Innovative, naturally

Innovative, naturally

One of Canada's largest field stations plays host to researchers from across the country and nurtures their 'wild' discoveries
November 23, 2011
University of Western Ontario student Chandra
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University of Western Ontario student Chandra Rodgers out on Lake Opinicon to collect measurements from bluegill sunfish to take back to QUBS, one of the largest land-based field stations in Canada.
Charlie Croskery

Last year, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) launched the Emerging Science Journalists Award (ESJA). The award was created to support Canada’s talented young science writers. Below is one of the winning entries by Roslyn Dakin, doctoral candidate in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University. In her piece, Dakin provides some examples of research success stories from the CFI-funded Queen’s University Biological Station.

Before Adrienne had a chance to swat at the wasp on her shoulder, a dragonfly swooped in to pluck it away. “Welcome to the food chain,” quipped Scott Colborne from the stern of the boat. At the Queen’s University Biological Station, the student researchers from the University of Western Ontario head out on Lake Opinicon twice daily to monitor the bluegill sunfish colonies that dot the shoreline. For his PhD research with Dr. Bryan Neff, Scott is looking for evidence that the colonies in the Rideau Waterway are segregated based on the kinds of food available – which might indicate that this familiar dockside fish is in the earliest stages of evolving into a new species.

If Scott’s long days on the water pan out, it won’t be the first major scientific catch to come out of the field station, also known as QUBS – a site that has grown from a cluster of shoreline cabins to one of the largest land-based field stations in Canada. Over the years, QUBS researchers have turned up a number of surprising discoveries in common Ontario species, and some have taken off in useful directions that one wouldn’t necessarily predict.

Nor will it be the first time bluegill sunfish played a starring role. In the 1970s, Mart Gross was also a student coming to QUBS each summer, heading out in snorkeling gear to study the bluegill for his PhD. Because of their role in sport fishing, sunfish were widely studied in North America – yet Gross was noticing things that nobody had documented before. “I began to see patterns”, he recalls; “It was tremendously exciting.”

Each spring, a male bluegill will build a nest in a local colony, using his tail to sweep out a depression in the lake bottom; after that, he waits. If a school of females arrives, and he manages to attract one to his nest, she might dip down to the lake bottom and tilt her body to one side to contribute a batch of her eggs. The male will then spend a week persistently guarding the site and tending his brood until they hatch.

Chandra Rodgers removes a few scales from a
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Chandra Rodgers removes a few scales from a sneaker male bluegill to estimate its age. Sneakers literally sneak up into the nests of larger males and fertilize some of the eggs there without the parental male noticing.
Charlie Croskery

At QUBS, Mart Gross started noticing other, smaller fish that would sidle up to the nests when females were spawning with the resident males. They were bluegill, but far too small to be adults. After catching some, Gross realized that despite appearances, these smaller fish were in fact adult males – and they were fertile. But they were breeding in an entirely different way, sneaking into the nests of the larger males and fertilizing some of the eggs there without the parental male noticing.

Over the course of his research, Mart Gross showed that the life of a bluegill can take one of two paths: young males will either develop into large parental or small sneaker versions, each with its own distinct set of physical characteristics and behaviours. It was a tension that sparked the interest of biologists everywhere: how could two alternative male types coexist within a single species? In the years following, similar examples of sneaker males were reported in reptiles, birds, and crustaceans, as well as several economically important species of fish. According to Trevor Pitcher, an expert in fish reproduction and genetics at the University of Windsor, Mart Gross was way ahead of his time. His research proved that for males, bigger isn’t always better – and the alternative strategy isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

From QUBS, Gross moved on to apply the lessons learned from bluegill to Canada’s commercial fisheries. In Pacific salmon, male lives also take one of two pathways: they will either develop into larger hook-nose or smaller jack versions, analogous to the bluegill parentals and sneakers. Gross, now a professor at the University of Toronto, has shown that harvesting too many hook-nose salmon can leave a disproportionate number of jacks behind – and potentially spell trouble for future yields. This dynamic also comes into play in hatcheries that supplement wild salmon stocks. The natural choice for hatchery managers is to breed only the largest hook-nose males, but this can be counterproductive. Salmon jacks, like bluegill sneakers, tend to mature at a younger age, so they might grow more quickly; by excluding them, managers could inadvertently create a population of slow-growing fish.

It’s a balance that Trevor Pitcher takes into account frequently in his work on Chinook salmon, done in partnership with an organic aquaculture company in BC. “The diversity of tactics is important to conserve,” Pitcher maintains; “People are now thinking about this when they create conservation breeding programs.”

Sunfish aren’t the only QUBS wildlife that can claim broad scientific impact. In 2001, Laurie Graham was cross-country skiing north of Kingston when she noticed that the snow was speckled with black. Crouching down for a closer look, Graham realized that what looked like pepper was in fact alive – and hopping. The tiny specks were snow fleas, microscopic animals related to insects that thrive in the coldest winter temperatures. An expert in the chemistry of living things, Graham headed to QUBS to collect the thousands of fleas she would need for chemical analysis. There were bumps along the way: “We didn’t realize snow fleas were such good escape artists,” Graham laughs. Eventually, though, persistence paid off – in 2005, her work in the lab at Queen’s University revealed that snow flea biochemistry was unlike anything seen before.

In an effort to connect the community with
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In an effort to connect the community with research and nature, QUBS hosts a number of outreach activities including an annual open house.
Charlie Croskery

What keeps the snow fleas hopping is a unique antifreeze protein, so effective that Graham describes it as “hyperactive”. Along with Peter Davies at Queen’s, Graham is currently working out the details of how snow flea antifreeze works. The protein is beneficial for the organisms – snow fleas and their relatives are some of the most abundant animals on earth, with species living in Antarctica – and it is an advantage that we might be able to exploit as well. Biologically inspired antifreeze proteins have the potential to improve organ transplant surgery and frozen foods. They might also inform the development of freeze-tolerant crops. “It’s a tall order,” says Davies, “but if you learn enough about how proteins work, and how they fold, and the relationship between structure and function, one may be in a situation where you can actually start to design proteins to do a specific job.”

A day in the woods led to scientific innovation for Laurie Graham, but one could hardly call it serendipity when she always keeps a few sterile containers on hand in her car. When comparing her life in the lab to time spent outdoors, Graham confesses that there is no separation. As Peter Davies puts it, “Laurie has never lost touch with the organism.”

The same could be said of Jayne Yack, another QUBS researcher who uncovered a hidden world in a common Ontario species. Working at home in the pre-dawn quiet, Yack heard some unusual ticking sounds: “I thought that was odd – maybe it was the refrigerator.” But the sounds continued, and when Yack looked in a nearby bucket of hook-tip moth larvae that she was raising for her research on insect hearing, she was astonished to see that these caterpillars were the source – and they were interacting with each other while they did it.

At the time, almost nothing was known about the acoustic capabilities of caterpillars, but Jayne Yack’s work on hook-tips proved that these creatures have a surprising repertoire of sounds. The hook-tip caterpillars drum and scrape on leaves in territorial battles over silk shelters. Their sounds are so soft that it takes a special instrument to record them, but according to Dr. Yack, if you use a laser vibrometer, these 1-mm caterpillars sound just sound just like hippos.

Subsequently, Yack and her students at Carleton University found that many other caterpillars also use sounds as defensive signals. There are species that whistle, click, stridulate and burp – and some that add visual effect by displaying colourful body parts at the same time. Many of the acoustically-inclined species are important agricultural pests, and Yack thinks this could eventually lead to chemical-free pest control: “Anything we can understand about the sensory ecology of these insects will contribute to understanding how to modify or control their behaviour.”

Tipping her body to one side, a female bluegill
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Tipping her body to one side, a female bluegill spawns with a male.
Scott Colborne

For one thing, caterpillars that make sounds also respond to them – and researchers in Germany have now shown that the mere presence of buzzing honeybees can drastically reduce the amount of damage caterpillars inflict on greenhouse crops. These days, Dr. Yack’s group at Carleton is working on a new problem: bark beetles, a group that includes both the mountain pine beetle and the emerald ash borer. Yack is looking into whether bark beetles use sound to locate the trees they consume, information that could be immensely valuable to forest managers. “That one experience opened the door for a lifetime of research,” she says.

Looking back on these three discoveries, the role of fate seems to vary. Mart Gross was already nabbing sunfish from the shores of Lake Opinicon for his doctoral degree, while Laurie Graham does most of her science wearing a lab coat, not a pair of skis. In a way, though, their stories are the same: these are people who realized a new perspective on Canadian wildlife and broke scientific ground in the process, thanks to their close familiarity with nature.

The environment at QUBS may have contributed to this mindset. According to Raleigh Robertson, director of QUBS for over 30 years, “People talk a lot more at the station. You get a more thorough exchange of ideas. It gives you time to digest them a bit more, and think about them in a broader context.” Dan Mennill, a professor at the University of Windsor, puts it this way: “There is a spirit inside QUBS that has lived on for a long time. Raleigh Robertson infected a lot of people with excitement for natural history.”

Like many station alumni, Mennill started as a student and has been coming back to continue his research on black-capped chickadees at QUBS ever since – now with his own team of scientists in training. And with more researchers returning, the output of scientific publications from the station has steadily increased, doubling in the past two decades. This record of success is also due to QUBS’ location on the Frontenac Axis, the geological link between the Canadian Shield and the Great Lakes which offers a wide array of habitats in close proximity. The recent expansion of the main operations centre with a grant from the CFI Institutional Innovation Fund has also played a role. “Having the lodge, it really expanded what the station can do,” says Robertson.

And at QUBS, it goes beyond research – the station hosts numerous university courses, outings for local school groups, and workshops for the greater community. John Smol, one of Canada’s leaders in long-term environmental change and a Queen’s professor, brings his students there each fall. As he sees it, “We would have great trouble training new scientists if we didn’t have a field station.” Jayne Yack agrees, since outdoor experiences can be critical: “It’s this multi-modal stimulation that makes you excited about things” – something her caterpillars would no doubt appreciate.