiding place, Dr. Robinson tested each frog’s reaction to a bobbing heron head, a common predator. She wanted to find out how neonicotinoid-exposed wood frogs would react.

Frogs exposed to one of the neonicotinoid chemicals didn’t move when the heron head bobbed towards them, while the control group took evasive action. Frog survival, growth and development were also assessed; minor delays in development were detected with exposure to one of the neonicotinoid chemicals compared to the control group.

“We’re seeing declines in frog populations around the world, and neonicotinoids are widely used in farming, said Dr. Robinson. “We need to do our due diligence to see if this group of pesticides unduly harms non-target animals.”  

Photo: Dr. Stacey Robinson checks on the wood frog microhabitats.

Robinson

top of page


Patrick Thompson helps Canada Measure Volatile Organic Compounds

Are you curious about ambient air quality monitoring at Environment and Climate Change Canada?   

Patrick Thompson holds an ambient air quality monitoring canister used in the National Air Pollution Surveillance Program.

Thompson

Patrick Thompson, Chemical Technologist at a ECCC science facility in Ottawa, Ontario, makes sure the six- and three-litre monitoring canisters  are ready to capture volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, to monitor ambient air quality across the country as part of the National Air Pollution Surveillance Program (NAPS). NAPS is a federal-provincial-territorial program that delivers data and trend analysis related to air quality in major urban areas and some rural locations or smaller communities impacted by local sources.

One of Pat’s many duties is to ensure these canisters are free of contaminants by heating them to 75°C in order to bake out air pollutant residues, so they can be reused across Canada. He maintains a rigorous schedule when he is preparing for their shipment across Canada.

Environment Canada is interested in VOCs as these carbon-containing gases and vapors can result in the formation of ground-level ozone, a main component of smog. These pollutants are emitted to air by both natural sources (vegetation, forest fires) and from human activity such as emissions from the oil and gas industry, solvent usage, and transportation sources. Although natural sources of VOCs emissions are larger overall, human-made sources are the main contributors of VOCs in urban areas.  

top of page


Passionate about Sewage

Shirley Anne Smyth and Steve Teslic are passionate about sewage. This duo travels across the country to sample municipal wastewater treatment plants to determine levels of priority substances under the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP). 

Since 2009, they have sampled some 42 municipal wastewater treatment plants to support the data needs of their CMP risk assessment and risk management colleagues at Environment and Climate Change Canada. Their data provides risk assessors actual concentrations of substances in wastewater and land-applied biosolids.

“As an example, risk assessors look at substance X in a personal care product, and will have to estimate how many Canadians use it, and how much is going down the drain,” said Shirley Anne. “There are many assumptions about releases to the environment. When we are able to sample, we can provide assessors with measured concentrations to verify or improve their assumptions.”

Municipal wastewater treatment facilities participate in this program voluntarily, anonymously, and enthusiastically, added Shirley Anne. Treatment plants are also provided with the results of samples taken by this Environment and Climate Change Canada team.  

Their data has also been used in many scientific publications, which adds to global knowledge of substance concentrations, removals, and temperature effects on water treatment experienced here in Canada.

Smyth Teslic

top of page


Problem-solver keeps facility flowing

Alicia Mehlenbacher solves problems. She’s the manager of the $4.6 million Aquatic Life Research Facility (ALRF) in Burlington, Ontario, and part of the Aquatic Contaminants Research Division team.

Alicia ensures water quality and chemistry are appropriate for a number of fish species, turtles and freshwater mussels; therefore, she keeps the animals healthy and ready for scientific research.

Digital, mechanical and biological systems help her monitor and verify that everything in the ALRF is flowing as it should. Like most wet labs, the ALRF has a control system that sends Alicia alarm signals if something goes awry (and it can happen at 2 a.m.).

Alicia doesn’t just rely on systems. She walks through the facility every day; she is part of the Animal Care Committee; she trains each approved researcher on lab safety procedures; she’s on the Occupational Health and Safety Committee. Not only does Alicia care for the animals in the facility, she also ensures the safety of the humans as well.  

So when problems arise, she solves them.

“Our water comes from the municipality, and we use carbon tanks to filter out the chlorinated water,” said Alicia. “Levels of chlorine were too high in the system when the ALRF was first opened. Before we could even bring fish in, this issue needed to be addressed, because the fish need zero levels of chlorine.”

Her research on the issue found that the dechlorination system contained the incorrect form of activated carbon. Now that the system has been converted over to the correct form, there have been no issues of chlorine in the water.

“I have a background in biology, but most days I think I could’ve used a degree in engineering, too,” said Alicia. “I couldn’t have gotten this facility to where it is today without the help of several resources both in the building and from colleagues from other wet labs across the country.”

 Alicia Mehlenbacher solves problems at the Aquatic Life Research Facility.

Alicia Mehlenbacher solves problems at the Aquatic Life Research Facility.

top of page


Our Environmental Effects Monitoring used in pilot projects in Brazil

For the last 20 years in Canada, the Environmental Effects Monitoring (EEM) program has monitored the health of lakes and rivers near pulp and paper mills and metal mines to assess how effective current regulations are in protecting the environment. The EEM program publishes data on monitoring results.

In December 2015, three Environment and Climate Change scientists, Joanne Parrott, Mark McMaster and Mark Hewitt, co-authored and presented an EEM guidance document to the Governor of Espirito Santo in Vitoria, Brazil.

The guidance document for the pilot projects in Brazil, Peixe Guia (Fish Guide), has been accepted by the Espirito Santo state government. Officials indicated they wish to adopt this into formal state legislation.

"The three of us were really thrilled to be part of this project in Brazil. It is really great to see the Environmental Effects Monitoring program that was developed in Canada being used and adapted to monitoring fish and benthos in other countries,” said Parrott.

 Senior research scientists Mark McMaster, Mark Hewitt, and Joanne Parrott developed a type of environmental monitoring now used in Brazil.

Senior research scientists Mark McMaster, Mark Hewitt, and Joanne Parrott developed a type of environmental monitoring now used in Brazil.

top of page


Snotty biofilm feeds millions

More than a million Western Sandpipers stop to feed on the Roberts Bank mudflats of the Fraser River estuary during their spring migration.

Dr. Bob Elner, Environment and Climate Change Canada Scientist Emeritus, walked out onto the mudflats one spring and wondered why these shorebirds, which normally eat invertebrates, were feeding on the apparently barren mudflats.

His scientific curiosity spurred novel research on the role of biofilm, a thin gelatinous layer secreted by microorganisms, covering the mudflats, in the diet of migrating shorebirds.

The phenomenon of biofilm feeding was first recorded by Dr. Tomohiro Kuwae, a visiting postdoc from Japan, by taking high-speed video footage of the Western Sandpipers feeding on the mudflats. The findings were first published in the journal Ecology in 2008.

Western Sandpipers have hairy tongues covered in mucous, with large batteries of taste buds.

“Their snotty tongues are adapted to slurp up snotty biofilm,” said Dr. Elner. “They love the taste of these rich microbes and polysaccharides.”

Western Sandpipers need the Omega-3 fatty acids produced by diatoms in the biofilm to fuel their long-distance migratory flight to the Arctic to breed. Diatoms form the base of the food chain, and the nutrients they produce help to fatten up many species including polar bears, salmon and Western Sandpipers.

“When these small critters bloom, they produce essential Omega-3 fatty acids, and they are the primary source on earth for them,” said Dr. Elner. “When you’re watching 50,000 shorebirds feeding on biofilm with such intense concentration that you can walk right up to them, you realize the ecological importance of the situation and the need for greater scientific understanding in order to conserve these systems.”

Dr. Elner and his colleagues’ findings are already being used in helping balance coastal development and conservation issues in British Columbia.

 

top of page


Drone gives bird’s-eye view of wetlands

Wetlands cover approximately 14 per cent of the land area of Canada. In late May, Dr. Jon Pasher, and his team from the Landscape Science and Technology Division’s Geomatics Section, unhooked the six carbon-fibre propellers of their unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at a test site on the Bay of Quinte, near Belleville, Ontario. Their aim was to capture a bird’s-eye view of this particular wetland.

While Dr. Pasher uses earth observation (satellite imagery) to map and monitor wetlands, the UAV can provide more detail than satellite imagery on vegetation types and water levels in the wetlands. This detailed field data from the UAV can be used to train and validate coarser data from satellite imagery taken over the same location.

“The first major step is to be able to identify and properly map the boundaries and the actual type of wetlands (based on hydrology and vegetation) using imagery,” he said. “This is especially difficult given their dynamic nature seasonally, but also annually.”

In partnership with Natural Resources Canada’s Canadian Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation, along with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Geomatics Section is researching methods to map and monitor Great Lakes coastal wetlands using multi-scale earth observation.

The UAV flies 100 metres high, well above the tree canopy. The camera mounted on a remote-controlled swivel takes images of incredible detail – the pixels are 2-3 centimetres. It can take photos of the same object from multiple angles and hundreds of viewpoints. These images can be used to build 3D models and provide elevation data within wetlands. The GPS built into the tablet and UAV antennae provides exact location.

The drone is piloted through a handheld tablet. The battery pack on the UAV weighs five pounds, allowing 20 minutes of flying time, before needing to be swapped out for a fresh one.

“We can collect a permanent record on the ground on a specific day. If you fly the same wetland area year after year, you are able to map the extent of a wetland, or the growth or deterioration of canopies,” said Dr. Pasher. “High resolution satellite imagery is very costly for a small area and if there is cloud cover, you’re not able to have usable data.

“Using a UAV, you get a rapid assessment of what is going on below the clouds, giving us a bird’s eye view.”

Tom Giles

Pilot Tom Giles prepares a mission in the Bay of Quinte wetlands.


Radarsat

This colorful image is derived information from Radarsat 2 satellite over a large region of the Bay of Quinte, and has a lot coarser resolution than the UAV image.

UAV

In May, the team took this UAV image of an approximate 100m x 50m section of a wetland with a resolution of 2cm pixels.

Jon Pasher

Dr. Jon Pasher

top of page


Photo sparks reptile research

Linda Paetow received a photo of an Eastern Milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum) from a concerned citizen. The snake’s nose and part of its face was disfigured, swollen and covered with scabs. The snake in the photo was found in the province of Quebec.

Ms. Paetow is Curator of Reptiles, Amphibians and Fish at the Ecomuseum Zoo near Montreal. The Ecomuseum has a strong program of outreach and education. Its research and conservation activities are aimed at protecting reptiles and amphibians in southern Quebec, an expertise developed by the zoo’s team since its creation.

Ms. Paetow called a colleague, Bruce Pauli, in the Wildlife and Landscape Science Directorate at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), and they discussed the possibility that the snake in the photo was afflicted by snake fungal disease, which is caused by a fungal pathogen called Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola (Oo).

Recently reported in snakes from the northern New York State area, the disease caused by this fungus can be fatal to 50 per cent of infected animals. They were concerned the fungus could now be present in Quebec. To follow up, Ms. Paetow and Mr. Pauli contacted Dr. Matt Allender, a researcher at the University of Illinois who has an ongoing research-and-surveillance program on snake fungal disease.

Dr. Allender agreed that the photo could be of an infected animal and therefore that the disease could have spread northward. With the help of Sébastien Rouleau, the Ecomuseum Zoo’s Coordinator of Research and Conservation, the team established a snake fungal disease surveillance program around Montreal. The goals of this program would be to try to determine whether or not Oo has become established in southern Quebec, to estimate the incidence of the disease there and to provide hypotheses as to why Oo might have moved northward.

Building on capacity and expertise developed by ECCC under the Strategic Technology Applications of Genomics in the Environment (STAGE) program, the team was able to establish a new regional “node” in Dr. Allender’s ongoing surveillance program of Oo incidence in northeastern North America. Mr. Rouleau, and a science student intern hired by the Ecomuseum Zoo, took skin swab samples from various species of snakes to send to Dr. Allender’s laboratory for genomic testing.

One particular species of concern for the team is Dekay’s Brownsnake (Storeria dekayi), which already has a very limited distribution in southern Quebec and is already threatened by habitat loss.

An additional objective of this collaborative effort is to provide the student intern with valuable training in the field of genomics, wildlife research and conservation science.

At the end of the field season, the samples collected in southern Québec, as well as from Dr. Allender’s own sampling areas, will be analyzed and the data obtained will be added to Dr. Allender’s database of the incidence of snake fungal disease in northeastern North America.

“With just a little financial support, genomic science can serve as a powerful tool in the field of disease research,” said Mr. Pauli. “The science can help us seek answers to many questions, such as why is this disease emerging now? Is its emergence related to climate change and are humans playing a direct role in its spread? Can we do anything to stop the disease from spreading further?”

Overall, the combination of a concerned citizen’s photo, a group of dedicated students and scientists, and a little bit of financial support can spur great action. When the data are analyzed, the hope is to understand much more about the threat of snake fungal disease in the United States and Canada.

 Sébastien Rouleau, Ecomuseum Zoo’s Coordinator of Research and Conservation, in the field with student Philippe Lamarre taking skin swab samples from various species of snakes to send to Dr. Matt Allender’s laboratory for genomic testing.

Sébastien Rouleau, Ecomuseum Zoo’s Coordinator of Research and Conservation, in the field with student Philippe Lamarre taking skin swab samples from various species of snakes to send to Dr. Matt Allender’s laboratory for genomic testing.

 Swabbing for DNA is a first step in wildlife genomics research. Researchers are using genomics to learn more about the incidence of snake fungal disease to protect species at risk like this Dekay’s Brownsnake.

Swabbing for DNA is a first step in wildlife genomics research. Researchers are using genomics to learn more about the incidence of snake fungal disease to protect species at risk like this Dekay’s Brownsnake.

top of page


New way to detect global sulphur dioxide emissions

Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is a common air pollutant in Canada. These emissions lead to the formation of sulfuric acid and fine particulate matter, which are associated with negative health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease and environmental impacts such as acid rain. The next steps by the Government of Canada to further reduce these emissions will require a thorough understanding of air pollution sources and science has an important role to play.

In spring 2016, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) scientists, in collaboration with scientists from NASA and Canadian and American universities, published a paper in the journal Nature Geoscience, which summarizes a new method for detecting, mapping, and calculating the amount of air pollutant emissions in our atmosphere. This method uses space-based observations, also known as satellite remote sensing, to measure ground-level sources of SO2 air emissions. Such sources include small and large industrial facilities and naturally-occurring sources such as volcanoes.

"We now have an independent measurement of these emission sources that does not rely on what was known or thought known," said Chris McLinden, an atmospheric scientist with ECCC in Toronto and lead author of the study. "When you look at a satellite picture of sulphur dioxide, you end up with it appearing as hotspots – bullseyes, in effect -- which makes the estimates of emissions easier."

The scientists used a decade of data from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument attached to NASA’s Aura satellite, with a focus on the year 2008.  

NASA’s Aura spacecraft

Data from NASA’s Aura spacecraft, illustrated here, were analyzed by scientists to produce improved estimates of sulphur dioxide sources and concentrations worldwide between 2005 and 2014. Credit: NASA

Using new analysis techniques, the scientists were able to detect smaller concentrations of SO2 emissions than had been possible in the past. This led to another breakthrough: being able to more precisely detect SO2 emissions, completely independent of what was previously reported (or not reported). The scientists used wind strength and direction to trace the pollutant back to the source so they could estimate how much SO2 was emitted from each site. The result was the first ever satellite-derived, global emissions inventory.

Canadian Results

As part of the verification process, the satellite data results were first verified against known sources of SO2 that are reported each year to ECCC by industry through the National Pollutant Release Inventory.

The results from the satellite data showed that total Canadian SO2 emissions decreased significantly between 2005 and 2014. This result aligns with downward trends already observed in Canada’s annual emissions inventory. The satellite data results also provided an independent verification of the effectiveness of past regulations and international agreements on air quality, for example, Canadian fuel regulations that have reduced the amount of sulphur, and the Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement that has helped to reduce the transboundary flow of air pollutants into Canada.

International Results

The research identified approximately 500 sulphur dioxide emission sources, with about 40 of these not captured in leading international emission inventories. These missing emission sources include coal-burning power plants, smelters, and oil and gas operations, and they tended to appear in clusters – notably in the Middle East, but also in Mexico and parts of Russia. In addition, emissions from the reported known sources in these regions were sometimes two to three times lower than the satellite-based estimate for those sources. Overall emissions from these new, or missing, SO2 sources represent roughly 12% of global SO2 emissions.

While this is not necessarily that significant on the global scale, these missing sources can have a large impact on regional and local air quality.

The research team also located 75 natural SO2 emissions sources, which included dormant volcanoes slowly leaking SO2 throughout the year. Since many volcanoes are in remote locations and are not monitored, this satellite-based data set is the first that will be able to provide regular annual information on passive volcanic emissions.

Next steps

The results of this research will improve the accuracy of air quality models, including those used by meteorologists at ECCC to prepare the daily Air Quality Health Index forecasts. Satellite measurements of air pollution will also assist researchers to better understand the long-term impacts of emissions on human health and the environment.

Scientists also determined that this satellite-based detection and mapping method, developed for SO2, can also be used for nitrogen dioxide and potentially for ammonia, particulate matter and other short-lived pollutants.

Satellite remote sensing for SO2 emissions is an example of innovative environmental monitoring that shows Canada supports science and air quality management based on evidence. The methods, satellite data and meteorological data used by the research team are freely available.

Team photo  

Nicolay Krotkov (NASA), Chris McLinden (ECCC), Joanna Joiner (NASA), Randall Martin (Dalhousie University) and Can Li (NASA and University of Maryland) collaborated on the Nature Geoscience paper [missing: Vitali Fioletov (ECCC), Michael Moran (ECCC), and Mark Shephard (ECCC)].

top of page


Feisty Rufous Hummingbirds get help

Small and feisty Rufous Hummingbirds in British Columbia are getting some hands-on and high-tech help in the hope of finding answers to their population decline.

Data from Canada’s Breeding Bird Survey show that numbers of Rufous Hummingbirds have declined about 50 per cent since the 1970s. This is in stark contrast to all other hummingbird species, whose numbers are increasing.

Dr. Christine Bishop, a research scientist at Environment and Climate Change, is in her second year of a five-year project to help pinpoint reasons for the Rufous Hummingbird’s population decline. 

Highly territorial, the brilliant orange males and green-and-orange females are loved by many birders. Rufous Hummingbirds often display and nest in hedgerows near farmlands. Their rapid flight is fueled mainly by nectar supplemented with insects. Their movements between flowers act to pollinate many plants.

Despite weighing less than 4g, Rufous Hummingbirds migrate thousands of kilometers each year. They breed the farthest north of any hummingbird species. The centre of their breeding distribution is in British Columbia and they overwinter in Central America.

Hummingbird

“There is not one thing about this hummingbird that is not absolutely awesome,” said Dr. Bishop. “The way their tongues fork and curl up to pump nectar from flowers; the way their feathers refract light, which gives their feathers their dazzling metallic appearance; their incredibly high metabolism: beating their wings about 50 times a second while they fly backwards; and their aggression – nothing will stop them from getting to their nectar source.”

Although there may be other habitat or migration-related factors that are contributing to the population decline of Rufous Hummingbirds, many scientists are concerned about the effects of a new group of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which have been implicated in the declines of another type of pollinator: honeybees.

“Neonicotinoids are insecticides which are relatively persistent, but not as persistent as the ones used in the past,” Dr. Bishop said. “These insecticides have low toxicity to people and are effective on insects. Because they are fat- and water soluble, and are therefore absorbed into plants, we wanted to look at whether Rufous Hummingbirds could be exposed to them through nectar in berry flowers.”

To assess neonicotinoid exposure in hummingbirds, Dr. Bishop is working with colleagues within ECCC: Dr. John Elliott and Dr. Scott Wilson. She is also working with Michelle Toshack, a graduate student in Dr. Elizabeth Elle’s lab at Simon Fraser University, and with Dr. Alison Moran of Rocky Point Bird Observatory. They are examining a range of natural and agricultural sites (blueberry fields) in the Fraser Valley.  

Hummingbird 2

Detecting neonicotinoids in hummingbird urine: When banding hummingbirds, Dr. Bishop’s research team takes samples of clear beads of urine (cloacal fluid) and/or fecal pellets produced from each bird.

Analyzing neonicotinoids at low concentrations in very small volume urine samples is a tricky business, and this is where France Maisonneauve, a chemist at the National Wildlife Research Centre, contributed her expertise. Ms. Maisonneuve developed methods using a Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometre, which enabled her to detect neonicotinoid insecticides in just a few drops of hummingbird urine.  

3

This injection vial’s tiny glass insert contained a pool of many hummingbird urine samples from the same location to test for neonicotinoids.

The combined total concentration of three neonicotinoid insecticides was just over three parts per billion in samples from hummingbird urine collected from birds living within 0.5 to 1 km of conventionally-sprayed blueberry fields.

“At this stage we know neonicotinoid levels in the hummingbirds are higher than we expected. We hope to look at metabolic rates – heart rates, breathing rates and oxygen rates – in the future,” said Dr. Bishop.

Dr. Bishop will present this first phase of research on neonicotinoids in Rufous Hummingbirds at the World Congress SETAC conference in Orlando, Florida, in November 2016.

top of page


Do smaller field sizes help bees?

Dr. Ilona Naujokatitis-Lewis, a landscape ecologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, spent the summer of 2016 in the field, literally. She was looking for native bee species in farmland south of Ottawa to almost the St. Lawrence Seaway, to find out what was causing declines in these essential pollinators.

Collaboration is a key to the Government of Canada’s science, and in examining ecosystem health and developing approaches to integrated ecosystem management and resilience.

Dr. Naujokatitis-Lewis’s collaboration started well before she and her colleague entomologist Dr. Sophie Cardinal from Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada took samples of flowers, vegetation, and bees from 30 different landscapes.

Over the course of their two-year study, they want to get more information on the impact of habitat loss and global threats, such as climate change, on the native bee population.

The scopa or hairs on bees which collect pollen are seen clearly here in a photo by Dr. Ilona Naujokatitis-Lewis.

The scopa or hairs on bees which collect pollen are seen clearly here in a photo by Dr. Ilona Naujokatitis-Lewis.

The sites they visited in 2016 were a subset of sites that were sampled in 2011. Collecting data over multiple years allows scientists to find out which species are present in a certain area, and get a clearer picture of why population species numbers change over time.

Before they could even set foot on the fields, windbreaks, and hedgerows of their study area, they needed permission from landowners, and they needed the proper equipment to take bee samples.

Dr. Ilona Naujokatitis-Lewis needed adjustable PVC pan traps to be able to sample fields of corn and soybeans, so she modified them herself. Corn is pollinated by the wind, and while soybeans were generally thought to be self-pollinated, recent research suggests that bees might improve soybean yields. Different bee species are attracted to different colours, this is why Dr. Naujokatitis-Lewis used yellow, white and blue cups.

Dr. Naujokatitis-Lewis visits a corn field in June 2016

For two weeks in June, and two weeks in August 2016, two crews of field technicians and scientists met at 6:30 a.m. the National Wildlife Research Centre to gather equipment for the day.

When Dr. Naujokatitis-Lewis adjusted her pan trap at a corn field in August 2016, it was about six or eight feet high.

When Dr. Naujokatitis-Lewis adjusted her pan trap at a corn field in August 2016, it was about six or eight feet high.

“It was a hot and dry growing season with severe drought conditions,” said Dr. Naujokatitis-Lewis. “This shows how important it is to collect data over period of time. Without knowing what was here before, it can be really challenging to know how species are responding over time to both land-use and climate changes.”

The bees are now being identified in Dr. Cardinal’s lab at Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada.

“We’ve identified 10 different species of bumble bees in the samples collected, and we’re in the process of identifying all of the other kinds of bees to species,” said Dr. Cardinal. There are over 800 species of bees in Canada.

The data collected will be analyzed in the coming months. Dr. Naujokatitis-Lewis will share data and results of her study with farmers involved in the study and with Canadians more broadly through publications and open data.

One of the research assistants from Carleton University, Tonya Tanner, updated her landscape data from her Master’s thesis and found many field sizes increasing. Farmers were removing the linear features (windbreaks and hedgerows) which provide important habitat for pollinators.

“It shows how quickly the landscape can change. These types of changes are occurring rapidly across agricultural landscapes. In combination with other practices, these can affect native bees especially when nesting and foraging habitats become scarce,” said Dr. Naujokatitis-Lewis.

Protecting Canada’s natural environment from the impacts of stressors on the environment is a key part of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s science work. “A healthy bee population improves crop outcomes for farmers,” she said. “They are indicators of healthy ecosystem services, and have value as being part of biodiversity.”

top of page


Long-term research examines population changes in Arctic breeding geese

More than 15 million Ross’s and Lesser snow geese migrate to the Canadian Arctic every spring, making them one of the most abundant Arctic wildlife species. Despite extensive annual harvests  by southern hunters – about 700,000 of these “light geese” are harvested each year in North America – populations of both species have increased by more than 700 per cent since the 1970s, prompting researchers to ask why there was such an increase, and what impacts higher goose populations may be having on their Arctic habitats.

Dr. Ray Alisauskas, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), has been studying the population ecology of light geese and their impact on Arctic ecosystems since the late 1980s. This long-term work allows us to track the status of key Arctic ecosystems, as well as ensuring that the harvest of snow geese is sustainable over the long term.

Dr. Alisauskas’ work links to ECCC’s regulations and policies under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994. For example, the setting of guidelines around hunting season and bag limits are based on a science evaluation of light geese population status and trends of migratory game birds.

Light geese breed in many large colonies in the Arctic, and Dr. Alisauskas has focused his long-term research program on a large colony at Karrak Lake in the Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Nunavut (starred on the map below (Figure 1)). The Queen Maud is the largest federally owned protected area.

Figure 1

Nearly one million geese nested on the tundra around Karrak Lake occupying an area of 280 km2 in 2016, making it the second-largest known concentration of breeding geese in the world.

Nearly one million geese nested on the tundra around Karrak Lake occupying an area of 280 km2 in 2016, making it the second-largest known concentration of breeding geese in the world.

The increase in light goose populations was likely due to the availability of additional winter food on farm fields in the United States. On their Arctic breeding grounds, nesting geese and their goslings forage voraciously after hatch, and this modifies the vegetation in and around colonies.

The increase in light goose populations was likely due to the availability of additional winter food on farm fields in the United States. On their Arctic breeding grounds, nesting geese and their goslings forage voraciously after hatch, and this modifies the vegetation in and around colonies.

“It is astonishing to fly over a large colony like Karrak Lake and see the landscape speckled with geese. You also see visible changes to the landscape, such as areas that are grazed down to exposed peat,” said Dana Kellett, a wildlife research technician, who has worked at Karrak Lake for more than 20 years.

Wildlife populations cannot increase forever, and recently Dr. Alisauskas and his team have shown that numbers of light geese appear to be stabilizing. Megan Ross, a graduate student in Dr. Alisauskas’ program, carried out analyses of long-term breeding data from Karrak Lake to understand why population growth has stabilized.

The answer appears to be that breeders are producing fewer young than before.

“In years where birds arrived at the breeding colony in poorer body condition, they produced fewer eggs and fewer goslings survived,” said Ross.

Not only are breeders arriving at the breeding sites in poorer body condition, but the timing of food availability for goslings on the breeding ground has changed. When adults arrive to nest, the colony is mostly snow-covered, with little or no food available. To get around this food shortage, geese accumulate fat and protein during foraging stops on their trip north. These stored food reserves allow them to lay and incubate eggs quickly upon arrival at the colony, but their ability to do so has declined recently.  

The timing of hatching by goslings to coincide with peak “green up” is key to breeding success, but Ross has shown that the rate of green up has accelerated over the past 20 years, likely due to climate change. It has long been known that late snow melt delays green up and reduces the number of goslings produced, but the accelerated timing of green up also reduces breeding success by creating a mismatch between the timing of hatching and the availability of high quality vegetation. This pattern has been confirmed by analysis of long-term remote sensing data by Dr. David Douglas, a scientist with United States Geological Service, who collaborated in the study.

According to Ross, the acceleration in the timing of green up, in addition to reduced nutrition of breeders because of high populations of geese, has resulted in “a decline in gosling size, gosling survival and, ultimately, the number of goslings present on the brood-rearing area near the end of summer. Basically, if goslings hatch late, they miss out on having access to high quality vegetation. The Arctic summer is short and goslings need high quality food to grow fast enough to successfully migrate south.”

This long-term research is part of international agreements with the United States and Mexico under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, notably the Arctic Goose Joint Venture. The ECCC research team has shared these and other research findings with colleagues at various international scientific conferences and these results will be published in the journal Ecology.

top of page


Date modified: