Innovative, naturally

bluegill sunfish field work

Chandra Rodgers sampling bluegill sunfish on Lake Opinicon.

This spring I had the opportunity to write a feature article on the Queen’s University Biological Station, a site just north of Kingston where researchers have a long history of major scientific breakthroughs involving modest Ontario wildlife. Several of these discoveries have proved to be as useful as they are compelling. The story was published in the Kingston Whig Standard, and on the web through the Queen’s Alumni Review and Funding for photography was provided by the CFI’s 2011 Emerging Science Journalists Award.

Talking to scientists about their research was by far the best part of this project – much more fun than I expected! And even the toughest interviews were a gold mine of ideas. Thanks to everyone who participated. The full story is posted below…

Innovative, naturally

Before Adrienne had a chance to swat at the wasp on her shoulder, a dragonfly swooped in to pluck it away. “Welcome to the food chain,” quipped Scott Colborne from the stern of the boat. Each spring, at the Queen’s University Biological Station, Scott and a crew of students from the University of Western Ontario head out on Lake Opinicon twice daily to monitor the bluegill sunfish colonies that dot the shoreline. For his PhD research, Scott is looking for evidence that the colonies in the Rideau Waterway are segregated based on the kinds of food available – which might indicate that this familiar dockside fish is in the earliest stages of evolving into a new species.

If Scott’s long days on the water pan out, it won’t be the first major scientific catch to come out of the field station, also known as QUBS – a site that has grown from a cluster of shoreline cabins to one of the largest land-based field stations in Canada. Nor will it be the first time bluegill sunfish played a starring role. In the 1970s, Mart Gross was also monitoring the sunfish at QUBS with the help of a snorkeling mask for his PhD. Because of their role in sport fishing, bluegill were widely studied in North America – yet Gross was noticing things that nobody had documented before. “I began to see patterns”, he recalls; “It was tremendously exciting.”

Each spring, a male bluegill builds a nest, using his tail to sweep out a depression in the lake bottom; after that, he waits. If a school of females arrives, and the male manages to attract one to his nest, she might dip down to the lake bottom and tilt her body to one side to contribute a batch of her eggs. The male will then spend a week persistently guarding the site and tending his brood until they hatch.

At QUBS, Gross started noticing other, smaller fish that would sidle up to the nests when females were spawning. They were bluegill, but far too small to be adults. After catching some, Gross realized that despite appearances, these smaller fish were in fact adult males – and they were fertile. But they were breeding in an entirely different way, sneaking into the nests of the larger males and fertilizing some of the eggs there without the parental male noticing.

Gross eventually showed that the life of a bluegill can take one of two paths: young males will either develop into large parental or small sneaker versions, each with its own distinct set of physical characteristics and behaviours. It was a tension that sparked the interest of biologists everywhere: how could two alternative male types coexist in a single species? In the years following, sneaker males were also reported in reptiles, birds, and crustaceans, as well as several economically important fish species. According to Trevor Pitcher, an expert in fish reproduction and genetics at the University of Windsor, Mart Gross was way ahead of his time. His research proved that for males, bigger isn’t always better – and the alternative strategy isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Gross moved on to apply what he learned from bluegill to Canada’s commercial fisheries. In Pacific salmon, male lives also take one of two pathways: they will either develop into larger hook-nose or smaller jack versions, analogous to the bluegill parentals and sneakers. Gross, now a professor at the University of Toronto, has shown that harvesting too many hook-nose salmon can leave a disproportionate number of jacks behind – and potentially spell trouble for future yields.

This dynamic also comes into play in hatcheries that supplement wild salmon stocks. The natural choice for hatchery managers is to breed only the largest hook-nose males, but this can be counterproductive. Salmon jacks, like bluegill sneakers, tend to mature at a younger age, so they might grow more quickly. By excluding them, managers could inadvertently create a population of slow-growing fish.

It’s a balance that Trevor Pitcher takes into account in his work on Chinook salmon, done in partnership with an organic aquaculture company in BC. “The diversity of tactics is important to conserve,” Pitcher maintains; “People are now thinking about this when they create conservation breeding programs.”

Sunfish aren’t the only local wildlife with an impact on science. In 2001, Laurie Graham was cross-country skiing north of Kingston when she noticed that the snow was speckled with black. Crouching down for a closer look, Graham realized that what looked like pepper was in fact alive – and hopping. The tiny specks were snow fleas, microscopic animals related to insects that thrive in the coldest winter temperatures.

An expert in the chemistry of living things, Graham headed to QUBS to collect the thousands of snow fleas she would need for chemical analysis. There were bumps along the way: “We didn’t realize snow fleas were such good escape artists,” Graham laughs. Eventually, though, persistence paid off – in 2005, her work revealed that snow flea biochemistry was unlike anything seen before.

What keeps the snow fleas hopping is a unique antifreeze protein, so effective that Graham describes it as “hyperactive”. Along with Professor Peter Davies at Queen’s, Graham is currently working out the details of how the protein works. It is beneficial for the organisms – snow fleas and their relatives are some of the most abundant animals on earth, with species living in Antarctica – and it is an advantage that we might be able to exploit as well. Biologically inspired antifreeze proteins have the potential to improve organ transplant surgery and frozen foods.

“It’s a tall order,” says Davies, “but if you learn enough about how proteins work, and how they fold, and the relationship between structure and function, one may be in a situation where you can actually start to design proteins to do a specific job.”

A day in the woods led to scientific innovation for Laurie Graham, but one could hardly call it serendipity when she always keeps a few sterile containers on hand in her car. When comparing her life in the lab to time spent outdoors, Graham confesses that there is no separation. As Davies puts it, “Laurie has never lost touch with the organism.”

The same could be said of Jayne Yack, another QUBS researcher who uncovered a hidden world in a common local species. Yack, a professor at Carleton University, was at home on a quiet morning about ten years ago when she heard some unusual ticking sounds. Her first thought was that it might be her refrigerator, but when Yack looked in a bucket of hook-tip moths that she was raising for her research on insect hearing, she was astonished to see that the caterpillars were the source – and they were interacting with each other while they did it.

At the time, almost nothing was known about the acoustic capabilities of caterpillars, but Jayne Yack proved that these creatures have a surprising repertoire of sounds. Hook-tip moth caterpillars drum and scrape on leaves in territorial battles over silk shelters. Their sounds are so soft that it takes a special instrument to record them, but according to Dr. Yack, if you use a laser vibrometer, these 1-mm caterpillars sound just sound just like hippos.

Yack and her students at Carleton have since found that many other caterpillars also use sounds as defensive signals. There are species that whistle, click, stridulate and burp – and some that add visual effect by displaying colourful body parts at the same time. Many of the acoustically-inclined species are important agricultural pests, and Yack thinks this could eventually lead to chemical-free pest control: “Anything we can understand about the sensory ecology of these insects will contribute to understanding how to modify or control their behaviour.”

These days, she has a new challenge: bark beetles, a group that includes both the mountain pine beetle and the emerald ash borer. Yack and her students are looking into whether bark beetles use sound to locate the trees they consume, information that could be immensely valuable to forest managers.

For Jayne Yack, one small observation opened the doors to a lifetime of discovery – but it might have been overlooked if not for her close connection with nature. The environment at QUBS seems to encourage this mindset. According to Raleigh Robertson, director of QUBS for over 30 years, “People talk a lot more at the station. You get a more thorough exchange of ideas. It gives you time to digest them a bit more.”

And you don’t have to be a researcher to join in – the station hosts numerous classes and workshops, as well as school field trips and a new Eco-adventure summer camp. Jayne Yack believes these kinds of outdoor experiences are critical for budding scientists. “It’s this multi-modal stimulation that makes you excited about things” – something her caterpillars would no doubt appreciate.