Smart. Observant. Responsive. Trustworthy. These qualities make for a valued research partner. In the case of JD, so do four fast-running legs and enthusiasm for excitement.
Meet JD, a three year-old Australian cattle dog, who is in steadfast, scientific pursuit of a thriving boreal forest.
JD is a very special dog who has undergone two years of relational training with Environmental & Life Sciences master’s student, Jacob Seguin. As Mr. Seguin studies the snowshoe hare, a keystone species that supports multiple levels of the food chain in the boreal forest ecosystem, JD’s job is to find them.
“I can ask her anything,” said Mr. Seguin. “She recognizes the situation and responds accordingly, which is why it is so important to have a dog of considerable intelligence. It is all about the appropriate relationship with the trainer, consistent repetition until she gets it right, and feedback for her behaviour.”
JD’s job of mimicking a coyote to find the snowshoe hares helps the research team to determine the ecological principles that cause the continuous cycles of population increases and decreases of the hares over a period of approximately ten years. However, unlike coyotes and other predators, she does not touch the hares.
With JD’s unique assistance, Mr. Seguin and his colleague, Ph.D. candidate Melanie Boudreau, are seeking to answer questions about alterations hares may undergo when evading predators such as changes in feeding locations, activity levels, or reproductive output or newly-acquired tactics to avoid predators.
“All of these questions can help explain the drastic population cycles that we see,” stated Mr. Seguin. “Entire communities and industries depend on the health of the boreal forest which is a large and valuable resource covering our nation. We need to know what makes it tick.”
According to Mr. Seguin, the learned basic principles of predation and reproduction can be applied to other ecosystems. This is where JD’s work of chasing hares for fellow student Melanie Boudreau comes in. Ms. Boudreau’s Ph.D. work tests the effects of the risk of predation on adult hares and determines what happens to a hare when it perceives that there is a risk of being eaten.
“This is why JD is so essential,” stated Mr. Seguin. “Together as a team we can ask questions about complex predator-prey interaction at multiple life stages, and across generations of animals, which has never been done on a cyclic free-ranging population of keystone prey species.”
As an undergraduate student at Trent University Mr. Seguin began researching snowshoe hares as a field technician for Dr. Dennis Murray, Canada Research Chair in Terrestrial Ecology and Biology professor at Trent, who was also instrumental in Mr. Seguin’s training as a biologist and pursuit of graduate studies.
As for facilitating his innovative research with his trusted partner he says, “The top-notch faculty is to be applauded for getting on board with this ambitious and complex study. The can-do mindset of the faculty is paramount for keeping this research going.”