A deadly pathogen has been spreading across deer populations in Canada and the United States. It’s called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), and though it is slow to spread, it is highly contagious, and has been detected in all provinces and states bordering Ontario.
Trent University’s wildlife forensic expert, Dr. Aaron Shafer, is leading a research project to better understand and manage the spread of this disease. He is working alongside researchers from the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry (NDMNRF), as well as Trent students, tagging white-tailed deer with GPS radio collars to track their movements and develop a picture of their social patterns.
“CWD is really difficult to test and diagnose in live animals, so we need to collect information about how wild animals interact, whether or not they are infected,” said Professor Shafer.
“The collars collect and transmit location data, essentially telling us where individuals are going and even if two tagged deer come in close contact. This movement data can help us make predictions about how or where CWD could spread after a case is confirmed.”
The fatality of CWD means it has significant negative ecological and economic consequences, so the research is supporting the development of tools that can help better manage and conserve biodiversity.
To date, Prof. Shafer and the research team have captured, tagged, and released a total of 83 deer with the GPS radio collars—the least invasive tagging method—across locations in Apsley and around Stoney Lake since launching the project this past December.
They aim to tag an additional 50 animals next year, but the team is already following along journeys of the tagged individuals.
Environmental and Life Sciences masters student Stephen Sucharzewski, who has been involved in the field work, says the data is revealing some long trips by the tagged deer.
“During the warm spell in late December, we saw that a few deer made migrations south upwards of 20 kilometres away from their original point of capture,” said Stephen, who is also a graduate of Trent’s Biology B.Sc. undergraduate program.
“These movements also exhibited linear trajectories with little stops along the way. I'm excited to see how their movement is further affected by seasonal change.”
Benefits of Collaboration
Working in close proximity with the Ministry (NDMNRF) benefits both the quality of Trent’s research and the quality of the student experience. NDMNRF researchers are bringing key knowledge and resources to this project, such as expertise in handling and tagging wild animals, and giving Trent students insights into how scientific discoveries can become practical management solutions.
Next winter, the research team will be tagging deer at sites located on Trent’s Symons Campus, in addition to Thousand Islands and Point Pelee National parks. The collars stay on for a maximum of two years and can be remotely released by the researchers. Between trapping seasons the research team will monitor the deer remotely and begin to analyze the GPS data as it comes in.