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Avian ecology

(January 13, 2000, Gazette)

Dr. Ian Jones

Photo by Chris Hammond

By Tanya Bolduc

The North Atlantic region of Newfoundland and Labrador attracts the curiosity of camera and field book-wielding nature enthusiasts worldwide. It also attracts the curiosity of researchers who explore the region in their own way.

For people like Dr. Ian Jones of the biology department and his team of graduate students, the remarkable size and diversity of seabird colonies in the North Atlantic provides ideal research opportunities in various aspects of avian ecology, particularly with respect to conservation and management issues.

“Some aspects of our research are very applied, while others are pure research, for example, in evolutionary theory,” explained Dr. Jones on the breadth of interests represented by the work he and his student “colleagues”, as affectionately calls them, conduct.

“My own area of research is in seabird ecology, specifically in sexual behaviour and foraging,” said Dr. Jones. “I am also interested in how organisms respond to changes in the environment, particularly in changes humans have made, like hunting, pollution, and changes in habitats.

“For instance, the status of capelin is a controversial issue. Some commentators claim that the species is now scarce and declining relative to recent history. Others assert that no overall population change is detectable. Seabirds represent a possible solution to solving this debate. The occurrence of capelin in seabird diets tells us a lot about changes in their abundance and distribution.”

Dr. Jones currently supervises six graduate students who are also specializing in seabird ecology. Doctoral candidate Francis Wiese’s current work involves quantifying and modelling the impact of chronic oil spills on seabirds in the North Atlantic, an issue which has recently raised the eyebrows of environmentalists. Master’s candidate Melanie Massaro is in the process of researching the effects of predation by Great Black-backed Gulls on Black-legged Kittiwakes.

These are but a couple of examples of a wide spectrum of student research being conducted in seabird ecology under Dr. Jones’ supervision. No possible interest in the area has gone unnoticed by Jones and his team.

“A lot of what we do contributes to a storehouse of information which is important to research involved in addressing varying changes,” said Dr. Jones.

Over the last year Dr. Jones and his students have successfully published five research papers and have three additional papers pending publication. Dr. Jones himself co-authored and illustrated a book with his associate Anthony Gaston, The Auks, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1998, the result of many years of research.

“In my opinion, few research groups can boast this level of publication,” said Dr. Jones.

While much of the work being done by Dr. Jones and his team of graduate students has concentrated on shedding light on the remarkable ecology of the North Atlantic region, some of their work has extended into other, remoter areas of the world. Dr. Jones’ research on auks has taken him to Svalbard in north Norway, the North Pacific, the Bering Sea, and Buldir Island in Alaska. Martin Renner, a PhD candidate under Dr. Jones’ supervision is also doing research relevant to Buldir Island and Allison Veit, an M.Sc. candidate is working on a seabird species native to the north-western Hawaiian Islands.

Dr. Jones currently holds an associate industrial research chair in association with the Atlantic Cooperative Wildlife Ecology Research Network (ACWERN). Since its founding in 1994, ACWERN has combined efforts between Memorial, Acadia University, and the University of New Brunswick to enhance the understanding of the ecology of wildlife in Atlantic Region ecosystems. Dually funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Canadian Wildlife Services of Environment Canada, ACWERN promotes scientific research applied to conservation and management issues and the provision of educational opportunities to students.

Dr. Jones’ own research along with the work conducted by his students under the ACWERN project has proved productive in providing a more accurate picture of seabird ecology in the Atlantic region and in other areas of the world, encouraging us to appreciate in all its diversity and fragility an ecosystem we may too easily take for granted