General Research Interests
Landscape Ecology in the Canadian Boreal Region
See the TERG project page for more…
The boreal region of Canada is a vast and unique ecosystem, and home to thousands of species. Increasingly, the boreal is under threat from external stressors such as climate change, as well as more immediate anthropogenic threats due to resource development and recreational use. Conservation of species and their associated habitats in the boreal requires an understanding of species-habitat interactions, as well as inter-specific dynamics (e.g., predator-prey relationships). This knowledge can assist in understanding how to improve management of forest ecosystems and wildlife species. Here in Newfoundland, over 45% of the island is boreal forest. Thus, I have been focusing my field-based projects here in the province, while continuing to collaborate on wider research projects germane to boreal landscape ecology across Canada. I have established field research programs in central Newfoundland and on the Avalon Peninsula, and for the short-term, envision focusing field work in this area. These areas are appealing for both logistical reasons (easy to access) but also because central Newfoundland contains some of the forested areas which have had the most intense harvest adjacent to one of the only remaining patches of intact forest in central Newfoundland (e.g., Rodney Pond area). In addition, the presence of Terra Nova National Park adds a land base under strict protection that will be useful for comparative analyses. The Avalon is an interesting place for landscape ecology because of the diversity of habitat types (barrens, bogs, forests) in close proximity to each other, the presence of lichen hotspots in the central Avalon, and the proximity to urban and suburban environments that might affect ecological systems. The density of humans (many who recreate outdoors) in the Avalon (and the province more broadly) also offers opportunities to explore the role of the citizen science in landscape-scale ecological research.
The island of Newfounland is an ideal location to study species-habitat and inter-specific dynamics, particularly for mammals. Historically, it has been relatively impoverished (15 species, one of which is extinct) with respect to mammalian fauna. This is not unusual for island systems, and is consistent with the theory of island biogeography. Over the past 100 years, a dozen new species have been introduced to the island, either by deliberate or accidental human intervention, or via natural range expansions. The majority of these are found in the boreal forest, and thus, this new suite of species has changed the community ecology of the island. In addition, the boreal forest here on the island has undergone dramatic alteration over the last 100 years due to both natural and anthropogenic factors.
Research in landscape ecology that integrates Geographic Information Systems (GIS) with conservation questions can contribute significantly to biodiversity conservation and to our understanding of spatial dynamics of ecological processes and species-habitat interactions. The island nature of Newfoundland lends itself nicely to a macro-ecological meta-analysis, since it is a (mostly) closed system from the perspective of mammals. My current research projects emphasize different species and study systems, yet are linked by a common theme in which I examine how principles from landscape ecology can predict how the ecological features and wildlife of the boreal region can best be conserved.
As I continue to build my research program, I envision the various student projects described below complementing each other and building up a body of research to facilitate insights into larger questions about species interactions with each other (e.g., coyote-caribou, coyote-small mammal, moose-caribou) and with their habitats, particularly in the face of anthropogenic changes to their habitat. I also envision that eventually these findings will enable the development of models to explain changes in mammalian composition and abundance on the island over time. This kind of meta-analysis has not been carried out for the island previously, and would in turn facilitate predictions about future changes to the ecology of the boreal forests and fauna of Newfoundland. Understanding of these dynamics within a closed island system will then yield broader insights into how species adapt to changing landscapes across the boreal region.
Lichen Diversity Patterns Across Scales
I have started some field work at a lichen hotspot to measure and map lichen diversity across spatial scales. The plan is to see how macro- and micro-climate and stand attributes might influence lichen diversity patterns. These awesome photos are courtesy my summer 2014 student, Tomo Sato.
Citizen Science/eScience – Improving Data Quality
I maintain a Citizen Science website for people to upload natural history sightings. The site is available at http://www.nlnature.com. I am using the stie to explore issues of data quality and data reliability. With colleagues in Information Systems we have conducted experimental work to try to understand how non-experts identify and classify natural history phenomena (Lukyanenko et al. In press). We have discovered that people can acurrately identify general categories, but not usually species. However, when asked, novices can provide detailed attributes of the organism, which hopefully can be used by an expert to get a positive species identificaiton. We will use these findings to refine the web-interface to make it user-friendly to novice natural historians, and to maximize the amount of data provided, while minimizing information loss.
On the Citizen Science front, I also ran a workshop on “Ocean Citizen Science” in Fall 2015, and now have a student Matt, working on a participatory citizen science project with fishermen and women on Fogo Island.
In June 2016 I am travelling to Germany to participate in a workshop on citizen science there. The German government has developed a “Green book” on citizen science. A translation into English of the opening text can be read here.
Culverts in streams present potential barriers to fish, and can affect overall connectivity of a stream system. Landscape ecologists have various metrics to quantify connectivity on land, but in water, it is a different story. With my partners in Parks Canada, we have developed the Dendritic Connectivity Index (DCI) to measure stream connectivity as a function of the relative location of barrier(s) within the stream network, and the passability of the individual barrier(s). The DCI was presented in the paper by Cote et al. (2009). Two students, Christina Bourne and Shad Mahlum have worked on aspects of the project. Christina examined the sensitivity of the DCI to variation in how passability is measured (Bourne et al. 2011) and modified the DCI to discriminate structural from functional connectivity. Shad validated the passability estimates using Pit Tag data from Terra Nova National Park (Mahlum et al. 2014) and validated the DCI using fish community data from six watersheds in Ontario (Mahlum et al. In press).
I recently co-edited a book on the topic of Predictive Species and Landscape Modelling.
Two MSc students have recently completed who did modelling work in collaboration with the provincial Wildlife Divison: Randy Skinner (Wiersma and Skinner 2011) built a model for the Boreal Felt Lichen on the island of Newfoundland, and Tony McCue (McCue et al. 2014) developed models for coyote (a colonized carnivore) on the south coast of the island. As well, PhD student Julie Andersen did research on movement and habitat use models for hooded seals (Andersen et al. 2009, 2013a,b, 2014a,b). This work was in collaboration with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.