Methods behind the Madness: Ecology at the Poles

Post provided by Chloe Robinson, Crystal Sobel and Valerie Levesque-Beaudin

Aurora Borealis in the polar north. Photo: Noel Bauza, Pixabay

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the coldest months of the year are upon us. A combination of post-holiday ‘blues’ and the cold, dark mornings make the daily trudge to work all that less inspiring. Recent snow storms in locations such as Newfoundland (Canada), have made it nearly impossible for many people to leave their homes, let alone commute to work. Now cast your mind to a little over 2,000 km north of Newfoundland and imagine the challenges faced with carrying out a job during the coldest, darkest months of the year.

As with every other biome on the planet, polar biomes contain a variety of different species, from bugs to baleen whales. To better understand the different species at our poles, scientists need to collect ecological data, but this is far from a walk in the park.

Iceberg in the Gerlache Strait, Antarctica. Photo: Liam Quinn, flikr.

With the year 2020 marking 200 years since the discovery of Antarctica and the Centenary of ‘vital’ Scott Polar Research Institute (Cambridge, UK), we wanted to highlight some of the polar research published in the journal, featuring challenges faced and current research being undertaken at the poles.

Data Deficiencies in Polar Regions

We’re all painfully aware of the drastic climatic changes currently affecting many parts of the world, which is resulting in the loss of many species. The polar regions are experiencing some of the most rapid changes, namely loss of ice, which is particularly concerning as the poles are understudied. Lack of data from polar regions is largely due to the many technical and logistical challenges with collecting data in such remote locations.

McGill Sub-Arctic Research Station. Photo: Ian Schofield, flikr.

In the Arctic, most of the ecological data collected is patchy. Around 30% of studies reviewed cluster around two Arctic research stations. Similarly, a lot of information regarding Antarctica is as unknown as other planets. And with Antarctica being the highest, coldest, windiest, and driest continent on Earth, it is no surprise we have barely scratched the surface.

Ecology from the Skies: Remote-Controlled Data Collection

Thankfully, recent technological advances have enabled us to generate ecological data despite the challenges associated with the poles. The use of drones and remote-controlled observations have been key for assessing the distribution and population sizes of a range of polar species.

Polar vegetation, such as mosses, can be sensitive stress markers of subtle shifts in Arctic and Antarctic environmental conditions, including climate change. Unmanned aircraft system (UAS) coupled with intricate algorithms can accurately collect data to allow the mapping of mosses at the poles. Similarly, drones are known to be effective in wildlife ecology studies, to the extent that counts by drones are more accurate than manual human counting.

Single Penguin Observation and Tracking (SPOT) recording options (Richter et al., 2017).

When it comes to counting, emperor penguin numbers in Antarctica can be as high as 250,000 individuals across 54 colonies.  In ‘A remote‐controlled observatory for behavioural and ecological research: A case study on emperor penguins‘, Richter et al. show that remote-controlled observation of emperor penguins can provide new insights into population numbers and penguin behaviour.

But it isn’t just the land-dwelling species which can be monitored using remote-controlled observation. Drones have been successfully used to collect data on whale species. A study based in Antarctica was able to not only confirm presence of a whale species, but also to correctly identify which species of whale is being recorded using computer algorithms.

Challenges on the Ground: Trapping on the Tundra

The use of remote-controlled observation to collect data on polar regions has revolutionised the quantity and quality of ecological data available to researchers. But what happens when the ecological questions you’re asking requires you to collect samples from the ground?

A Malaise trap and pitfall traps set up on the shore of Kugluktuk with a researcher sifting soil. Photo: Kate Perez, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics.

You’d probably be surprised to hear that there are around 2,000 species of insect in the Arctic. The Arctic is considered the ‘fly’ zone, with fly species making up 50% of insect species present (most of these fly species being mosquitoes and midges). Researchers use a large array of trapping methods to survey insects. Many are fairly common, like Malaise trap, pan and pitfall. Despite this method of sampling being primarily conducted during the summer months in the Arctic, the Malaise trap is not very efficient due to the strong blowing wind going over the tundra. On the other hand, pan traps have proved to be very productive both in terms of abundance and diversity.

When you need to sample on the ground, there are definitely some challenges unique to the Arctic. It’s a remote area; extensive planning is needed to be successful. Everything needs to be organised ahead of time: where will you stay? how will you get to your field sites? and how many traps do you need to bring along? The latter is quite important as you need to account for traps getting destroyed by the harsh climate and wildlife. It won’t be easy to replace them once you’re in situ, but you can mend most traps with a good ol’ roll of duct tape!

Exploring Ovayok Territorial Park, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut on ATV. Photo: Alex Borisenko, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics.

High winds are not the only challenge you’ll encounter while sampling in the Arctic. You’ll also have to contend with clouds of mosquitoes that follow you around, driving an ATV on rugged terrain in the absence of roads, and of course, there’s always the possibility of encountering a bear at your research site. You’ll also have to consider water usage when rinsing specimen samples, too. Many northern communities have water tanks outside each building that need to be refilled daily, which means you can run out of water in the lab at any time. Unpredictable weather conditions during the short summer season can also impact the success of your research trip.

Barcoding the Poles: ARCBIO

Harsh weather conditions and limited opportunities to collect samples in polar regions has contributed to data deficiencies in many ecological fields. The biggest of these is DNA reference libraries for polar species. These reference libraries enable us to better understand the diversity of species on earth.  

With climate change increasingly impacting polar ecosystems, more research is focusing on building DNA reference libraries of arctic biodiversity. The Arctic BIOSCAN project (ARCBIO), which began in 2018, is a partnership between the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG) at the University of Guelph and Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR). The project aims to create a baseline DNA library of animals and plants in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut in Canada. With taxonomic expertise sparse, this project uses DNA barcoding to help speed the process of species identification of the targeted groups: terrestrial and freshwater arthropods, marine organisms, mosses and lichens.

Contrary to many other Arctic research projects, ARCBIO is working closely with the local community to develop a community-based monitoring program. There’s immense value in working with community groups for biodiversity research, and there are currently numerous Northern groups that have been involved so far (e.g. hunters and trappers organisations, regional wildlife and Territorial Parks offices, and local citizens hired as bear guards). This integrated approach aims to give back to the communities, to engage interested citizens in the scientific data collection, and provide information to them about the project findings as they unfold. ARCBIO also plans to establish the data and infrastructure to enable community-based monitoring.

Over the past two field seasons, ARCBIO has focused its collecting in Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk (Nunavut) to build its baseline DNA library. Early findings from summer 2018 in Cambridge Bay revealed that a particular combination of trapping efforts (pan, sweep and sifting) was optimal for collecting a range of species and a total of 1264 species have been detected using DNA barcoding.

Summary: Challenges Provide Opportunities

Despite the many challenges of collecting ecological data from the polar regions, a combination of technological advances and optimised on-ground methods are enabling researchers to collect a large amount of much needed data from the poles. As climate change continues to impact polar ecosystems, data generation is key to understanding how the species that call the poles home will be affected by these global changes.

For more information about remote observations at the poles, read the Methods in Ecology and Evolution article ‘A remote‐controlled observatory for behavioural and ecological research: A case study on emperor penguins

To learn more about the mapping of mosses at the poles, read ‘Unmanned aircraft system advances health mapping of fragile polar vegetation

To find out more about the latest ARCBIO publication, read the full Insects article ‘A DNA Barcoding Survey of an Arctic Arthropod Community: Implications for Future Monitoring’  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s