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Getting back to fieldwork

After prolonged delays, many academics are hoping to restart their stalled research projects.

BY KERRY BANKS | JAN 05 2022

Each spring, Andrew Derocher’s grad students fly over the frozen wastes of Hudson Bay in search of polar bears. “We track by helicopter. Low wind, high sun days are best,” says the University of Alberta wildlife biologist. After spotting their quarry, they land, incapacitate the bear with a tranquilizer dart, take measurements and collect blood, hair, and fat core samples, put a tattoo on its upper lip, and attach ear tags and a satellite collar to the beast before it awakens.

The tracking devices reveal where the bears travel and the habitats they use, while the physical samples offer insights on genetics, diet, age, pollution and stress levels, disease exposure and other aspects of their lives – all of which can help scientists better understand the rising threats the bears face from climate change and pollution.

The fieldwork is a transformative experience for the students, who come away with a fresh appreciation of the dynamic northern landscape and the imposing dimensions of the world’s largest land carnivore. “They are always shocked at the size of the bears. They are truly impressive animals,” says Dr. Derocher.

Unfortunately, for the past two years this fieldwork has been deep-sixed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has prevented researchers from venturing into northern communities. “It’s been pretty grim,” admits Dr. Derocher. “Not only have my students been denied a chance to gain an intuitive sense of the environment that the bears inhabit, but they are also missing out on conferences where they would have a chance to present their work, meet experts and network with other biologists. That’s a huge, huge loss.”

The aborted polar bear monitoring is just one example of the pandemic’s disruptive impact on scientific research at Canadian universities, where labs have been shuttered, travel restrictions imposed and interactions with human subjects banned.

These shutdowns have been especially damaging for research programs dependent on fieldwork. In many cases, scientists were forced to reschedule their projects, delaying results and forfeiting money spent in planning. Some projects – those that are time sensitive or that took years of careful coordination across many institutions – had to be cancelled entirely, or scientists had to lower their expectations of what could be accomplished.

‘Demoralizing’ delays

That’s the situation facing associate professor Cora Young and assistant professor Trevor VandenBoer from York University. They secured a four-year grant from Environment and Climate Change Canada to investigate how the atmospheric transport of a class of manufactured chemicals known as PFAS may be polluting the habitat of two endangered species – killer whales in British Columbia’s Salish Sea and belugas in Quebec’s St. Lawrence River. PFAS have been detected in the tissues of both mammals, and while the precise effect on their health has not been established, it is not likely to be good.

“The results of the research would be used to help policymakers enact legislation to protect these animals,” notes Dr. Young. But due to pandemic travel protocols the project was put on hiatus. “It’s been hard on the students as this was to be the basis of their theses,” she says. “We’ve had to pivot to arrange other research projects. It’s been disappointing and demoralizing.” Recently, the team was allowed to deploy monitoring equipment in Quebec and is hoping to do so in B.C. before long. It will be a huge challenge to complete the work in a span of a year-and-a-half, says Dr. Young, who imagines the data collection will have to be shortened and the analysis process compressed unless they can obtain an extension on the government grant.

“It’s been hard on the students as this was to be the basis of their theses. We’ve had to pivot to arrange other research projects. It’s been disappointing and demoralizing.”

 

Protecting bats from SARS-CoV-2

At the University of Winnipeg’s Bat Lab, the onset of the pandemic produced an ironic twist. It initially prevented biologist Craig Willis and his students from performing fieldwork because there were concerns that researchers could spread SARS-CoV-2 to local bat populations, which were already suffering from a deadly fungal disease known as white nose syndrome (WNS). The disease, which has moved steadily westward since it first appeared in New York state in 2006, has now killed an estimated 10 million bats.

It’s caused by a fungus that lives in caves and infects bats when they are hibernating, killing the animals by destroying wing tissue, disrupting body chemistry and inducing dehydration. Infected bats will awaken from torpor to groom themselves and try to remove the fungal growth, but this has lethal consequences, as they must carefully ration energy during hibernation to survive without eating until the spring.

Two Manitoba species that hibernate in caves – the little brown bat and the northern long-eared bat – have been decimated by WNS, which entered the province in 2017. “We knew it was coming, but that still doesn’t prepare you for the horror show of an affected cave,” says Dr. Willis, recalling the sight of hundreds of stricken bats piled in the snow at a cave entrance.

Dr. Willis’ students were engaged in several projects aimed at improving these species’ ability to combat WNS when work was derailed, first by worries about virus transmission and then by travel constraints. Yvonne Dzal, a postdoc, had just earned a two-year Liber Ero Fellowship to study the bats when the pandemic hit. She has only recently been allowed to resume her research, which involves identifying traits that may influence susceptibility to WNS and enhancing bat-foraging habitats near caves to improve the survival rates of infected bats. In July 2021, Dr. Dzal rappelled down into one of the caverns where the bat population had been devastated by WNS. She says that the situation has improved, which suggests that the survivors may be developing a natural immunity. “Even so, it will be a long road back, as they normally only produce one baby a year,” she says.

Switching subjects

For University of Waterloo biologist Brian Dixon, the pandemic sparked a sudden and dramatic switch in his research. A world authority on fish immune systems, Dr. Dixon runs a lab with about 20 students that was closed for six months. A grad student project involving the sterilization of aquaculture-raised Chinook salmon in B.C. had to be shelved, as did several other projects, including trips to Cuba, Panama and Chile.

Faced with downtime during the shutdown, Dr. Dixon turned his immunology expertise to the pandemic. He applied for and received a $746,971 grant from the federal government to examine patterns of SARS-CoV-2 transmission and immunity responses within a population of about 1,000 students, faculty and staff at his university. The project, which will run until March 2022, requires that each participant take a test for active infection and provide three blood samples over at least nine months so that exposure to the virus, and immunity to it, can be tracked.

“We aim to understand how the virus affects different sexes, blood groups, age groups, and ethnic groups exposed to similar risk levels in approximately the same environment,” says Dr. Dixon. “We hope to develop profiles to show us which groups are more prone to catching SARS-CoV-2, and which are more likely to have symptoms on a university campus.” The study’s results will go to Public Health Canada in the hope that it will help curb the spread of the disease in close-knit communities such as university campuses.

‘A whole new model’ for research

COVID-19’s impact has been both a curse and a blessing for Dana Lepofsky, an archaeologist and ethnobiologist at Simon Fraser University, whose work is focused on how Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast lived and interacted with the land and seascapes. A major dig organized by Dr. Lepofsky in the territory of the Gitga’at Nation in northern B.C. with several grad students had to be cancelled because COVID-19 protocols prevented her team from interacting with the locals. Making personal connections is a key element in her approach to archaeology, which blends traditional knowledge with Western scientific methods. “I engage with elders. They show us locations where their people used to live,” she says. “They guide us in our work.”

However, another cancelled venture has reaped unexpected dividends. The original plan called for a two-day conference to discuss clam gardens, ancient intertidal structures built by the coastal First Nations of B.C. and Native Americans of Washington State and Alaska to boost shellfish productivity near their settlements. The hotel format was replaced by a Zoom workshop that has evolved into a monthly series with guest speakers and Indigenous participants from up and down the West Coast. “We get 100 people each month. The original conference would have been for about 50 people, says Dr. Lepofsky. “It’s given us a whole new model with more broad-based research and more Indigenous input, rather than simply being a one-time event run by scientists.”

“Citizen science is not a panacea, but building capacity in local communities has allowed us to address scientific questions that are of concern on an international scale.”

 

Mountain expedition on ice

The pandemic has even disrupted high-altitude projects such as glaciologist Alison Criscitiello’s 2020 expedition to Mt. Logan, Canada’s highest peak, to conduct a survey for drilling an ice core. The director of the University of Alberta’s Canadian Ice Core Lab had been training for the trip for seven months, spending time in an altitude-simulation chamber to get in prime condition for the ascent. Mt. Logan rises in the Yukon at an elevation of 5,959 metres, and Dr. Criscitiello and her team needed to physically prepare to endure the grueling conditions. The project was to be run in partnership with two other Canadian and four American scientists, but COVID-19 travel restrictions scuttled those plans.

Ice cores, taken from ice sheets and glaciers, function like time capsules. Their layers, formed when snow containing a sample of what was in the atmosphere is compressed into ice, can reveal the planet’s historical temperature record and levels of atmospheric gases, as well as yielding insight into the history of nuclear weapons testing, volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and even pollutants and pesticides. “They are one of our most powerful tools for studying Earth and climate, and how humans have affected both,” Dr. Cristicitiello says.

“We do radar surveys to find the ideal location to drill,” she explains. The goal is to drill where the annual layers of ice are as parallel to each other as possible so that the annual record is clear. Dr. Criscitiello estimates that the ice core to be obtained on Mt. Logan will be 200 metres long and contain a climate record dating back 30,000 years.

Battling -20 to -40 C temperatures, strong winds, and heavy snowfall, Dr. Criscitiello and three mountaineers set out on Mt. Logan in May 2021, aiming to reach a plateau near the summit to finish the radar assessment, albeit without her American colleagues. She didn’t want to further delay the project, as grad students and postdoctoral scholars who are planning to study the ice have already lost a year in their work and careers. The plan is to return next spring with the Americans and with drilling gear to extract the ice core, which will be removed by helicopter and shifted to refrigerator trucks for transport to the lab.

Exchanging knowledge

Pandemic travel restrictions also forced the cancellation of Mark Mallory’s research in Nunavut in 2020 and 2021. For the last two decades, Dr. Mallory, who is a Canada Research Chair in Coastal Wetland Ecosystems at Acadia University, has been monitoring the effects of environmental contaminants and rapidly accelerating climate change on Arctic seabirds such as gulls, terns and ducks.

Contrary to what one might suppose, industrial contaminants occur in abundance in Canada’s Arctic. The chemicals are transported northward via ocean currents and a geochemical process of evaporation and condensation known as the grasshopper effect. “The Arctic is a sink for all these pollutants from the south,” says Dr. Mallory. “They get into the marine food chain starting with the smallest organisms, phytoplankton, then work their way up through zooplankton, then fish and finally the seabirds, which are apex predators.” In recent years the pollutants have included microplastics, which have been detected in the digestive tracts and poop of seabirds.

The issue of toxins in the Arctic extends beyond their impact on wildlife and the ecosystem. As Dr. Mallory explains, “Contaminants are a huge issue in the North as many Inuit people still hunt and fish for their food.”

Normally his team, which includes graduate students, collects eggs and kills birds to procure samples. But all this activity was cancelled in 2020. Although his researchers couldn’t travel to the North again in 2021, Dr. Mallory was able to arrange to have Indigenous hunters acquire samples to be sent south for analysis. He was pleased by the results and now believes the pandemic may act as an impetus to develop new ways of sharing research and exchanging knowledge with northerners. “Citizen science is not a panacea,” he says, “but building capacity in local communities has allowed us to address scientific questions that are of concern on an international scale.”

Looking ahead, Dr. Mallory and other Canadian scientists are hopeful that high vaccination rates and reduced incidence of COVID-19 will ease travel constraints and allow fieldwork to resume, even in Canada’s North where remote and aging communities are especially vulnerable to infectious disease. As polar bear guru Dr. Derocher notes: “I am moving ahead 100 per cent with the intent of being back on the sea ice of Hudson Bay. My application for helicopter support is in, funding is in place, and my permit for wildlife capture will be submitted shortly. Of course, I had done all this for 2020 and 2021 to no avail, but I’m fairly confident we’ll be back in spring 2022.”

 

PUBLISHED BY
Kerry Banks
Kerry Banks is a Vancouver-based writer and photographer.
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