Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Snowshoeing for credit

Thus far my postings have largely revolved around the research activities at QUBS. In doing so, I have neglected to mention one of the station's main functions - to serve as a teaching facility. Each year a handful of field courses are held at QUBS. Most occur in early May and late August, sidestepping the period of high demand by researchers (late May through July).

The most recent field course took place from 16-25 February. With the appropriate theme "Winter Ecology and Conservation Biology," Raleigh Robertson led 16 well-bundled students around QUBS to discuss the ways in which organisms survive the (typically) harsh Ontario winter. They spent the first few days exploring a variety of habitats in and around QUBS, as well as the popular "Owl Woods" on Amherst Island. Birders in the group were pleased to see eagles, hawks, harriers, shrikes, owls, and ravens. Those interested in organisms of the aquatic variety got a taste of the Warner Lake Ecological Observatory, a hydrophone array equipped to track the year-round movements of largemouth bass, while the insect-lovers among them could marvel at the freeze-tolerance capacity of invertebrates like the goldenrod gall fly. Regardless of their taxonomic preference, all could enjoy making their way through the woods via a good ol' fashioned pair of snowshoes.

Raleigh's field course was the first, but it certainly won't be the last to make use of QUBS' facilities in the coming year. Out of 37 field courses offered through the Ontario Universities Program in Field Biology, nearly a quarter (9) will be held at QUBS, with topics ranging from the ecology of reptiles and amphibians to the systematics of flowering plants. Students and professors alike will enjoy plenty of land for hiking, lakes for canoeing, cottages for sleeping, and cooks for meal preparation. With facilities such as these, QUBS provides the necessary ingredients with which to immerse glossy-eyed undergraduates in the fascinating world of field biology!

Monday, February 05, 2007

A winter wonderland

You may or may not have noticed the dearth of posts in recent months. A few folks have bothered to point this out via email, leading me to believe this blog doesn't go entirely unread. My excuse - which I think is a good one - is that I've been busy finishing up my Master's thesis. Having successfully defended not too long ago, I am now free to function like a normal human being again. And for a nerd like me, that includes posting about research at QUBS.

As it happens, this is a perfect time to resume blogging, as I am currently tromping through the snowy forests of QUBS in search of black-capped chickadees. A PhD candidate in my lab - Jenn Foote - is in the midst of her third and final field season studying these hardy little residents, and I am her trusty field assistant. With an interest in communication during the dawn chorus, each spring she records a whole neighbourhood of chickadees simultaneously using 16 widely spaced microphones. That way, she can study the degree to which birds respond to the songs of their neighbours. She can also determine which birds are the leaders, and which birds are the followers.

Given that thesis topic, you are probably wondering why on earth Jenn would be at QUBS in the depths of winter. And no - it's not because she just can't bear to part with her feathery friends. Crazy as we birders may be, our presence at QUBS is a purposeful one. It has to do with the leader vs follower conundrum I alluded to earlier. In winter chickadees roam through the woods in flocks of 2-12 individuals. Within each flock there is a well-established dominance hierarchy, such that subordinate individuals make way for their more dominant counterparts - especially when it comes to food resources. Jenn wants to know who these dominant birds are, and whether they correspond to the leaders of the dawn chorus in spring.

For insight into these dominance relationships, Jenn baits birds to particular locations by providing seed throughout the winter. She then erects "dominance platforms" (see photo), which consist of a board on which many birds can land, and a seed container from which only one bird can feed. With this set-up, Jenn (and assistants like me) can observe which birds displace others when they are trying to feed.

This technique may sound simple, but is rendered difficult by the fact that interactions take place within the span of a few seconds. During that time the observer must identify the colour-band combination of not one, but two birds, and note which is the more dominant individual. What's more, chickadees are not the only birds to frequent the platforms. They must often wait their turn behind nuthatches, woodpeckers, and the occasional blue jay, so chickadee-chickadee interactions are sometimes few and far between.

Come spring, when the chickadees disband to establish separate breeding territories, Jenn hopes to have observed enough interactions to deduce the dominance hierarchy within each of the wintering flocks. After months of lab work and writing, I'm just happy to be outside again!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Thoughts on QUBS

Nearly everyone that spends time at QUBS comes away with an attachment to the place. Perhaps that is why many of the same faces return year after year (in some cases decade after decade). Here is a collection of quotes from current and former students, reflecting the (generally) positive feelings about their experience at QUBS:

"I spent 3 glorious field seasons at QUBS working on avian research projects. Right from my first season, I became enthralled with avian research and quickly absorbed all my field assistant training. But QUBS offered me much more than this. Being immersed in an environment of passionate field ecologists studying a myriad of taxa, I was also exposed to the intriguing world of simply observing natural phenomena, in all shapes and sizes, of all patterns and processes. My love for field ecology continues unabated to this day. Just a few field seasons at QUBS has been tremendously inspirational. I must admit, every summer I am still struck by QUBS withdrawal symptoms: oh, if only I could be a field assistant again!" - Dev Aiama

"QUBS used to be a great time, but now none of the cooks will make me chocolate chip pancakes on Sundays. Now QUBS is purely science. Thank goodness science is fun." - Tim Hain

"QUBS is more than a location; it is a state of mind/experience/way of life. It is the only place on Earth where repulsive subjects such as parasite load in fish excrement, taxidermy, predated bird nestlings, floating dead deer, the finding of muskrat skulls, and the smell of neoprene and urine can be openly discussed and debated over dinner and not have anyone offended." - Caleb Hasler

"Best surprise birthday party ever: Chocolate cake, party hats, streamers, and beverages - all at 8am in the middle of the forest! Only at QUBS." - Matt Reudink

"QUBS is a great place to do field work, particularly during the winter. There is a startling amount of life in the snowy forests and on the lake that makes you feel that winter is a great season to be outside in. There's nothing quite like spending the day outside watching chickadees and then going for a nice cross-country ski on Opinicon Lake." - Jenn Foote

"Without QUBS I would have ended my schooling with my undergraduate degree and never started my research career. I was unaware that someone would pay me money (albeit not very much!) to track through the woods looking for snakes. Now that this door has been open to me I spend my life trying to satisfy my curiosity and justify my herpetological hobby. I wouldn't have it any other way." - Jeff Row

"The best way that I can describe QUBS is 'summer camp for the geeky-science type'. Despite having a laid-back and relaxed feel to it, QUBS really gets the job done in terms of providing the perfect environment for some hard-core science. As an undergrad especially, it’s really neat to know that if I’m having trouble interpreting the paper that I’m reading, I can simply ask the author who happens to be sitting across the dining hall enjoying their second helping of tilapia. QUBS is definitely a place where I hope to spend a great deal of time in the future. So if you’re planning on coming up to the station next summer or any year after that, make sure to bring a baseball glove, a pair of slippers, and the expectation to enjoy a whole new way of life." - Ryan Germain

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Shaker

On account of a pesky little task called 'thesis writing,' it is time once again for a not-so-scientific photographic interlude:

The Shaker, in short, is the GREATEST ACCOMMODATION ON EARTH! I'm not kidding (well, maybe just a little). Built in 1949, this rustic structure was first used by algae researchers as a venue for shaking their samples, allowing the water to drain back into the lake via a hole in the floor. It is located behind the boat house on a rock ledge overlooking Lake Opinicon. The hole has since been covered over, and only the luckiest of graduate students have been privileged enough to call the Shaker home. For 3 glorious months during the summer of 2005, I was just such a student. Imagine waking up to water lapping against your cabin, or lying in bed while looking out over singing loons and soaring osprey! Here is a view from the front door at sunrise:

Note to prospective inhabitants: storing beer in the lake is not advisable due to fishermen that frequent the area.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Cuckolder kids stick together

Why do animals help each other? At first glance, helping behavior seems to stand in stark contrast to the notion that evolution is driven by the 'survival of the fittest'. This paradox can be resolved by considering relatedness: individuals may enhance the transmission of their own genes by helping individuals who possess many of the same genes (termed 'inclusive fitness'). Celebrated examples of individuals helping others, with no apparent benefit to themselves, include: (1) birds that help feed young at relatives' nests, and (2) ground squirrels that warn of impending danger when relatives are nearby. In both, inclusive fitness has been invoked to explain the evolution of this otherwise perplexing behavior.

From this begs is the question: How do animals know who to help? For sexually monogamous species, the answer comes easily; they should help nestmates. In sexually promiscuous species, however, individuals cannot reliably assume nestmates are siblings, and so require a more direct mechanism for differentiating kin from non-kin. This could be accomplished by evaluating the phenotype of potential kin relative to one's own phenotype, a technique known as self-referent kin recognition.

Bluegill sunfish are an ideal model organism with which to test for an association between promiscuity and the evolution of self-referent kin recognition. Males are either parentals or cuckolders (left and right, respectively, in above photo); the former tend nests and secure most of the paternity, while the latter forgo parental duties and instead sneak sperm into parental nests during spawning. Bluegills may gain inclusive fitness benefits by cooperating with shoal-mates that are kin. During such interactions, parental offspring can reliably assume a certain degree of relatedness with most individuals that originated from the same nest. Cuckolder offspring cannot, so they would benefit more from actively discriminating kin from non-kin using phenotypic cues.

Tim Hain - a graduate student from the University of Western Ontario, renowned for his prowess on the dance floor - and his supervisor, Bryan Neff, embarked on a series of elegant experiments to test kin recognition mechanisms in Bluegills from Lake Opinicon. Larvae of known parentage were presented with a choice between two odors originating from broods of varying degrees of relatedness. As predicted, cuckolder offspring were more likely to associate with the odors of relatives, while parental offspring showed no such association. This study was therefore able to show that, even within a species, promiscuity can be a driving force behind the evolution of self-referent kin recognition.

If you find yourself intrigued and eager to learn more, don't go looking for Tim at Western. He is currently doing fieldwork on guppies/establishing himself on dance floors in Trinidad. Though if you pay QUBS a visit next summer, keep an eye out for Tim’s distinctive 'dominance markings' (see photo) and you can’t go wrong.

Hain TJA, Neff BD (2006) Promiscuity drives self-referent kin recognition. Current Biology 16: 1807-1811 [Full Text]