Blouin-Demers in the field. Photo: Gabriel Blouin-Demers / Provided
RESEARCH REALITIES WITH U OF EVOLUTIONARY ECOLOGIST
Professor at the University of Ottawa Professor Gabriel Blouin-Demers interviewed Fulcrum to discuss his research, career and conservation work.
In his bachelor’s degree, Blouin-Demers studied environmental biology at McGill University. Afterwards, he was admitted to a PhD program with direct access at Carleton University, where he studied thermoregulation and habitat use of black rat snakes. Shortly thereafter, he completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Ohio State University.
The researcher’s main areas of research include spatial variation in the abundance of ectotherm populations, the evolutionary maintenance of polymorphisms, and applied conservation work by identifying reptile habitats and endangered species.
The research into spatial density, as explained by Blouin-Demers, “is related to trying to figure out what are the driving factors behind the variation we observe across species.”
“The goal is to understand how animals are distributed through space, and why certain habitats have more animals than others. So, for example, we work mostly on reptiles, it can be abundance of food, but it can also be the availability of sunny places, etc., ”he said.
In terms of applications, this can help design reserves that contain habitats with a high population density rather than low.
Polymorphs, as Blouin-Demers explained, are found among many other plant and animal species. The most exciting, however, are those found within larger populations. In lizard populations, there are different color morphs, all of which may have different colored throats. The researcher examined why these men may coexist, given the expectation that natural selection would ideally find an optimal colored neck (phenotype) instead of three. Blouin-Demers says a reasonable hypothesis to explain this, as formulated by Blouin-Demers, is called frequency-dependent choice.
“So [in frequency dependent selection] phenotypes achieve a rarity advantage. When phenotypes become rare, they are preferred. And when they become abundant, they are less favored. So it creates cycles of abundance where a phenotype is rare, it increases in frequency, and when it becomes common, it becomes less beneficial. So this hypothesis about maintenance predicts cycles that can be observed and can explain the abundance of polymorphs. ”
One of his major applied conservation projects was one that studied bycatch of turtles: “we basically tag along with commercial fishermen to see how they fish, and then we bought the same nets and fished them the same way. What we first documented was how many turtles are caught because freshwater fishermen do not have a mandate to report bycatch. What we first saw was the size of the problem, and we found that it was big, ”Blouin-Demers said.
Researchers then began experimenting with the nets to develop modifications to reduce the by-catch of turtles, one of which involves adding a “by-catch reduction device” to the end of the nets so that turtles can escape before drowning. The escape device was made in such a way that the horizontal rods allowed turtles to escape while containing as many fish as possible due to the fact that fish are flat sideways. In addition, the research team found that including a float inside the net provides air space for the turtles, which can help reduce the number of turtles drowning.
Asked if he could provide any insights for students wishing to pursue a career in science research, Blouin-Demers replied: “I think a variety of courses should help, do you prefer your ecology course or do you prefer you your cell biology course despite who is learning it right, for the material itself. I think you should go with the kind that you think is most interesting in your studies and then try to focus on it because otherwise it will be a long long career. ”
Regarding the realities of university research, Blouin-Demers added that “one of my colleagues compares it to running a small business, and it’s a bit like that. There are all the more glorious aspects of making knowledge, testing hypotheses and all that, but there is also an economic aspect, finding the money and managing the money, delivering salary to my team in the lab, paying for equipment, repairs, etc. All this costs money and it is therefore a big component that can be stressful to keep the whole affair afloat because the university is not going to save you out either. The only thing the university gives me is this office, an internet connection and a telephone. So it’s not the romantic view of a scientist with a butterfly net, just you know, having fun in the field. ”
In the future, Blouin-Demers looks forward to continuing its teaching and research at the University of Ottawa. For more information on Gabriel Blouin-Demers, visit his website here, and more specifically, his research on the development of escape gear inside fishing nets and their effectiveness can be found here.