Churchill fieldwork 8.

Classic clips!

Well, some of us are back from Churchill while others are still on the road and set to return later this week. As promised, below are some clips of polar bears and belugas from our previous visit to Churchill in 2007. Enjoy.


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Churchill fieldwork 7.

Another day, another bear.

Readers probably aren’t so interested in the spiders we collected this morning (and I don’t have pictures of them anyway), so here is a short clip of a bear we saw on the beach as we drove to the field site.


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Churchill fieldwork 6.

Bears and seals and belugas, oh my!

The days tend to blend together when one is doing fieldwork, so I won’t try to remember what happened on which day. Rather, here is an update on some of our activities over the past several days.

Tundra Buggy

One advantage of being here alongside the field course is that we get to tag along on their group activities, like riding on a Tundra Buggy. These are huge tourist vehicles built from old fire trucks that can travel along otherwise inaccessible roads built by the American military during the cold war (Russians may have come in via Hudson Bay, you see).

A day on a Tundra Buggy usually means some up close interaction with polar bears, though not so much this year (I have video from 2007 that I will post when we get home). We did see one somewhat farther away. This was easily the fattest, laziest looking polar bear I have ever seen. With the ice staying in the bay much later this year, the bears have been able to feed on seals later into the summer than is usual.

We also stopped at various spots to collect samples, including some intertidal zones. At one, we found a large number of jellyfish washed up on shore. A few were taken back to the lab.

Hudson Bay

We also joined the students on a tour/research boat on Hudson Bay.

From the boat, we saw a polar bear on a nearby shore, as well as a curious seal.

Some of the graduate students have been working on this boat in addition to the zodiacs, so the students got to see a dredge and a plankton tow in deeper water (85 feet). As you can see, dredging is rather demanding work.

Dredging gives a sample of the benthic invertebrates that reside at the bottom, but we are also sampling plankton.

While doing their plankton tows on the zodiac, the students came upon a large ice floe. As they circled around it, it split in half. The collapse itself wasn’t recorded, but you can see the aftermath and the reactions.


The students in the field course had an opportunity to go kayaking in Churchill River, where there are several pods of belugas. The whales aren’t shy, as you can see in the footage by Edward Liam below.

The one sunny day

We did finally get a sunny day, which we spent sampling various sites. One of them, Ramsay Lake, is near the station but requires driving on some interesting roads.

In the afternoon, we went to Landing Lake, so named (I think) because planes land on it. Lots of good samples there — spiders, dragonflies, mites, caddisflies, and huge horseflies that are now flying. The latter of these take a piece out of their victims, but at least one can easily hear them coming (not unlike the sound of an airplane coming in for a landing, as it happens).

This morning the fog is too thick for the sampling to be very productive, so we’re spending it in the station. We are hoping to get out on the kayaks, but the weather may not cooperate. We would like a few nicer days to collect at some target sites as well before we head back.


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Churchill fieldwork series.

Here are the various posts in the Churchill fieldwork series.

The videos are also posted at our lab Youtube page.

For more about our research, check out the lab webpage.

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Churchill fieldwork 5.

Everybody back in the truck!

While Brandon and I were sampling tundra ponds with several field course participants, Joao headed off with another group to a forest area not far from the research station. He is one of the people with a firearms license, so he was on bear duty. And a good thing, as he spotted a mother and cub (the most dangerous situation) not far from where the researchers and students were. In fact, Paul Hebert — ever the intrepid naturalist — had trudged farther ahead and was unaware of the bears’ proximity.

Paul and Joao, before anyone noticed the bears (see the two white objects off to the right). Photo by Gergin Blagoev.

Close up of bears.

One of the students, Monica Young, caught this video and you can hear them discussing Paul’s whereabouts.

Everyone was fine, but I am sure it was very exciting!

This afternoon, Brandon joined a group of other graduate students working on a rock bluff and, as he described it, “we thought we saw a wave coming on shore, and then the wave had a face”. It was a large male polar bear. The group retreated to the van and everyone was fine, though I suspect some hearts were pounding nonetheless.

Another update:
Apparently there was a bear very close to the station today that was chased away by the staff. With the ice melted, the bears are moving back in land. I remain one of the few who hasn’t seen one yet this year.


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Churchill fieldwork 4.

What the heck are you doing up there anyway?

I have been posting photos and clips of some of our adventures up here in Churchill, but I haven’t yet discussed in any detail what we’re actually doing. Today is a foggy day with not much prospect for collecting, so it seems like an opportune time to fill in the blanks.

As many readers will know, the primary area of research in my lab is the evolution of genome size — that is, the amount of DNA (including genes and noncoding DNA together) in different species. In animals, this ranges about 7,000-fold and is unrelated to organism complexity. It is, however, correlated with cell size and cell division and, depending on the group, with body size, metabolism, development, and other features.

In some groups, there appears to be a latitudinal pattern as well, with species in northern regions having larger genomes than temperate relatives. We’re exploring this question in various invertebrates and in plants.

But why Churchill? Several reasons. First, Churchill has an excellent (and soon to be significantly updated) research station. Second, it includes a range of environments, including both freshwater and marine, boreal and tundra, and lakes, streams, and ponds. Third, Churchill is one of two sites that is the focus of a “barcoding biotas” initiative to generate DNA barcodes of the entire fauna of a specific place (the other is Moorea in French Polynesia). This means that there are many expert taxonomists involved with whom we can collaborate, and also that we can perform identifications on many species that otherwise would be very difficult to work with. Fourth, this is where the Arctic ecology field course is held, which means we have an army of students out collecting samples. Finally, Paul Hebert and I co-authored a grant as part of the international polar year that provided funding for work in this area.

The basic procedure is to go to various sites, collect everything of interest, bring it back to the station, and process it. This means cataloguing, photographing, labelling, and storing the specimens (mostly in liquid nitrogen cryoshippers). Once we get back to the lab, we will perform genome size estimates using a flow cytometer. For spiders, I am making slides here and will do the genome sizes using image analysis densitometry.

We have five people here from our lab, each working on a different group but all collecting and sharing material from the taxa we’re working with. This includes insects, molluscs, crustaceans, spiders, leeches, soil invertebrates, and for the first time, plants. Actually, the latter are being collected for us by expert botanists who are working with the DNA barcoding group.

So far we have about 500 samples collected, and we have roughly 2 weeks left to get more. The shippers can hold 1,200 vials, and this doesn’t include plants, spiders, and most of the molluscs, which are not being frozen. We are also experimenting with some new field preservation methods which we hope will enable future studies like this in other places.

Lots of people are interested in genome size (usually framed in terms of “why is there so much junk DNA?”). One approach, definitely the most common, is to sit around and speculate. Another is to focus on a few genome sequences and look for conserved and/or transcribed elements. Our preference is to look at hundreds of species and see how diversity of genome size is actually distributed. Sometimes that means collecting in the cold wind and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. Next, we really should study tropical species…


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Churchill fieldwork 3.

Samples, samples, samples.

Today was somewhat cold, but not nearly as bone-chillingly windy as yesterday. It ended up being relatively sunny, and with the wind lessened, it was possible for several of the students to get across the Churchill River by boat to sample the intertidal on the other side.

This was the second trip out on the zodiac, the first being a few days ago while the ice was still around.

The intertidal sampling was quite productive, but this means a late night of sorting specimens (while the advisor drinks tea and writes a blog).

While the rest of the group was across the river, Joao and I collected at a few sites near the station. We came across a hare that did not seem too afraid of us. I suppose we’re not the most terrifying large mammals in the region.

Speaking of which, there have been a couple of polar bear sightings, including by the field course participants and this one which was seen from the zodiac.

It hasn’t been all hard work. Nick decided to take part in the Bay Dip, which involves dressing up in a costume and swimming in the icy water. The rest of us were not so crazy brave.

Tomorrow, more sampling, and I have a backlog of spiders to process.


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Churchill fieldwork 2.

The collecting begins.

Over the past couple of days, we have been out to various sites collecting samples. We’re targeting groups that graduate students are focusing on, including molluscs (Paola), crustaceans (Nick), and wasps (Joao), as well as some for undergraduate studies including flies (Paula) and “EPTs” — Ephemeroptera (mayflies), Plecoptera (stone flies), and Trichoptera (caddisflies) (Kelly). We are also collecting annelids, various insects, and spiders. For the first time, we are working on plants as well. In addition to Paola, Nick, and Joao, we have Brandon joining us for this trip. He formerly worked on moths for his undergraduate project and is now taking a break from his graduate program to help us out.

The region around Churchill has a diversity of habitats to investigate, including tundra, boreal forest, freshwater lakes, ponds, streams, intertidal, and marine.

Joao collecting insects.

Paola, Brandon, and Nick at one of the lake environments.

Ryan and Joao investigating a rock pool.

The range of environments means lots of diverse species to study, but none as abundant as the mosquitoes, which have arisen in droves now that the weather has warmed.

The students have also arrived for the field course. They liked the ice. They did not like all the mosquitoes.


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Churchill fieldwork 1.

We’re here, and we’re armed.

We arrived in Churchill, Manitoba on Tuesday evening. There are no roads to Churchill, so the options are to fly or to drive to Thompson and take the train. One student and I flew, while three others drove with the supplies for our group and the upcoming field course and then came the rest of the way by train.

Yesterday we spent unpacking our equipment and then in the afternoon we had our bear safety orientation and firearms training. Being in polar bear country requires taking steps to keep researchers and students as safe as possible. This includes preventive action like working in groups and having someone on bear watch at all times. Those of us with licenses will also be on bear guard much of the time, carrying shotguns as a last resort means of protection. As such, it was good to get out and practice some shooting with the experts from the station.

Today, like the last two days, it was cold (5 C) and rainy, but we got out for a little bit of collecting this morning and found some specimens from various taxa we’re focusing on. The real collecting will begin once the weather gets warmer and when the rest of the researchers and students come.

We have two large liquid nitrogen vapour shippers for our specimens, and lots of collecting implements. Basically, we are after everything that moves and even stuff that doesn’t.

No polar bear sightings yet, but we did watch a pod of belugas this morning for a few minutes. Some of the students are eager to get out in the boats for some marine dredging, but the bay is still full of ice floes.

Stay tuned.


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