AU researchers #domoreforwildlife
Since 1947, Canada has recognized the week of April 10 as National Wildlife Week—with groups like the Canadian Wildlife Federation encouraging us to #domoreforwildlife. There is certainly no shortage of majestic and iconic species worth celebrating in our great northern landscape.
Many of us think of Canadian wildlife in terms of Grizzly Bears coming out of hibernation, epic migrations of caribou in the far north, or perhaps the industrious beaver that makes its indelible mark on our landscape.
But for one research group at Athabasca University and the University of Alberta, the focus is on a somewhat less glamorous species: the Arctic Grayling, which is native to much of northern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.
Dr. Heather Veilleux, a post-doctoral research fellow working with Athabasca University’s Dr. Chris Glover, said the work they’re doing with environmental DNA (eDNA) assays relates directly to management of these populations in the wild, and can help provide information about how best to preserve these fish.
“This can really improve our ability to manage and protect vulnerable species,” she said. “This is hands-on real data that can be used immediately. That’s why I’m really excited about it.”
She has experience working on similar projects in Australia, where she studied how coral reef fish are affected by ocean warming, and tested eDNA assays on invasive marine species. She is looking to apply that experience to understand environmental and climate impacts on Canadian fishes using similar techniques.
Tracking Arctic Grayling
Glover, the Campus Alberta Innovates Program (CAIP) Chair in Hydroecology and Environmental Health, leads a research team focused mainly on understanding how environmental factors influence aquatic animal health.
With the Arctic Grayling project, which was funded by the Alberta Conservation Association, the aim is to develop eDNA assays for this species—effectively developing a way to detect the presence of the fish in any given waterway by taking a sample of the water, rather than having find a sample of the fish itself.
“This will facilitate predictive models of fish distribution as it relates to environmental change,” he said. “Ultimately, such models could be used in fisheries and resource management decision-making processes.”
Veilleux explained all animals expel DNA, in the form of skin, hair, urine, and other substances. Being able to identify an animal’s presence from that DNA provides a way to detect its presence without using more time-consuming methods like physically pulling fish out of the water, which are often also more invasive than looking for eDNA.
“You can actually go into these areas and use an assay that’s developed in the field and find out in a short period of time whether or not that fish is actually there,” she said.
This is a relatively new technique, and she said as the technology develops it should be possible to detect smaller and smaller quantities of the DNA, which in turn could yield more precise data.
Veilleux explained the interest in Arctic Grayling, in particular, saying it works well for research at AU and the U of A in part because it’s native to northern Alberta.
“Arctic Grayling are highly sensitive to environmental stress—changes in temperature, salinity, contaminants, and habitat fragmentation like when culverts are constructed,” she said. “And it’s listed as a species of special concern under Alberta Wildlife Acts, due mainly to angling pressure and habitat destruction.”
And the species has undoubtedly been affected by these concerns. She said in 2017, it was found in only 39 of the historic 80 stream where it had previously been found in Alberta.
Understanding the impacts certain environmental stressors have on this particular species could not only tell scientists about what’s happening with Arctic Grayling, but also could be applied to other migratory fish species that are related to it.
Reducing your impact
Veilleux said the best way for the average person to help preserve Arctic Grayling, and in fact many other species in the Canadian wilderness, is to focus on reducing one’s own carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.
Furthermore, she encourages people to reach out to elected officials, policymakers, and industry leaders to encourage them to help reduce emissions as well.
“It really is the most important thing we can do at this stage, and it’s something I feel the general public feels really disconnected from it,” she said. “To me, that would be the best way.”
Those who fish in Alberta’s waterways can also play a role by reporting any sightings of Arctic Grayling, as this will help scientists and wildlife officials track the areas where these fish populations can be found. Reports can be made on the Government of Alberta website: is https://www.alberta.ca/fisheries-loadforms.aspx.