Research funding has been announced that will bolster conservation efforts for boreal caribou, an iconic Canadian land mammal and one of the country’s most significant at-risk species. The project led by Trent Biology professor Dr. Paul Wilson, and Dr. Micheline Manseau, a research scientist of Environment & Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and adjunct faculty member in Trent’s Environmental and Life Sciences program, aims to develop a non-invasive genomic toolkit.
The collaborative project brings together private and public sector partners – and focuses on long-term genomic monitoring, compatibility of data generation, and house data in an open access repository that supports analytical toolkits for use by partners. Trent University will receive more than $1.3M over three years from the Genome Canada Genomic Applications Partnership Program (GAPP) directed through Ontario Genomics, which brings the total project budget to more than $4M.
“Merging genomic technology with non-invasive specimen collection will provide a comprehensive pipeline to gain information on large numbers of individual and groups of caribou in monitoring their health and population sustainability, all without having to handle any animals,” explains Prof. Wilson.
Genetic profiles to gain insight into caribou population and health
Professors Manseau and Wilson have invested 15 years in developing genetic profiling protocols from non-invasively collected fecal pellets that provide identification of individual caribou in over 40,000 pellets. This will allow the research team to analyze profiles to estimate caribou population sizes and trends, map caribou density, delineate population and conservation units, assess connectivity, reconstruct social networks, characterize diet and microbiomes, determine pregnancy and evaluate the impacts of environmental and landscape features on the health of caribou.
“Our collaborative research program, along with the innovative and cohesive platform that applies new genomics technology at a national scale, will be instrumental in producing new knowledge and supporting conservation efforts across the country,” notes Prof. Manseau.
Genomics research projects like this one utilize bio-innovation to create sustainable solutions for complex challenges, including wildlife conservation. Profs. Wilson and Manseau’s research guided through ECCC, as the project receptor, will facilitate quality assurance and standardization among laboratories, government agencies, industry and Indigenous organizations to maintain comparable legacy datasets through time and space that can track caribou demographic and health parameters in support of recovery actions.
Project partners include Alberta Environment & Parks, Saskatchewan Environment, Manitoba Conservation, Manitoba Hydro and Ɂehdzo Got’ı̨nę Gots’ę́ Nákedı (the Sahtú Renewable Resources Board). Scientists from Trent University, ECCC, Laval University, NRCan, the Toronto Zoo, the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba will participate in completing the deliverables of this Genome Canada GAPP.
Boreal caribou was first listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act in 2003, and is a priority species for ECCC, who are responsible for the preparation of national-level species recovery strategies, the identification of critical habitat, and the facilitation of population monitoring and assessments.