University of Calgary

PAUL GALPERN ON TRACKING ANIMALS USING THEIR GENES

Submitted by jwalla on Thu, 2014/02/06 - 2:25pm.

"Today's genetic analyses are powerful and increasingly affordable. How can we use these kinds of data to inform environmental design?" asks landscape ecologist and data scientist Paul Galpern.

Galpern comes to the Faculty of Environmental Design (EVDS) by way of the University of Ottawa and the University of Manitoba where his research has combined genetic and other types of ecological data to contribute to environmental planning. An ongoing project of his uses genetics to track the movements of boreal woodland caribou, an animal listed as Threatened under Canada's Species At Risk Act. 

"Working with colleagues in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, we collected hundreds of caribou fecal pellets from across central Saskatchewan, and then we extracted DNA from the thin layer of cells that coat these pellets," states Galpern.  

The researchers used this DNA to look for patterns in the genetic relatedness of caribou and to find out how caribou have moved and mated across this large landscape over the last few generations.

"We are essentially tracking these animals using their DNA. As the caribou range across the landscape they take their genes with them. Sometimes they hit an obstacle to movement – say a highway or an inhospitable region where wolves may be more numerous – and they are less likely to take the risk of crossing it, " Galpern explains. "Over several generations this reduction of landscape connectivity, as we call it, can show up in the genetic signature of the population." 

The results of this Saskatchewan study, published in the scientific journal Molecular Ecology*, found that a combination of roads, lakes and forest harvest areas had together reduced landscape connectivity and affected caribou movement (see left). Highways, in particular, may play an important role, but more research is needed to measure the impact this might have in the long term.

To look for answers, Galpern has gone back to the computer lab to simulate animal movements, and initial findings suggest that it may take only a few generations and a small loss in landscape connectivity for these genetic signatures to emerge (see right).  For a threatened species like caribou this could mean trouble if human-made obstacles are preventing them from getting the resources they require: like food or shelter from predators. As an early warning system, Galpern is working to develop sensitive tools that can identify these genetic signatures as they start to emerge.

"Landscape genetics is a new and promising approach that can be used for many kinds of organisms," he adds. "With this evidence in hand we can design environmental solutions to landscape problems. Locating wildlife overpasses, or routing pipelines to reduce the impact on wildlife are two applications.  Preventing human diseases that are spread by animals is another."

Galpern joined EVDS in December 2013. In addition to his landscape genetics and landscape connectivity research, he is currently part of a team using large ecological data sets to explore the continental-scale impacts of climate change for wild pollinators. To learn more about his research, click here.

*Galpern P, Manseau M, Wilson P. 2012. Grains of connectivity: analysis at multiple spatial scales in landscape genetics. Molecular Ecology 21:3996–4009