Graduate Theses & Dissertations

Behavioural ecology and population dynamics of freshwater turtles in a semi-urban landscape at their northern range limit
Species are faced with a variety of challenges in the environment, including natural challenges, such as variability in ambient temperature, and anthropogenic threats, such as habitat transformation associated with urbanisation. Understanding how animals respond to these kinds of challenges can advance the field of behavioural ecology and guide management decisions for wild species. Yet, we still have limited understanding of the extent of natural and human-caused impacts on animal behaviour and population dynamics, and lack robust assessment of behaviour in free-ranging animals. Using novel miniaturised biologging technologies, I characterised and validated behaviour in two freshwater turtle species: Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) and Painted turtles (Chrysemys picta). Further, I investigated how these two ectothermic species navigate a thermally heterogeneous landscape near their northern range limit, by comparing selected and available ambient temperatures. I showed that turtles preferred locations that were, on average, warmer and less variable in temperature than the available environment, and that this thermal sensitivity was greatest early in the year, and at fine spatial scales that likely matched the species' perception of the environment. Lastly, I assessed whether urban development was compatible with long-term viability of a Blanding’s turtle population, by monitoring habitat change and turtle survival over one decade of ongoing residential and road development. I found that Blanding’s turtle habitat quantity and connectivity declined in the area, which coincided with high road mortality and severe declines in turtle survival and population size, especially in adult females. I concluded that urban development and current road mortality rates are incompatible with the long-term viability of this at-risk turtle population. Overall, my findings demonstrate the importance of variation in the thermal environment and anthropogenic impacts on habitat in shaping the behaviour and population dynamics of this species-at-risk. Author Keywords: animal behaviour, biologging, ectotherms, habitat selection, temperature, urbanisation
Demography and habitat selection of Newfoundland caribou
The objective of this thesis is to better understand the demography and habitat selection of Newfoundland caribou. Chapter 1 provides a general introduction of elements of population ecology and behavioural ecology discussed in the thesis. In Chapter 2, I examine the causes of long-term fluctuations among caribou herds. My findings indicate that winter severity and density-dependent degradation of summer range quality offer partial explanations for the observed patterns of population change. In Chapter 3, I investigate the influence of climate, predation and density-dependence on cause-specific neonate survival. I found that when caribou populations are in a period of increase, predation from coyotes and bears is most strongly influenced by the abiotic conditions that precede calving. However, when populations begin to decline, weather conditions during calving also influenced survival. I build on this analysis in Chapter 4 by determining the influence of climate change on the interplay between predation risk and neonate survival. I found that the relative equilibrium between bears and coyotes may not persist in the future as risk from coyotes could increase due to climate change. In Chapter 5, I investigate the relationships in niche overlap between caribou and their predators and how this may influence differential predation risk by affecting encounter rates. For coyotes, seasonal changes in niche overlap mirrored variation in caribou calf risk, but had less association with the rate of encounter with calves. In contrast, changes in niche overlap during the calving season for black bears had little association with these parameters. In Chapter 6, I examine broad-level habitat selection of caribou to study trade-offs between predator avoidance and foraging during the calving season. The results suggest that caribou movements are oriented towards increased access to foraging and the reduction of encounter risk with bears, and to a lesser extent, coyotes. Finally, I synthesize the major findings from this thesis and their relevance to caribou conservation in Chapter 7, to infer that Newfoundland caribou decline is ultimately driven by extrinsic and intrinsic elements related to density-dependence. Reduction in neonate survival emerged from nutritionally-stressed caribou females producing calves with lower survival. Author Keywords: Behavioural ecology, Black bear (Ursus americanus), Coyote (Canis latrans), Population ecology, Predator-prey interactions, Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus)
Habitat Characteristics, Density Patterns and Environmental Niches of Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins (Sousa chinensis) of the Pearl River Estuary and Eastern Taiwan Strait
The purpose of this thesis is to quantify the habitat characteristics, density patterns and environmental niches of two groups of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins: Chinese white dolphins (CWD) of the Pearl River estuary (PRE), and Taiwanese white dolphins (TWD, =Taiwanese humpback dolphin, THD) found in the eastern Taiwan Strait (ETS). Much work has already been done on the habitat use of CWDs in parts of the PRE, so the purpose of my first two chapters was to advance knowledge of the TWD to a comparable level. Chapter 2 contains the first published description of the relatively shallow, inshore, estuarine habitat of the TWD. General environmental characteristics and observed group sizes were consistent with other populations of humpback dolphins, and group sizes were not correlated with the environmental variables measured during surveys. Chapter 3 investigated density patterns of TWDs, finding spatiotemporal heterogeneity across the study area. Humpback dolphin densities fluctuated from year to year, but some parts of the study area were consistently used more than others. Environmental characteristics again did not influence dolphin densities, though more dolphins than expected were sighted in waters adjacent to major land reclamations, which may be related to the location of these areas close to major rivers. In Chapter 4, niches of the TWD and CWDs found in the PRE were compared using species distribution models, which indicated significant niche overlap. This may be due to niche conservatism maintaining similar fundamental niches between the two groups since their historical split >10,000 years ago, or a result of the intrinsic biotic factors that influence occurrence data affecting the hypervolume dimensions of each realized niche in similar ways. Geographic predictions indicate that most of the TWD’s range has likely been surveyed, and that there may be connectivity between PRE humpback dolphins and at least one neighbouring putative population due to continuous predicted suitable habitat in waters that remain poorly surveyed. Overall, my thesis demonstrates that density patterns may vary over time, but on a broad temporal scale, these two allopatric groups of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins have similar habitat requirements in geographically isolated, but environmentally similar locations. Author Keywords: density, habitat, Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, niche overlap, Sousa chinensis, species distribution model
Environmental structure, morphology and spatial ecology of the five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) at high latitude range limits
Detecting relevant and meaningful patterns from the complex, interconnected network of relationships between organisms and their environment is a primary objective of ecology. Ecological patterns occur across multiple scales of space and time. In this dissertation, I examine aspects of environmental structure that influence a species’ distribution and are expressed in that species’ population dynamics. I compare the morphology of the five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) near its high latitude range limits with a lower latitude population and evaluate the economics of their behaviour in the context of its reproductive strategy. I tested the conformity of this species to biogeographical rules postulated by MacArthur, Bergmann, and Rensch. Spatial ecology was investigated in the context of the environmental potential for polygamy proposed by Emlen and Oring (1977) The five-lined skink, Plestiodon fasciatus, conformed to these biogeographic rules. Specifically, abiotic factors were the primary limiting factors affecting distribution at the high latitude range limits of the species; body size was larger in high latitude populations; and the degree of sexual size dimorphism was greater at high latitude than at low latitude. Spatial ecology at the individual scale was influenced by sites with suitable thermal conditions which facilitate the polygynandrous mating system documented in P. fasciatus in high latitude populations. My results confirm the importance of microsites with suitable thermal profiles as key habitat for ectothermic vertebrates at high latitudes. The influence of temperature as a limiting abiotic factor is expressed in population density, body size, spatial ecology, and reproductive strategy of P. fasciatus. Conservation and restoration of high latitude populations of ectothermic vertebrates should focus on ensuring thermal requirements of the species of concern are met before other factors are addressed, as temperature is likely the single most important limiting factor at high latitude range limits. Author Keywords: biogeography, lizard, Plestiodon fasciatus, range limits, sexual size dimorphism, spatial ecology
Evaluating the Effects of Habitat Loss and Fragmentation on Canada Lynx
Current major issues in conservation biology include habitat loss, fragmentation and population over-exploitation. Animals can respond to landscape change through behavioural flexibility, allowing individuals to persist in disturbed landscapes. Individual behaviour has only recently been explicitly included in population models. Carnivores may be sensitive to changing landscapes due to their wide-ranging behaviour, low densities and reproductive rates. Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) is a primary predator of snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus). Both species range throughout the boreal forests of North America, however lynx are declining in the southern range periphery. In this dissertation, I developed new insights into the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation on lynx. In Chapter 2, I created a habitat suitability model for lynx in Ontario and examined occurrence patterns across 2 regions to determine if habitat selection is flexible when different amounts of habitat are available. Although lynx avoided areas with <30% suitable habitat where suitable land cover is abundant, I found that they have flexible habitat selection patterns where suitable land cover is rare and occurred in low habitat areas. In Chapter 3, I investigated the effects of dispersal plasticity on occupancy patterns using a spatially explicit individual-based model. I showed that flexible dispersers, capable of crossing inhospitable matrix, had higher densities and a lower risk of patch extinction. In contrast, inflexible dispersers (unable to cross inhospitable matrix), were most limited by landscape connectivity, resulting in a high extinction risk in isolated patches. I developed three predictions to be explored with empirical data; (1) dispersal plasticity affects estimates of functional connectivity; (2) variation in dispersal behaviour increases the resilience of patchy populations; and (3) dispersal behaviour promotes non-random distribution of phenotypes. Finally, in Chapter 4, I examined the consequences of anthropogenic harvest on naturally cycling populations. I found that harvest mortality can exacerbate the effects of habitat fragmentation, especially when lynx densities are low. Dynamic harvest regimes maintained lynx densities and cycle dynamics while reducing the risk of population extinction. These results suggest that lynx display some flexibility to changing landscapes and that the metapopulation structure is more resilient to increasing habitat loss and fragmentation than previously understood. Future studies should focus on determining a threshold of connectivity necessary for population persistence and examining the effects of habitat loss on the fecundity of lynx. Author Keywords: Fluctuating Populations, Habitat Fragmentation, Landscape Ecology, Occupancy Dynamics, Population Ecology, Spatially Explicit Population Models
Islands, ungulates, and ice
Central to wildlife conservation and management is the need for refined, spatially explicit knowledge on the diversity and distribution of species and the factors that drive those patterns. This is especially vital as anthropogenic disturbance threatens rapid large-scale change, even in the most remote areas of the planet. My dissertation examines theinfluence of land- and sea-scape heterogeneity on patterns of genetic differentiation, diversity, and broad-scale distributions of island-dwelling ungulates in the Arctic Archipelago. First, I investigated genetic differentiation among island populations of Peary caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi) in contrast to continental migratory caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and evaluated whether genetic exchange among Peary caribou island populations was limited by the availability of sea ice – both now and in the future. Differentiation among both groups was best explained by geodesic distance, revealing sea ice as an effective platform for Peary caribou movement and gene flow. With future climate warming, substantial reductions in sea ice extent were forecast which significantly increased resistance to caribou movement, particularly in summer and fall. Second, I assessed genetic population structure and diversity of northern caribou and deciphered how Island Biogeography Theory (IBT) and Central Marginal Hypothesis (CMH) could act in an archipelago where isolation is highly variable due to the dynamics of sea ice. Genetic differentiation among continental and island populations was low to moderate. In keeping with IBT and CMH, island-dwelling caribou displayed lower genetic diversity compared to mainland and mainland migratory herds; the size of islands (or population range) positively influenced genetic diversity, while distance-to-mainland and fall ice-free coastlines negatively influenced genetic diversity. Hierarchical structure analysis revealed multiple units of caribou diversity below the species level. Third, I shifted my focus to the terrestrial landscape and explored the elements governing species-environment relationships. Using species distribution models, I tested the response of caribou and muskoxen to abiotic versus abiotic + biotic predictors, and included distance to heterospecifics as a proxy for competitive interactions. Models that included biotic predictors outperformed models with abiotic predictors alone, and biotic predictors were most important when identifying habitat suitability for both ungulates. Further, areas of high habitat suitability for caribou and muskoxen were largely disjunct, limited in extent, and mainly outside protected areas. Finally, I modelled functional connectivity for two genetically and spatially disjunct groups of island-dwelling caribou. For High Arctic caribou, natural and anthropogenic features impeded gene flow (isolation-by-resistance); for Baffin Island caribou we found panmixia with absence of isolation-by-distance. Overall, my dissertation demonstrates the varying influences of contemporary land- and sea-scape heterogeneity on the distribution, diversity and differentiation of Arctic ungulates and it highlights the vulnerability of island-dwelling caribou to a rapidly changing Arctic environment. Author Keywords: Circuitscape, connectivity, Island Biogeography, landscape genetics, population structure, species distribution models
Conservation Genetics of Woodland Caribou in the Central Boreal Forest of Canada
Maintaining functional connectivity among wildlife populations is important to ensure genetic diversity and evolutionary potential of declining populations, particularly when managing species at risk. The Boreal Designatable Unit (DU) of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan has declined in southern portions of the range because of increased human activities and has been identified as 'threatened' by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). In this dissertation, I used ten microsatellite DNA markers primarily from winter-collected fecal samples to delineate genetic structure of boreal caribou in declining portions of the range and increase understanding of the potential influence of the non-threatened Eastern Migratory DU of woodland caribou on genetic differentiation. Eastern migratory caribou are characterized by large home ranges compared to boreal caribou and migrate seasonally into portions of the Boreal DU range. A regional- and local-scale analysis using the spatial Bayesian clustering algorithm in program TESS delineated four regional clusters and 11 local clusters, with the majority of local clusters occurring along the southern periphery of the range. One of those clusters in Ontario corresponded spatially with the seasonal overlap of boreal and eastern migratory caribou and was characterized by substantial admixture, suggesting that the two DUs could be interbreeding. Next, I decoupled the impacts of historical and contemporary processes on genetic structure and found that historical processes were an important factor contributing to genetic differentiation, which may be a result of historical patterns of isolation by distance or different ancestry. Moreover, I found evidence of introgression from a currently unsampled population in northern Ontario, presumably barren-ground caribou (R. t. groenlandicus). Finally, because our analysis suggested recent processes were also responsible for genetic structure, I used a landscape genetics analysis to identify factors affecting contemporary genetic structure. Water bodies, anthropogenic disturbance, and mobility differences between the two DUs were important factors describing caribou genetic differentiation. This study provides insights on where conservation and management of caribou herds should be prioritized in threatened portions of the boreal caribou range and may have implications for future delineation of evolutionarily significant units. Author Keywords: boreal forest, genetic structure, landscape genetics, microsatellite DNA, Rangifer tarandus, woodland caribou

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