My long-term objective is to make significant advances in our fundamental understanding of how ecological variation affects phenotypic plasticity, evolution and population dynamics. I work on basic and applied systems that show extreme natural variation in important drivers or are undergoing significant human- and climate-induced change.
Climate change, and its implications, has re-emphasized that one of the greatest challenges in biology is to be able to predict the effects of environmental change on the complex interaction between genotype, phenotype, life history, and population dynamics of species. This is a formidable task but it is possible to make significant advances by combining longterm studies of dynamic systems in the wild with well-designed experiments. My research is built on two such programs. In the mid-eighties I wanted to find a natural system that allowed me to measure plastic (within-individual) and evolutionary (between-generation) responses to ecological variation. I chose North American red squirrels at Kluane Lake Yukon with the result that we now have phenotypic, lifetime fitness, and pedigree information for 10,000 individuals spanning 10 generations and 25 years. What has come to be known as the Kluane Red Squirrel Project (KRSP) has grown to include Co-PI’s and collaborators who complement my expertise (Andrew McAdam (Guelph) evolutionary ecology, Murray Humphries (McGill) energetics, David Coltman (Alberta), molecular genetics, and Jeff Lane (Saskatchewan) phenological ecology). The strength of KRSP lies in its comprehensiveness (censused and pedigreed populations of individuals for which we have physical, energetic, behavioural, and life history traits linked to lifetime fitness), the dynamic nature of a key driver (highly variable and quantifiable food supply), and our ability to perform relevant experiments. This foundation has allowed outstanding students to address a wide array of fundamental and emerging topics including animal personality, antioxidants and senescence, Williams’ hypothesis, Hamilton’s rule, and maternal effects.
The second part of my research program is the result of my NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Integrated Landscape Management (2000-2012) whose objective is to provide decision-makers with the information and tools necessary to make ecologically-informed landuse decisions. I now hold an Alberta Biodiversity Conservation Chair and the lab is focused on making ecological research relevant to society by tackling pressing conservation issues related to human landuse and climate change. I work in the heart of the Alberta Oil Sands where the conservation challenges are immense and the economic stakes are high, creating the opportunity to study large-scale systems undergoing rapid human-induced change. A “poster child” for this situation is the woodland caribou whose threatened status and large-scale habitat requirements make it an interesting case that challenges Canada’s SARA. Through a major effort to build collaborations with industry and government, Alberta now has the most comprehensive picture of woodland caribou population dynamics in the country. My lab has done the foundational research to determine the proximate cause of widespread declines and we have proposed innovative conservation actions. Although the core of the project is applied, we have also tested ecological theory involving predator-mediated Allee effects, apparent competition and landscape genetics. We are now at a critical stage of the caribou recovery process in Alberta creating the opportunity to implement and monitor a series of innovative recovery experiments.