PhD student lured to Mealy Mountain forest
By Jeff Green
The rugged and ecologically-rich forest covering Central Labrador’s Mealy Mountains are offering a Memorial University PhD student fascinating clues on how climate change is affecting vegetation and wildlife in this sensitive region of the province.
Andrew Trant is focusing his work on traditional Innu land in the area, digging soil pits, taking samples and studying the various strategies trees use to persist in the harsh and often volatile habitat.
He spent several weeks in the forest this summer and is set to go back in the fall.
The biology student’s research is focused on forest ecology – investigating how the treelines in the Mealy Mountains are responding to climate change.
“The work I do is analogous to ecological story-telling,” said Mr. Trant, who first came to Memorial in May 2007 after obtaining a science degree (honours) from the University of Guelph in Ontario and a master of science from Acadia University in Nova Scotia.
He is currently about halfway through his PhD studies at Memorial.
“Using tree rings, soil pits and genetics, I can start to unravel the past and begin to understand what the future has in store.”
And, that future could look bleak, he said, for some animals including the endangered Mealy Mountains caribou and other sub-Arctic species which depend on a habitat that’s already threatened by an advancing treeline.
“The effects of climate change are more pronounced in northern areas,” noted Mr. Trant, who is a member of the Labrador Highlands Research Group which includes other ecologists, geographers and researchers from Memorial.
“Perhaps treeline advance is better thought of as the replacement of tundra by trees. Leading off of this, I am very interested in looking at the persistence of northern ecosystems and the ecological factors associated with their ability to persist.”
Thanks to funding from the Northern Scientific Training Program – which provides financial assistance to students doing northern research – Mr. Trant has been able to spend just about every season in the Mealy Mountains area.
The federal program provides funding for roughly 300 students each year at more than 35 universities across the country.
Memorial received $56,600 this year to support the northern fieldwork of 19 students in areas such as geography, biology and anthropology and archaeology.
Mr. Trant is going back to Labrador this fall to work with local Innu experts.
“For the past few years, I have been helping to teach forest ecosystems and climate change modules with a group of Innu environmental guardians,” he said. “I am returning to Labrador to teach a course on seasonal transitions and how the forests and wildlife prepare for winter.”
And he said there are lessons to be learned from the Labrador forest.
“Basically, I am looking at the different strategies trees use to persist in harsh and often unsuitable habitat,” he noted. “It seems many of the tree species we have in Labrador – especially black spruce – persist in otherwise inhospitable climates, by cloning themselves. It seems likely that these trees just wait and wait until conditions become suitable and then they are able to advance.”