Graduate Theses & Dissertations


Assessing habitat suitability and connectivity for an endangered salamander complex
Habitat loss and fragmentation have significantly contributed to amphibian population declines, globally. Evaluating the state of remaining habitat patches can prove to be beneficial in identifying areas to prioritize in conservation efforts. Pelee Island, Ontario is home to a complex of salamanders including small-mouthed salamanders (Ambystoma texanum), blue-spotted salamanders (A. laterale) and unisexual Ambystoma (small-mouthed salamander dependent population). These populations have declined from intense landscape changes since the late 1800s, particularly from the historical drainage of wetlands. In this thesis, I evaluated the suitability and connectivity of habitat patches occupied by these salamanders to assess the size of, and dispersal capabilities between, remaining habitat patches. I found that there was a low amount of suitable terrestrial habitat available for this complex of salamanders, and existing habitat patches were small and isolated. Forested areas and non-breeding wetlands were considered to be suitable habitat when adjacent to existing breeding locations, suggesting that these habitats should be a focus for conservation efforts. Notably, intervention may be necessary to maintain this amphibian complex as many assemblages are isolated from one another and potential corridors currently consist of primarily unsuitable habitat. Given that much of the salamander complex is reliant on one species for reproduction, the long-term viability of this population of Ambystoma salamanders may rely on the enhancement of suitable habitat near current breeding sites by conservation organizations and local stakeholders. Ultimately, the approach used in this thesis emphasizes the value of evaluating habitat within a fragmented landscape to focus conservation efforts on imperilled species. Author Keywords: amphibians, connectivity, habitat suitability, landscape fragmentation, landscape resistance, unisexual
Impacts of Cover Crops on Soil Health, Soil Nitrogen Dynamics, and Cytokinin Profiles
In Ontario, the dominant cash crop rotations consist of soybean (SB), which is a leguminous crop grown in rotation with maize (MZ) and winter wheat (WW). In addition to these crops, some farmers integrate cover crops (CC) into crop rotation, especially during the fallow period and winter seasons, to reduce nitrogen (N) losses via nitrate (NO3-) leaching and emission of N2 and the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O). This thesis focused on understanding the impact of crop phases in a MZ-(SB-WW)-CC rotation on the abundance of N-cycling bacterial communities that mediate nitrification and denitrification pathways. In addition, the influence of CCs on soil cytokinin (CK) profiles, which are plant growth-promoting hormones, were studied in a greenhouse trial to assess their potential impacts when integrating CCs into crop rotations. In particular, the relationship between traditional soil health parameters and the soil CK profiles was studied to understand how CKs might reflect biotic interactions and soil vitality. Results indicate N fertilizer application mono ammonium phosphate (MAP) and starter N:P: K (24:6:24) during WW planting in fall largely supported nitrifying bacterial communities (amoA) and potentially contributed to NO3- leaching. Management of MZ, which included spring-applied MAP resulted in larger denitrifying (nirK) bacterial communities, increasing the potential risk of N-loss via emission of dinitrogen gas (N2) and greenhouse gas N2O. However, CC soils had significantly lower nirK than MZ, reflecting the importance of strong and deep root systems of CCs, which have a higher ability to scavenge the substrates for denitrifying communities (NO3-). This highlights the importance of growing CCs in reducing the potential risk for N-loss via leaching and denitrification. Additionally, in the greenhouse trial, the ability of CCs to affect CK was detected, highlighting the importance of integrating CC in crop rotations. This is particularly noteworthy, given that total CK profiles showed strong associations with traditional soil health parameters such as labile or active carbon and soil microbial community diversity. It was concluded that total soil CK can be used as a novel and dynamic soil health measure. Future research on quantifying N2O fluxes and levels of NO3- in leachates would provide a more precise understanding of the impact of different crop rotation phases on N-dynamics in these fields. Further studies on single or combined measures of soil CKs are warranted to develop its potential as a practical and effective soil health parameter. Author Keywords: Cover crops, Crop rotations, Cytokinin hormone, Nitrogen Cycle, qPCR, Soil health
Organic Matter and Total Mercury in Acid-Sensitive Lakes in Ireland
The following study measured dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and total mercury (THg) concentrations in acid sensitive lakes in the Republic of Ireland. Sixty-eight upland lakes and 48 lowland lakes were sampled for DOC; the upland lakes were additionally sampled for THg. Spatial variability of DOC was explained by regional precipitation and soil organic matter. A subset of lakes was tested for long-term trends and in contrast to reports of rising DOC in European surface waters, changes in DOC were minor. Spatial variability in THg was explained by DOC and organic matter aromaticity. Long-term THg concentrations increased, likely caused by inputs of terrestrial THg. A subset of lakes was sampled for sediment and soil and the results suggested soils drove THg variation in lake water and sediment. Lake water and sediment THg was low and consistent with background regions, while soil THg was relatively high due to high organic content. Author Keywords: Dissolved Organic Carbon, Lakes, Organic Matter, Soil, Total Mercury, Water
Active layer thermal regime in subarctic wetlands at the southern edge of continuous permafrost in Canada
The fine-scale controls of active layer dynamics in the subarctic at the southern edge of continuous permafrost are currently poorly understood. The goal of this thesis was to understand how environmental conditions associated with upland tundra heath, open graminoid fen, and palsas/peat plateaus affected active layer thermal regime in a subarctic peatland in northern Canada. Indices of active layer thermal regime were derived from in-situ measurements of ground temperature and related to local measurements of air temperature, snow depth, and surface soil moisture. Active layer thaw patterns differed among landforms, with palsas and tundra heath having the least and greatest amount of thaw, respectively. Tundra heath thaw patterns were influenced by the presence of gravel and sandy soils, which had higher thermal conductivity than the mineral and organic soils of fens and palsas. Vegetation also influenced thaw patterns; the lichen cover of palsas better protected the landform from incoming solar radiation than the moss, lichen, and low-lying shrub cover of upland tundra heath, thus allowing for cooler ground temperatures. Air temperature was the most significant predictor of active layer thermal regime. Surface soil moisture varied among landforms and greater surface soil moisture reduced the amount of active layer thaw. These findings improved understanding of how landform and climate can interact to affect the active layer. Author Keywords: Active layer thermal regime, Active layer thickness, Climate change, Peatland, Permafrost, Subarctic
Land Cover Effects on Hydrologic Regime within Mixed Land Use Watersheds of East-Central Ontario
Land cover change has the potential to alter the hydrologic regime from its natural state. Southern Ontario contains the largest and fastest growing urban population in Canada as well as the majority of prime (Class I) agricultural land. Expansions in urban cover at the expense of agricultural land and resultant ‘agricultural intensification’, including expansion of tile drainage, have unknown effects on watershed hydrology. To investigate this, several streams with a range of landcovers and physiographic characteristics were monitored for two years to compare differences of flashiness and variability of streamflow using several hydrologic metrics. Urban watersheds were usually the flashiest while agriculture had moderate flashiness and natural watersheds were the least flashy across all seasons, signifying that landcover effects were consistent across seasons. Tile drainage increased stream flashiness during wet periods, but minimized the stream response to an extreme rain event in the summer, perhaps due to increases in soil moisture storage. A sixty-year flow analysis showed that flashiness and streamflow increased (p < 0.05) above a development threshold of ~10% of watershed area. Flashiness was also greater in wetter years suggesting that climate shifts may enhance stream variability in developed watersheds. Author Keywords: Agriculture, Flashiness, Hydrologic Metrics, Hydrologic Regime, Landcover Change, Urban
Abundance and Distribution of Microplastics in Lake Scugog Catchment, Ontario
Plastic pollution is a growing concern, owing to its durability, ubiquity, and potential health impacts. The overall objective of this study was to assess the abundance and distribution of microplastics within Lake Scugog catchment, Ontario. This was fulfilled through two tasks (i) the development of a microplastic particle budget for the lake catchment, and (ii) the determination of the dry deposition of atmospheric microplastics in Port Perry, Ontario. The total input of microplastics into Lake Scugog (atmospheric deposition and stream inflow) was 2491 x106 mp/day, while the output (lake outflow and sedimentation) was 1761 x106 mp/day, suggesting that 29% of inputs were retained in the lake. The dry deposition of microplastics in Port Perry was 1257 mp/m2/day, which was high when compared to bulk deposition (37 mp/m2/day) in the same area. By quantifying the major pathways of microplastics better management techniques can be implemented. Author Keywords: Catchment, Dry Deposition, Microplastics, Ontario, Particle Budget, Plastic pollution
Effects of Agricultural Land Use Change on Nitrogen and Phosphorus in North Shore Lake Ontario Tributaries
Row crop agriculture and associated land use practices including tile drainage and conservation tillage have been cited as a probable cause of re-emerging eutrophication in the lower Great Lakes. In this thesis, I sought to quantify and evaluate the effect of agricultural land cover and land use changes on total phosphorus (TP) and nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N) concentrations and export in north shore Lake Ontario tributaries. This included (a) a long-term data analyses at 12 large watersheds (47 to 278 km²) using historical land cover and water quality data (1971-2010), and (b) a space-for-time study examining 12 small sub-catchments (< 8 km²) with majority (> 50%) row crop, pasture, or forest cover. Concentrations of TP were greatest in urbanized watersheds and declined particularly during the first decades of the study period, while NO3-N concentrations were greatest and steadily increased in agricultural catchments with increasing row crop cover. The space-for-time approach revealed that TP concentrations were similar across agricultural land uses and that export was most dependent on runoff. Meanwhile, NO3-N concentrations and export were greatest in row crop catchments and were positively related to row crop area. These results suggest that increases in row crop cover and associated agricultural practices including increased nutrient amendments and tile drainage may be responsible for increased NO3-N concentrations and export in northern Lake Ontario tributaries. Author Keywords: agriculture, Lake Ontario, nitrogen, phosphorus, streams, Water quality
Larval lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) recruitment dynamics in Lake Huron
Lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) recruitment has declined substantially in several regions of the Laurentian Great Lakes since the establishment of non-native dreissenid mussels in the early 1990’s. In Lake Huron, the reasons for the observed recruitment declines are currently unknown and there is limited knowledge about larval life stage. In our study, we determined whether larval hatching and growth rates have changed before and after dreissenid mussel invasion, and the role of several key environmental variables in influencing annual variation in larval densities. Larval fish were collected in the Fishing Islands spawning shoal during two time periods: a historical period (1976-1986) and a contemporary period (2017-2019). Larval densities and growth were lower in recent years, suggesting that recruitment is being limited at the larval life stage and that reduced food availability may be further limiting the growth during the larval stage. Annual variation of larval densities were influenced by spawning stock biomass, water levels, and dreissenid mussel presence, with higher water levels and the presence of dreissenid mussels being associated with higher larval densities. The direction of the effect of spawning stock biomass was either negative or positive depending on the model. We also found that larval density was a significant predictor of age 4 recruitment, indicating that year-class strength may be partly established at the larval life stage. Author Keywords: Coregonus clupeaformis, Great Lakes, Lake Huron, Lake whitefish, Larval, Recruitment
Assessing effects and fate of environmental contaminants in invasive, native, and endangered macrophytes
Macrophytes play an important role in aquatic ecosystems, and thus are integral to ecological risk assessments of environmental contaminants. In this dissertation, I address gaps in the assessments of contaminant fate and effects in macrophytes, with focus on glyphosate herbicide use for invasive plant control. First, I evaluated the suitability of Typha as future standard test species to represent emergent macrophytes in risk assessments. I concluded that Typha is ecologically relevant, straight-forward to grow, and its sensitivity can be assessed with various morphological and physiological endpoints. Second, I assessed effects from glyphosate (Roundup WeatherMAX® formulation) spray drift exposure on emergent non-target macrophytes. I performed toxicity tests with five taxa, Phragmites australis, Typha × glauca, Typha latifolia, Ammannia robusta, and Sida hermaphrodita, which in Canada collectively represent invasive, native, and endangered species. I found significant differences in glyphosate sensitivity among genera, and all species’ growth was adversely affected at concentrations as low as 0.1% (0.54 g/L), much below the currently used rate (5%, 27 g/L). Third, I assessed the potential for glyphosate accumulation in and release from treated plant tissues. I found that P. australis and T. × glauca accumulate glyphosate following spray treatment, and that accumulated glyphosate can leach out of treated plant tissues upon their submergence in water. Finally, I assessed effects of released glyphosate on non-target macrophytes. I found that P. australis and T. × glauca leachate containing glyphosate residues can stimulate the germination and seedling growth of T. latifolia, but can exert an inhibiting effect on A. robusta, although leachate without glyphosate caused similar responses in both plants. Additionally, I found no negative effects in A. robusta when exposed to glyphosate residues in surface water, or when grown with rhizosphere contact to an invasive plant that was wicked (touched) with glyphosate. My results show that non-target macrophytes can be at risk from glyphosate spray for invasive plant control, but risks can be mitigated through informed ecosystem management activities, such as targeted wick-applications or removing plant litter. Integrating contaminant fate and effect assessments with emergent macrophytes into ecological risk assessments can support the protection of diverse macrophyte communities. Author Keywords: Ecosystem management, Ecotoxicology, Glyphosate, Herbicide, Invasive plant, Species at risk
Biodiversity patterns along a forest time series in a remediated industrial landscape
Sudbury, Ontario is an epicenter of research on industrially degraded landscapes. Regreening efforts over the past 40 years have changed the landscape, leading to an increase in forest cover in the “barrens”, that once covered more than 100,000 ha. This study characterized changes in plant and insect composition using a space for time approach in the pine plantations. A total of 25 treated sites were sampled and soil characteristics, understory plants and insect communities were assessed. All sites were contaminated with copper and nickel, but the metals had little influence on biodiversity. Vegetation diversity metrics were more strongly correlated with the pH of the organic soil horizons, while the insect community shows little response to site characteristics, and rather vegetation cover. Plant composition changes are similar to those in pine stands undergoing natural recovery and as liming effects fade there may be a decline in insect community richness. Author Keywords: Biodiversity, Heavy Metals, Mining, Remediation
Anthropogenic particles and microplastics in headwater lake catchments in Muskoka-Haliburton, Canada
Microplastics, plastic particles less than 5 mm in diameter, are ubiquitous in the environment. This study estimated the abundance of microplastics (MP) in atmospheric deposition from four background monitoring stations in Muskoka-Haliburton, south-central Ontario, Canada and quantified the fate of microplastics to three background headwater lake catchments in Muskoka-Haliburton. Microplastics were observed across all sample media with polyethylene terephthalate and polyamide being predominant. The average atmospheric deposition of anthropogenic particles was 57 particles/m2/day with a plastic deposition rate of 7 MP/m2/day. Atmospheric deposition represented the highest daily microplastic flux rate to the three headwater lake catchments compared, 1.5 to 4 times greater than the flux rate for the inflow streams suggesting that atmospheric deposition can account for all the inflowing microplastics. A large fraction of the microplastics from atmospheric deposition (41 – 73%) were retained in the terrestrial catchment and there was a high retention of microplastics in each of the study lakes (1.44 – 7.39 million MP/day; 30 – 45%) suggesting that a large fraction of the terrestrial catchment export is retained by the lakes and that lakes are a reservoir for microplastics. Author Keywords: Atmospheric deposition, Microplastics, Ontario, Plastic pollution, Sinks, Sources
Assessing Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) Seasonal Occupancy in Haliburton County, ON Using Environmental DNA
Brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) are declining across Ontario in both numbers and distribution, prompting concern for their future. Here, conventional, emerging, and predictive tools were combined to document brook trout occupation across seasons using streams in Haliburton County, ON as model systems. By using the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s (OMNRFs) Aquatic Ecosystem Classification (AEC) system variables with environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling and backpack electrofishing, my research supports the development of species occupancy models (SOMs) and eDNA as tools to document brook trout occurrence. To do this, eDNA sampling was validated in Canadian Shield stream environments by comparison with single-pass backpack electrofishing before seasonally sampling two river systems across their main channel and tributaries to assess occupancy. Streams were classified as potential high, moderate, and low-quality brook trout habitats using indicator variables within the AEC and sampled seasonally with eDNA to quantify occupancy and relate it to habitat potential at the county scale. Results showed eDNA to be an effective tool for monitoring fish across Canadian Shield landscapes and that brook trout occupancy varied seasonally within and across watersheds, suggesting that habitat and fish management strategies need to consider seasonal movement and spatial connectivity. Using these tools will enable biologists to efficiently predict and document brook trout occurrences and habitat use across the landscape. Author Keywords: Aquatic Ecosystem Classification, brook trout, Canadian Shield, connectivity, environmental DNA, seasonal occupation


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Format: 2023/03/22