Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Our conference contributions

Today is the start of the conference, and if I haven't fled the city in horror, it's also the beginning of the end of a twisty trail for several projects. The Alaska Chapter of The Wildlife Society's annual meeting begins today at 7am with check in. We're bringing quite a bit to the table to this meeting, a lot of it in preparation for the June meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists. Here's a few of the things our graduate students and us are showcasing:

  • Within the last two decades, we've seen a huge surge in the number of wolves showing major pelt damage due to louse infestations. In other areas of the world, louse infestations don't cause this great of damage, or as widespread. Slowly, the number of wolves demonstrating the ruined pelt syndrome increased, and spread north across the Alaska Range. At this conference, we'll present the results of our wolf surveys, where we examined wolves from across the state. Our data suggests that the infestation appears to be spreading because it is spreading: wolf lice are not native to the state of Alaska. This will inform our decisions in how to manage this serious pest on our furbearer of significant economic and cultural value.
  • Individuals around North Slope communities have long alleged that they've seen Caribou in wild, free ranging herds that appear too much like Reindeer that used to be herded in this area. Experts failed to give this much attention, believing that the inclusion of Reindeer domestic blood in Caribou herds was unlikely to be widespread, if or when it would occur at all. However, recently, reindeer mixing with caribou has been demonstrated with low-resolution markers in the DNA. We use high resolution tags in the DNA, and sophisticated software to see if we can use a mathematical model to find what animals have reindeer ancestors. Our results are strong, and we were able to detect all reindeer, and reindeer hybrids. This opens up a whole new window in how to study herds in areas of historic reindeer herding, and could allow us to increase herd health and vitality.
  • A ratio of Males to Females is one of the most important numbers in large game managers' papers, but these numbers are often hard to acquire. In many areas, heavy forest cover prevents accurate aerial counts, and hunt results are rife with problems. We developed DNA tools to identify the sex of an animal based solely on pellet groups left by them in the woods. By investigating pellet groups, we can put a more accurate value on the ratio of males to females, and we can be assured that all males were alive at the time of the survey (alive and capable of defecation!). We tested this technique on a variety of animal species, and found it worked better than expected for a huge array of critters important to management.
  • Hunters on Prince of Whales Island in south-east Alaska have become concerned that Sitka Black Tail Deer(SBTD) have experienced a major population crash in the area. As SBTD are a major subsistence item on PoW, the forest service saw it fit to investigate this possibility. SBTD on PoW are difficult to survey because of their habitat (rainforest) so we developed a novel technique to census them using DNA. For the first time, we ascribe a population count, and a population trend. Preliminary results suggest a slow decline over time, and not a population crash. The perception of a population crash may be due to changes in the way people hunt SBTD.

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