Graduate Theses & Dissertations

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Making eDNA count
Environmental DNA (eDNA) is rapidly becoming an established method for the detection of species in aquatic systems and has been suggested as a promising tool to estimate species abundance. However, the strength of the relationship between eDNA concentrations and taxon abundance (density/biomass) can vary widely between species. I investigated the relationship between eDNA concentration and species abundance using two common and closely-related amphibians in eastern North America, the wood frog (Rana sylvatica) and northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens). I manipulated tadpole density in 80 L mesocosms and documented the relationship between tadpole density, biomass, and eDNA concentration. Species were comparable in biomass but differed in the amount of detectible genetic material produced; density and biomass were the superior abundance metric correlated with eDNA concentration for wood frogs and leopard frogs, respectively. However, increases in eDNA concentration reflected increasing tadpole biomass, therefore biomass is likely a better metric of abundance than density. Overall my findings support that eDNA concentration can be used as an index of species abundance, but that species-specific calibration may be needed before eDNA concentration can be effectively translated to an abundance metric. Future research should refine our understanding of how biotic and abiotic factors influence eDNA production, degradation, and recovery across species, before the method can receive widespread use as a monitoring tool in natural settings. Author Keywords: abundance estimates, environmental DNA, mesocosm, Rana pipiens, Rana sylvatica
How Abiotic and Biotic Factors Can Alter the Competitive Landscape in an Aggressive Species Complex (Genus
Competition is known to impact population dynamics through both indirect and direct interactions, and direct interactions can often lead to injury in one or both parties. As such, response to injury through tissue regeneration can be important for surviving post-competitive interaction. However, the impacts of outside factors like temperature and genome size (e.g. polyploidy) are not well studied, especially in syntopic systems. We addressed this knowledge gap by comparing regeneration rates of diploid Ambystoma laterale and triploid unisexual Ambystoma at two ecologically-relevant temperatures. Environmental factors appeared to have stronger effects on regeneration than ploidy level, but overall mass was impacted more strongly by ploidy level. Interestingly, there was an interaction between temperature and time within unisexuals that was absent when comparing different ploidy levels, implying temperature has a more complex effect on polyploids. This study supports the hypothesis that polyploid organisms are better equipped to respond to shifts in their environments, which can give them a competitive advantage at the northern range limit of this species complex. Author Keywords: Ambystoma, Genome dosage, Hybrid vigor, Polyploidy, Thermal optimum, Tissue regeneration
Assessing Molecular and Ecological Differentiation in Wild Carnivores
Wild populations are notoriously difficult to study due to confounding stochastic variables. This thesis tackles two components of investigating wild populations. The first examines the use of niche modeling to quantify macro-scale predator-prey relationships in canid populations across eastern North America, while the second examines range-wide molecular structure in Canada lynx. The goal of the first chapter is to quantify niche characteristics in a Canis hybrid zone of C. lupus, C. lycaon, and C. latrans to better understand the ecological differentiation of these species, and to assess the impacts of incorporating biotic interactions into species distribution models. The goal of the second chapter is to determine if DNA methylation, an epigenetic marker that modifies the structure of DNA, can be used to differentiate populations, and might be a signature of local adaptation. Our results indicated that canids across the hybrid zone in eastern North America exhibit low levels of genetic and ecological differentiation, and that the importance of biotic interactions are largely lost at large spatial scales. We also identified cryptic structure in methylation patterns in Canada lynx populations, which suggest signatures of local adaptation, and indicate the utility of DNA methylation as a marker for investigating adaptive divergence. Author Keywords: Ecological Epigenetics, Ecological Genetics, SDM
Assessing Connectivity of Protected Area Networks and the Role of Private Lands in the United States
Forestalling biodiversity loss through the establishment of protected areas is a universally accepted conservation strategy, yet despite established guidelines for protected area coverage and placement, much of the world is currently failing to meet its commitments to conservation planning and landscape protection. Calls for the United States to protect more land usually focus on the need for strategic selection of land parcels to bolster protected area coverage and network functionality, but to date there lacks focused research on either the role of private protected areas in conservation planning or the factors affecting individual protected area selection and importance. We determined gaps in conservation planning in the contiguous United States by analyzing the connectivity of protected area networks by state, and assessing the importance of private protected areas in improving linkages in protected area connectivity. We found that all states had low coverage from protected areas (average <8.4% of total land mass), and especially private protected areas (average <1.1% of total land mass), and that the overall contribution of such areas to protected area network connectivity also was low. Terrain ruggedness was identified as the main factor affecting the current location of protected areas, and that protected area spatial layout is a primary influence on landscape connectivity. We conclude that establishment of private protected areas could offer a viable conservation tool for increasing protected area coverage and connectivity, but that current efforts are inadequate to either adequately link existing protected areas or to meet established land protection guidelines. Author Keywords: Aichi Target 11, conservation planning, graph theory, network theory, private conservation, protected areas
Enduring Attack
Numerous prey taxa employ defensive postures for protection against attack by predators. Defensive postures mitigate predation risk at various stages of the predator-prey sequence, including through crypsis, mimicry, thanatosis, aposematism, and deflection. In terrestrial salamanders, defensive postures may be aposematic, or deflect attacks away from vital body parts and towards the tail, however the extent to which these strategies act exclusively or synergistically remains poorly understood. Herein I demonstrate a novel approach to study the function of salamander defensive postures through experimental manipulation of predator response to antipredator behaviour in a natural field setting. I deployed 1600 clay salamander prey on Pelee Island, Ontario, manipulating prey size (small, large) and posture (resting, defensive) and documented attack rates across three predator types to further assess the effect of prey body size and predator type on antipredator efficacy. My research suggests that irrespective of prey body size, defensive posture does not function through aposematism, but rather acts to deflect predator attacks to the tail, which is commonly noxious and expendable in terrestrial salamanders. An intriguing possibility is that this behaviour facilitates taste-rejection by predators. Overall, my research should further contribute to our understanding of the importance and potential evolutionary significance of defensive posturing in Ambystoma salamanders, and more broadly, on the determinants of prey vulnerability to predation. I also briefly discuss the implications of my results to the conservation of Ambystoma populations on Pelee Island. Author Keywords: Anti-predator behaviour, Aposematism, Attack deflection, Predator avoidance, Small-mouthed salamander, Taste-rejection
Complex niche determinants in terrestrial salamanders
I assessed how organisms having multiple biotic attributes may have conflicting niche determinants, and whether the realized niche reflects single or multiple attributes. All-female salamanders engage in two biotic states: hybridism and reproductive parasitism. Hybrids should occupy areas transitional to those used by parental species, whereas parasites that engage in competition with hosts should occupy habitats moderately suitable for hosts. Using niche models, I predicted realized niches for unisexual Ambystoma via a hybrid model (environmental predictors) and a parasite model (host suitability predictors). The hybrid model predicted that the unisexual niche would indeed be transitional between parental Ambystoma spp. The parasite model demonstrated unisexual salamanders occupied habitats moderately suitable for hosts, though model validation did not fully corroborate its predictive power. The hybrid model was more descriptive of unisexual occurrence than the parasite model. When species have competing ecological roles a primary biotic attribute may largely derive the realized niche. Author Keywords: Ambystoma, hybrid, niche, parasite, range, unisexual
Corticosterone Promotes Development of Cannibalistic Morphology and Inhibits Tissue Regeneration in Axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum)
Salamanders are capable of tissue regeneration throughout all life-stages, which requires the dedifferentiation of mature cells to regrow lost tissues. Dedifferentiation is promoted by degradation of the extracellular matrix by matrix metalloproteases, as well as lysosomal degradation of intracellular and cell-surface proteins that mark cells as part of a mature lineage. Salamanders are also capable of developing cannibalistic phenotypes, plastic traits that are elicited by environmental stressors that result in elevated circulating glucocorticoid (e.g., corticosterone) levels that underlie many fundamental adaptive changes in morphology. Interestingly, the direct effect of corticosterone on regeneration and the cannibalistic phenotype have yet to be examined. In the present thesis, axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum) were exposed to exogenous corticosterone and 50% of the distal tail tissue was removed. The effects of high corticosterone levels on matrix metalloprotease (MMP-2, MMP-9) and lysosomal acid phosphatase (LAP) activity were assessed; these are two classes of enzymes which are markers of extracellular matrix and intracellular remodeling during regeneration, respectively. We found that elevated corticosterone levels inhibited tissue regeneration, by prolonging the dedifferentiation phase as indicated by increased LAP and reduced MMP-2 and MMP-9 activity. Elevated corticosterone levels also promoted the cannibalistic morphology and this effect was strongest among smaller individuals. Author Keywords: amphibian, cannibalistic morphology, corticosterone, dedifferentiation, regeneration, stress
Assessing Canada Lynx Dispersal Across an Elevation Barrier
Mountain ranges are often thought to restrict movement of wildlife, yet previous studies evaluating the role of the Rocky Mountains as a dispersal barrier for Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) have been contradictory. Our study uses neutral microsatellite loci to evaluate the role of the Rocky Mountains as a barrier to gene flow for lynx. Although lynx exhibited low genetic differentiation, we detected a limited effect of the mountains. Furthermore, we inferred the role played by landscape variables in gene flow (genetic differentiation predicted by landscape resistance). Limited gene flow most strongly related to resistance from physical factors (low snow cover and elevation), rather than other topographic and ecological factors (high terrain roughness, low forest cover, low habitat suitability, and geographic distance). Structural connectivity was a relatively poor predictor of functional connectivity. Overall, the Rockies represent an area of reasonably high functional connectivity for lynx, with limited resistance to gene flow. Author Keywords: Canada lynx, connectivity, gene flow, genetic structure, landscape genetics, Rocky mountains
Pathogen vs. Predator
Stressors are often an inescapable part of an organism’s life. While the effects of many stressors have been well studied individually, potential interactions between stressors exist that may result in greater than additive negative effects. Stressors may be linked by conflicting demands on energy budgets, interfering with important physiological pathways, or necessitating incompatible adaptive responses. Using Ranavirus (FV3) and larval dragonfly predators (Anax spp.) in a 2x2 factorial experiment on green frog (Lithobates clamitans) tadpoles, I investigate the interactions in behaviour, morphology, and metabolism when both stressors were applied in concert. I demonstrate that activity and feeding are reduced additively by both stressors, and tadpoles increase distance between conspecifics in FV3-exposed tanks, but only in the absence of predators. I also note decreases in mass, and a non-significant marginal increase in metabolic rate of tadpoles exposed to FV3. Interestingly, I provide evidence that FV3 can compromise morphometric responses through antagonistic interactions with perceived predation risk exposure, which may result in significantly elevated mortality even when either stressor is present in sub-lethal quantities. Thus, I conclude that sub-lethal exposure to stressors can nonetheless have substantial impacts on organisms and a more integrative approach to examining the impacts of stressors on individual physiology and fitness is necessary. Author Keywords: Behaviour, Interaction, Morphology, Predation Risk, Ranavirus, Tadpoles
origin and ecological function of an ion inducing anti-predator behaviour in Lithobates tadpoles
Chemical cues are used commonly by prey to identify predation risk in aquatic environments. Previous work has indicated that negatively-charged ions of m/z 501 are possibly a kairomone that induces anti-predator responses in tadpoles. This thesis found that this ion species: (i) is produced by injured tadpoles; (ii) exhibits increased spectral intensity with higher tadpole biomass; and (iii) is not produced by starved predators. These results refute the hypothesis that the ion is a kairomone, and rather support its role as an alarm cue released from tadpoles. High resolution mass spectrometry (HR-MS) revealed a unique elemental composition for [M-H]-, m/z 501.2886, of C26H45O7S-. Collision induced dissociation (CID) of ion m/z 501 formed product ions of m/z 97 and m/z 80, HSO4- and SO3-, respectively, indicating the presence of sulfate. Green frog (Lithobates clamitans) tadpoles exposed to m/z 501, and an industrial analogue, sodium dodecyl sulphate (NaC12H25O4S), exhibited similar anti-predator responses, thereby suggesting the potential role of organic sulfate as a tadpole behavioural alterant. Author Keywords: Alarm cue, Amphibian, Chemical Ecology, Mass spectrometry, Predator-prey interactions
Time-dependent effects of predation risk on stressor reactivity and growth in developing larval anurans (Lithobates pipiens)
The predator vs. prey dynamic is an omnipresent factor in ecological systems that may drive changes in life history patterns in prey animals through behavioural, morphological, and physiological changes. Predation risk can have profound effects on the life history events of an animal, and is influenced by the neuroendocrine stress response. Activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal/interrenal axis, and the induction of stress hormones (e.g., corticosterone (CORT)) have been shown to mediate the onset of inducible anti-predator defensive traits including increased tail-depth, and reduced activity. The predator-prey relationship between dragonfly nymphs and tadpoles can be a powerful model system for understanding mechanisms that facilitate changes in the stress response in accordance with altered severity of risk. It has been well demonstrated early in tadpole ontogeny that increased corticosterone (CORT) levels, observed within three weeks of predator exposure, are correlated with increased tail depth morphology. However, the reactivity of the stress response in relation to the growth modulation in developing prey has yet to be fully explored. Accordingly, this thesis assessed the stress and growth response processes in tadpoles that were continuously exposed to perceived predation risk later in ontogeny. Continuous exposure of prey to predation risk for three weeks significantly increased CORT levels, and tail depth. However, tadpoles exposed to six weeks of predation risk acclimated to the presence of the predator, which was observed as a significant reduction of stressor-induced CORT levels. In addition, although increased tail depth has been attributed to predator defense, predator-naïve tadpoles began to display similar tail depth morphology as treated tadpoles at the six week time point. Thus, this thesis suggests that the stress response in lower vertebrate systems (e.g., tadpoles) may operate in a similarly complex manner to that observed in higher vertebrates (e.g., rats), for which severity of risk associated with the stressor aids in defining activity of the stress response. Moreover, the lack of morphological difference between treatments among tadpoles exposed later in ontogeny suggests that the mechanisms for inducing defenses are normal morphological traits in the development of the animal. This thesis paves the way for future research to elucidate the relationship between the neuroendocrine stress response and hormonal pathways involved in growth modulation in the presence of environmental pressures. Author Keywords: Acclimation, Corticosterone, Growth Modulation, Predation Risk, R. pipiens, Tadpole
third wheel
Population cycles are regular fluctuations in population densities, however, in recent years many cycles have begun to disappear. With Canada lynx this dampening has also been seen with decreasing latitude corresponding to an increase in prey diversity. My study investigates the role of alternate prey on the stability of the lynx-hare cycle by first comparing the functional responses of two sympatric but ecologically distinct predators on a primary and alternate prey. I then populated a three species predator-prey model to investigate the role of alternate prey on population stability. My results showed that alternate prey can promote stability, though they are unlikely to “stop the cycle”. Furthermore, stability offered by alternate prey is contingent on its ability to increase intraspecific competition. My study highlights that population cycles are not governed by a single factor and that future research needs to be cognizant of interactions between alternate prey and intraspecific competition. Author Keywords: alternate prey, Canis latrans, functional response, Lepus americanus, Lynx canadensis, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus

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