Herd mentality

Quinn Weber is a PhD candidate in cognitive/behavioural ecology at Memorial University. His research examines the social behaviour, habitat selection and parasitism of caribou in Newfoundland, particularly, the Fogo Island herd. He is investigating how animals with different behavioural types may be more or less susceptible to acquiring harmful parasites. His project contributes to a broader conservation research paradigm aimed at understanding behaviour and ecology of Threatened species in Canada.

1. Where are you from? Where, and in what area, did you do your undergraduate or previous graduate work?

I am originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba. I completed a B.Sc.(Hons.) and M.Sc. at The University of Winnipeg (UW) in the biology department. For both degrees, I worked with Dr. Craig Willis studying little brown bats in central and northern Manitoba, with an emphasis on the relationship between behavioural ecology and disease ecology.

2. What made you choose Memorial for graduate or postdoctoral studies?

I chose to come to Memorial University because my current supervisor (Eric Vander Wal – PI of the Wildlife Evolutionary Ecology Lab in the biology department) was a new professor at MUN who studied ecology and evolution of ungulates (deer, elk, and caribou). I knew that our research interests aligned and after some early discussions, I knew the atmosphere at MUN and in his lab was exactly what I was looking for as a PhD student.

3. What is your degree program and area of specialization?

I am a PhD student in cognitive and behavioural ecology (CABE) – an interdisciplinary program associated with the biology and psychology departments. My general area of interest is behavioural ecology and sociobiology of mammals (bats, caribou, and other mammals), although I have also studied aspects of disease ecology, and have recently become interested in spatial/landscape ecology.

4. Tell us a little about your research and the work carried out with your supervisor.

The focus of my research is the social and spatial behaviour of the Fogo Island caribou herd. I am interested in how animals with different behavioural types -- for example, social vs. anti-social individual caribou -- may be more or less, susceptible to acquiring parasites. My project also explores how changes in the number of caribou on the landscape (population density) affects the likelihood of acquiring parasites. Specifically, caribou in Newfoundland are the primary host for a brain worm (Elaphostrongylus rangiferi) that can cause mortality if an infection is bad enough. This parasite may be at least partially responsible for large-scale population collapses of caribou in Newfoundland. My project on Fogo Island aims to better understand how caribou behaviour influences whether individual animals get infected as well as whether they die as a result of their infection.

5. What made you choose this area of study?

In the third year of my undergraduate degree at UW, I took a field course called, Ecology of Prairie Ecosystems that involved a carrying out a small independent research project. Through this small field study, I began to fall in love with field ecology and ecological research – a passion that was further cemented during my undergraduate and master’s degrees where I studied bats at UW. These experiences, combined with the mentorship of my past supervisor, made me realize that the opportunity to do independent research through graduate studies was exactly what I wanted to do.

6. What are the implications of your research project for the province, the country and the world? 

My research on the brain worm parasite E. rangiferii could help our understanding about how and why parasites cause mortality to caribou. To date, caribou in North America have only been exposed to E. rangiferii in Newfoundland and Alaska – while all other populations in North America have not been exposed to this parasite. As a Threatened species in Canada, caribou have been declining over the past 15–20 years throughout most of Canada, and, infection with E. rangiferii could further reduce population sizes. My research on caribou in Newfoundland and on Fogo Island contributes to understanding how caribou behaviour influences infection. My project also sets the foundation for a long-term study of the relationship between caribou and E. rangiferii which will have important implications for our understanding of how parasites affect whether caribou survive or reproduce if they become infected. Understanding base-line ecology and behaviour of Threatened species, like caribou, is important because caribou were once abundant throughout Canada, are an iconic Canadian species, and they are also the primary source of food for many northern and Indigenous communities in Canada. My project is therefore part of broader conservation research paradigm aimed at understanding behaviour and ecology of Threatened species in Canada and generating primary research that can be used by governments to effectively implement conservation and management strategies that limit populations from further decline.

7. Recent awards/honours?

In 2016-17 I was awarded the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship as well as MUN’s Dean’s Doctoral Award.

8. What are you planning to do after you complete your degree?

After I finish my PhD my goal is to eventually become a professor at an academic institution in Canada. I understand these positions are few and far between, so I think it is critical to begin working hard now – as an early PhD student – so I can be competitive for these positions in the future.

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