Graduate Theses & Dissertations

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Shorebird Habitat Use and Foraging Ecology on Bulls Island, South Carolina During the Non-Breeding Season
Recent declines in North American shorebird populations could be linked to habitat loss on the non-breeding grounds. Sea-level rise and increased frequency of coastal storms are causing significant erosion of barrier islands, thereby threatening shorebirds who rely on shoreline habitats for foraging. I conducted shorebird surveys on Bulls Island, South Carolina in the winters of 2018 and 2019 and examined habitat selection and foraging behaviour in Dunlin (Calidris alpina), Sanderling (Calidris alba), Semipalmated Plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus), and Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus). Area, tidal stage, and invertebrate prey availability were important determinants of shorebird abundance, behaviour, and distribution. My study highlights the importance of Bulls Island’s habitat heterogeneity to supporting a diverse community of non-breeding shorebirds. Considering both the high rate of erosion and the increased frequency of disturbance along the shoreline of the island, intertidal habitats should be monitored to predict negative effects of changes in habitat composition and area on non-breeding shorebirds. Author Keywords: foraging behaviour, habitat loss, habitat selection, invertebrate prey, non-breeding, shorebirds
Contemporary adaptive shifts in the physiology and life history of Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus) introduced into a warm climate
Contemporary evolution has the potential to help limit the biological impact of rapidly changing climates, however it remains unclear whether wild populations can respond quickly enough for such adaptations to be effective. In this thesis, I used the introduction of native North American Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus) into the milder climate of Europe over 140 years ago, as a 'natural' experiment to test for contemporary evolution to a change in climate in wild populations. In 2008, four outdoor pond colonies were established in central Ontario using adult Pumpkinseed from two native Canadian populations, and two non-native populations from northeastern Spain. By raising native and non-native Pumpkinseed within a common environment, this design minimized the impact of phenotypic plasticity on differential trait expression, and allowed me to interpret differences in the phenotype among pond-reared Pumpkinseed as evidence of genetic differences among populations. I demonstrated that Canadian and Spanish Pumpkinseed have similar thermal physiology except when acclimated to seasonally warm temperatures; trait differences are consistent with Spanish Pumpkinseed being better adapted to a warmer climate. Populations also had similar overwintering ecology, however some differences, such as higher survival under starvation conditions and greater energetic benefits associated with winter feeding, indicated that Canadian populations are better adapted to harsh winter conditions typical of the native range. Finally, I determined that the relatively fast life history expressed in wild European Pumpkinseed is largely driven by plastic responses to the local environment; however, the higher reproductive investment by European populations has a genetic basis. Most climate change research considers taxa that are expected to be negatively impacted by warming: my research demonstrates that even warm-tolerant taxa that are unlikely to experience strong climatic selective forces can respond to a warming environment through evolutionary changes. The potential for adaptive contemporary evolution in warm-tolerant taxa should be taken into account when predicting future ecosystem effects of climate change, and when planning management strategies for species introduced into novel climates. Author Keywords: climate change, contemporary evolution, fish, non-native species, thermal biology, winter ecology
Temporo-spatial patterns of occupation and density by an invasive fish in streams
Since its introduction to North America in the 1990s, the Round Goby has spread throughout the Great Lakes, inland through rivers and is now moving into small tributary streams, a new environment for this species in both its native and invaded ranges. I explored density and temporal occupation of Round Gobies in four small streams in two systems in south-central Ontario, Canada in order to determine what habitat variables are the best predictors of goby density. Two streams are tributaries of Lake Ontario and two are tributaries of the Otonabee River, and all of these streams have barriers preventing upstream migration. I found that occupation and density differed between the systems. In the Otonabee River system, Round Gobies occupy the streams year round and the most important factor determining adult density is distance from a barrier to upstream movement, with the entire stream occupied but density highest next to the barriers. In the Lake Ontario system, density is highest at mid-stream and Round Gobies appear to occupy these streams mainly from spring to fall. Adult density in Lake Ontario tributaries is highest in sites with a high percentage of cobble/boulder and low percentage of gravel substrate, while substrate is less important in Otonabee River tributaries. Occupation and density patterns may differ due to contrasting environmental conditions in the source environments and distance to the first barrier preventing upstream movement. This study shows diversity in invasion strategies, and provides insight into the occurrence and movement patterns of this species in small, tributary streams. Author Keywords: biological invasion, Generalised Additive Mixed Model, habitat, Neogobius melanostomus, Round Goby, stream
role of corticosterone in breeding effort and reproductive success in tree swallows
Glucocorticoids (e.g., corticosterone (CORT)) are hypothesized to mediate decisions regarding reproductive investment during breeding, but the directionality of the relationship is not clear. The CORT-fitness hypothesis posits that high levels of CORT arise from challenging environmental conditions in which an individual will conserve resources for future reproduction or self-maintenance, and thus result in lower reproductive success (a negative relationship). In contrast, the CORT-adaptation hypothesis suggests that, during energetically demanding periods, CORT will mediate physiological or behavioural changes that result in increased reproductive investment and success (a positive relationship). Inconsistencies arise due to the various species and life-history stages studied, and the complex interactions between fitness and glucocorticoids. Using an experimental approach, I investigated the relationship between CORT and reproductive success by manipulating baseline CORT levels in female tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor prior to laying using silastic implants. Implants failed to raise CORT levels of females during either incubation or the nestling stage, and maternal treatment had no effect on indices of fitness at either stage. Using a correlative approach, partial support for the CORT-adaptation hypothesis was found: There was a positive relationship between CORT and hatching success. This only occurred when CORT was measured during incubation, when baseline CORT levels may stimulate increased reproductive effort and success. In contrast, during the nestling stage baseline CORT levels were not related to reproductive investment or success. Maternal CORT levels during incubation also did not influence nestling phenotype, although nestling stress CORT levels were higher in individuals that survived to fledging. In conclusion, CORT mediates reproductive effort and success during some breeding stages, but it is still unclear why this is the case and whether this same pattern will prevail in other contexts. Author Keywords: corticosterone, HPA axis, maternal effects, reproductive success, tree swallow
Effects of Silver Nanoparticles on Lower Trophic Levels in Aquatic Ecosystems
Due to their effective antibacterial and antifungal properties, silver nanoparticles (AgNPs) have quickly become the most commonly used nanomaterial, with applications in industry, medicine and consumer products. This increased use of AgNPs over the past decade will inevitably result in an elevated release of nanoparticles into the environment, highlighting the importance of assessing the environmental impacts of these nanomaterials on aquatic ecosystems. Although numerous laboratory studies have already reported on the negative effects of AgNPs to freshwater organisms, only a handful of studies have investigated the impacts of environmentally relevant levels of AgNPs on whole communities under natural conditions. This thesis examines the effects of chronic AgNP exposure on natural freshwater littoral microcrustacean, benthic macroinvertebrate and pelagic zooplankton communities. To assess the responses of these communities to AgNPs, I focused on a solely field-based approach, combining a six-week mesocosm study with a three-year whole lake experiment at the IISD – Experimental Lakes Area (Ontario, Canada). Our mesocosm study tested the effects of AgNP concentration (low, medium and high dose), surface coating (citrate- and polyvinylpyrrolidone [PVP]-coated AgNPs), and type of exposure (chronic and pulsed addition) on benthic macroinvertebrates in fine and stony sediments. Relative abundances of metal-tolerant Chironomidae in fine sediments were highest in high dose PVP-AgNP treatments; however, no negative effects of AgNP exposure were seen on biodiversity metrics or overall community structure throughout the study. I observed similar results within the whole lake study that incorporated a long-term addition of low levels of AgNPs to an experimental lake. Mixed-effects models and multivariate methods revealed a decline in all species of the littoral microcrustacean family Chydoridae in the final year of the study within our experimental lake, suggesting that this taxon may be sensitive to AgNP exposure; however, these effects were fairly subtle and were not reflected in the overall composition of littoral communities. No other negative effects of AgNPs were observed on the pelagic zooplankton or benthic macroinvertebrate communities. My results demonstrate that environmentally relevant levels of AgNPs have little impact on natural freshwater microcrustacean and benthic macroinvertebrate communities. Instead, biodiversity metrics and community structure are primarily influenced by seasonal dynamics and nutrient concentrations across both lakes. This thesis highlights the importance of incorporating environmental conditions and the natural variability of communities when examining the potential risks posed by the release of AgNPs into the environment, as simplistic laboratory bioassays may not provide an adequate assessment of the long-term impacts of AgNPs on freshwater systems. Author Keywords: Benthic macroinvertebrates, IISD - Experimental Lakes Area, Littoral microcrustaceans, Silver nanoparticles, Whole lake experiment, Zooplankton
cascading effects of risk in the wild
Predation risk can elicit a range of responses in prey, but to date little is known about breadth of potential responses that may arise under realistic field conditions and how such responses are linked, leaving a fragmented picture of risk-related consequences on individuals. We increased predation risk in free-ranging snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) during two consecutive summers by simulating natural chases using a model predator (i.e., domestic dog), and monitored hare stress physiology, energy expenditure, behaviour, condition, and habitat use. We show that higher levels of risk elicited marked changes in physiological stress metrics including sustained high levels of free plasma cortisol which had cascading effects on glucose, and immunology, but not condition. Risk-augmented hares also had lowered daily energy expenditure, spent more time foraging, and decreased rest, vigilance, and travel. It is possible that these alterations allowed risk-exposed hares to increase their condition at the same rate as controls. Additionally, risk-augmented hares selected, had high fidelity to, and were more mobile in structurally dense habitat (i.e., shrubs) which provided them additional cover from predators. They also used more open habitat (i.e., conifer) differently based on locale within the home range, using familiar conifer areas within cores for rest while moving through unfamiliar conifer areas in the periphery. Overall, these findings show that prey can have a multi-faceted, highly plastic response in the face of risk and can mitigate the effects of their stress physiology given the right environmental conditions. Author Keywords: behaviour, condition, daily energy expenditure, predator-prey interactions, snowshoe hare, stress physiology
Risk of Mortality for the Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) Throughout Its Life Cycle
Three long-term mark and recapture/resight data sets of individually marked Semipalmated Plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus) were analyzed using Cormack-Jolly- Seber models. Data came from two breeding populations (Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, n=982, and Egg Island, Alaska, USA, n=84) and one overwintering population (Cumberland Island, Georgia, USA, n=62). For Alaska and Georgia, time-invariant models were best-supported, giving annual survival estimates of 0.67 (95%C.I.: 0.58- 0.76) and 0.59 (95%C.I.: 0.49-0.67) respectively. Data from Manitoba supported a timedependent model: survival estimates varied from 1.00 to 0.36, with lowest estimates from recent years, supporting observations of local population decline. Seasonal survival analysis of the Georgia population indicated lower mortality during winter (monthly Φoverwinter: 0.959, 95%CI: 0.871-0.988; for 6 month period Φoverwinter: 0.780 (0.440-0.929)) than during combined breeding and migratory periods (monthly ΦBreeding+Migration: 0.879 (0.825-0.918); for 8 month ΦBreeding+Migration: 0356 (0.215-0.504)). I recommend, based on high resight rates, continued monitoring of survival of wintering populations, to determine potential range-wide population declines. Keywords: survival, longevity, mortality, shorebird, overwinter, breeding, migration, life cycle Author Keywords: life cycle, longevity, mortality, non-breeding, shorebird, survival
Impact of Agricultural Land Use on Bobolink Occurrence, Abundance, and Reproductive Success in an Alvar Landscape
Pastures and hayfields provide surrogate habitat for many declining grassland birds. Understanding agricultural land use dynamics and habitat quality can impact conservation of grassland species. I investigated 1) patterns of land use change in protected and unprotected sites in relationship to Bobolink occurrence in Carden, Ontario, Canada and 2) whether continuous grazing at lowmoderate cattle densities provided suitable breeding habitat, using both real and artificial nests. I replicated the 2001-2005 Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas to evaluate site habitat changes and Bobolink population trends. In continuously grazed pastures and late-cut hayfields, I monitored Bobolink abundance and reproductive success and modeled daily survival rate of nests using habitat management, vegetation structure, and prey availability. Results indicated that Bobolink have declined by -15.3% since 2001 in Carden; losses were explained almost entirely by changes from suitable breeding habitat (e.g. hayfields) to tilled land or by the colonization of shrubs. For pastures, stocking densities of ≤ 1Animal Units/ha did not negatively impact Bobolink. Year and caterpillar biomass, and vegetation height were the strongest predictors of nesting success in pastures and hayfields, respectively. Focus on the preservation of suitable habitat on the breeding grounds and management on small-scale beef farms can contribute to conservation action for this declining species. Author Keywords: agricultural management, avian ecology, Bobolink, continuous grazing, grassland birds, nest success
Habitat use within and among roosts of chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica)
Chimney swifts are listed as Threatened nationally and in many provinces within Canada due to rapid population declines. I examined large-scale spatial variation in the maximum size of chimney swift roosts at the northern edge of their range to identify where larger roosts occur. I used multi-sourced data collected across Ontario and Quebec between 1998 and 2013. I found that larger roosts were found at more northerly latitudes, and that very large roosts (>1000 birds) only occurred north of 45°. I also investigated fine-scale patterns of chimney swift positioning inside one of the largest roosts in Ontario. Using digitally recorded images, I calculated the angular position of swifts inside the roost relative to ambient and roost temperature. I found that swifts showed a strong preference for clinging to the south facing wall and clustered more when ambient air temperature was warmer. Thus, huddling in swifts provides additional or alternate benefits, other than serving purely to reduce costs of thermoregulation at low ambient temperatures. This research contributes to the understanding of chimney swift roosting ecology and identifies large roosting sites that should be retained for conservation. Author Keywords: chimney swift, communal roosting, conservation, group size, social thermoregulation, species-at-risk
Island Syndrome and Stress Physiology of Mice in the Genus Peromyscus
Biological differences between island and mainland conspecifics have been well studied, but few studies have addressed differences in stress physiology. Stressors, such as predation and competition for resources, cause the release of glucocorticoids (GCs). Characteristics of island wildlife, called “island syndrome”, are attributed to low levels of predators and competitors. I tested the hypothesis that island syndrome includes differences in GC levels between island and mainland rodents using two approaches; first, using white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus) from a near-shore archipelago (Thousand Islands, Ontario) and the nearby mainland; second, using study-skins of deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) from two archipelagos offshore of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. White-footed mice in the near-shore archipelago did not show characteristics of island syndrome, or changes in GC levels (feces and hair); however deer mice from both archipelagos in British Columbia were heavier and had lower hair GCs for their size than Vancouver Island mice. Author Keywords: Glucocorticoids, Island rule, Island syndrome, Peromyscus, Stress physiology
Temperature effects on the routine metabolic rates of brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) eggs, alevin and fry
Early developmental stages of cold-adapted ectotherms such as brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) are at risk of mortality with increasing water temperatures because of their sensitivity to changes in their environment. I studied the mass and routine metabolic rate (RMR) of wild-origin brook trout eggs, alevin and young fry reared at normal (5°C) and elevated (9°C) temperatures for the duration of the study or at mismatched temperatures. This setup determined if preconditioning acclimation for one temperature benefits or hinders the organism later in life. Three levels of biological organization (ancestry, population, family) were studied using Akaike’s Information Criterion (AIC) to identify models that best accounted for variation in the data. Family, mass and temperature were most important in predicting body mass and mass-adjusted RMR, although population and ancestral-level differences were also detected at some life stages. Strong variation in body mass and mass-adjusted RMR among families may indicate adaptive potential within brook trout populations to respond to increases in water temperature with climate change. Author Keywords: Acclimation, AIC, Brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), Environmental matching, Routine metabolic rate, Temperature
Stress Axis Function and Regulation in New World Flying Squirrels
Across vertebrate taxa, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (or the stress axis) is highly conserved, and is central to vertebrate survival because it allows appropriate responses to psychological stressors. Habitat shapes successful physiological and ecological strategies, and to appreciate how individual species respond to stressors in their environment, it is essential to have a thorough knowledge of the basic stress physiology of each species. In this dissertation, I studied the functioning and evolution of the stress physiology of New World flying squirrels. I showed that baseline, circulating cortisol levels in northern (Glaucomys sabrinus) and southern (G. volans) flying squirrels are some of the highest ever reported for mammals, indicating that their stress axes operate at a higher set point than most other species. I also assessed other aspects of their acute stress response, including free fatty acid and blood glucose levels, and indices of immune function, and showed that the flying squirrels’ physiological reaction to stressors may differ from that of other mammals. Using immunoblotting, I found that corticosteroid-binding globulin (CBG) expression levels in flying squirrels appeared to be higher than previously reported using alternative methods. I also concluded however, that these levels did not appear to be high enough to provide their tissues with the protective CBG-bound buffer from their high circulating cortisol concentrations experienced by the majority of vertebrates. Thus, this arm of cortisol regulation within the flying squirrel stress axes may be weak or non-existent. Following this, I focused on southern flying squirrels and showed evidence that the second arm of cortisol regulation — the negative feedback mechanism at the level of the brain — functions effectively, but that this species is glucocorticoid resistant. Their tissue receptors appear to have a reduced affinity for cortisol, and this affinity may change seasonally to allow for the onset of other biological processes required for survival and reproduction. Due to their distinctive stress physiology, northern and southern flying squirrels may provide comparative physiologists with model systems for further probing of the function and evolution of the stress axis among vertebrates. Author Keywords: corticosteroid-binding globulin, flying squirrel, Glaucomys, glucocorticoids, physiological ecology, stress physiology

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