McLabbie October 2018 Update

McLabbie October 2018 Update

Hello readers! We thought it would be fun and helpful to start up a new thread that talk about things that we're proud of accomplishing and upcoming things you're excited for BOTH inside AND outside the workplace. Here’s a taste of some academia-related and also life-related little blurbs from the McLabbies from the month of October!


Research: I'm proud to be pulling together all the pieces together of my acoustic adaptation project to finally be able to tell a cohesive story about variation in squirrel rattles and their relation to fitness.

Life: I had two great Halloween costumes (Jack Skellington and Van Gogh!) and was very excited to go thrift shopping to make them.


Research: I'm quite proud of publishing my first paper (first author, too!) from my MSc work on how red squirrels recognize individuals using unique calls. You can view it here!! >>

Life: I've been trying to bake a loaf of bread every week and the quality has definitely increased from when I started out in the summer. Bread is delicious.

Sarah GP

Research: I finished writing a draft of my first red squirrel paper, and am heading to Ann Arbor to present the results soon.

Research/Life hybrid: A journal asked to use my wildlife photos for their holiday greeting card, which was a fun way to combine science and my photography hobby.

Life: I have managed to fight off a cold by spending lots of time cuddling with my dog and eating delicious home-made soup.


Research: This week I applied to three separate scholarships, which is always a little stressful for me. I’m pleased to have submitted multiple applications that make me proud (and excited about the proposed research!).

Life: I signed up for roller derby! I’m proud of trying something so far outside of my comfort zone and proud of my developing roller skating skills.


Research: This month I returned from my first field season in Kluane and have started analyzing my data. I have also put together an outline of my thesis chapters and am excited to start working on my proposal.

Life: I moved to Guelph at the start of the month and am enjoying getting settled in to a new city!


Research: Excited to almost have my first couple chapters out the door and move on to new questions I have been looking forward to for a long time

Life: Have been playing music again more consistently and has been a real highlight to my days.


Research: I am excited to have recently submitted the second round of revisions for a manuscript currently in review at Animal Behaviour. Fingers crossed that the next letter is an acceptance letter! You can find the preprint here:

Life: Earlier this month I went on my first ever multi-day canoe trip in Algonquin Park with a friend. It was so rejuvenating and I learned that I really love canoeing!

March Mammal Madness 2018

March Mammal Madness 2018

The Madness is nearly over

Recently the McAdam lab has been bitterly divided. Labbie turned on labbie as true colours were laid bare and loyalties put to the test. Truly, the fire of competition does not build character but reveal it. And we’ve been in involved in a tense competition as of late. Every March, as long limbs flow up and down the college basketball courts, another Madness grips a particular corner of the internet, and spills out into real life. A Madness of Mammals.



It all started in 2013, when the then Dr. Katie Hinde of Harvard University (now Prof. Hinde at Arizona State University: felt that the NCAA March madness tournament was not red in tooth and claw enough (actual history: What if it were a March Mammal Madness, and mammals big and small duked it out (or fled, or expired in mysterious circumstances) for title of greatest competitor of them all? And so she made it happen. Every year since then, bigger and better each time, Prof. Hinde gathers to Twitter a small army of biologists, co-narrators, artists and mostly importantly any member of the public whose heads are turned by the idea of mammalian combat. But of course no mammals really fight. Instead, based on extensive research into the ecology, physiology and behaviour of 65 (4 divisions of 16, with one position decided by a wild card round) entrants, fight outcomes are simulated, and gripping narrations penned. Outcomes depend on real characteristics, so the bigger, nastier, more toothy beasts tend to triumph, but an element of chance remains, and so upsets, Cinderella stories and outrageous scandals still occur every tournament. That, and the huge community that now produces a large quantity of facts, art, jokes, memes and alliances, keeps us coming back for more every year.

This year has been an interesting one, as for the first time March Mammal Madness has featured an entire division of non-mammals. The Orinoco crocodile has shredded all before it, but not before the common octopus suffocated a cookie cutter shark, the secretary bird stomped on all small critters in its path, and the tardigrade alt-advanced through the rounds (whatever the hell that means, Twitter is still hugely divided). Meanwhile, in the Urban mammal division, brackets were busted left, right and centre when the coyote slinked past #1 seed the Harar Hyena, thanks to a careless motorist and an unforgiving front bumper. Within this division we had one particular mammal dividing McLabbies, as the porcupine, picked by thistleswine lovers Erin & Jack, ransacked seedings to get past the Cape town baboon and the Berlin boar, much to the dismay of everyone else who had predicted the over-sized pin-cushion to go nowhere fast (bitter much, David?). Elsewhere, the pygmy hippo has squashed, trampled and chomped other mammals with Great Adaptations, and will face the coyote for a place in the final. Facing off against the crocodile to join the hippo or the coyote in the final is the winner of the Antecessors (early ancestors to mammals) division. Prompting much furious internet searches and approximations to extant mammals, this division featured beasts such as the Doedicurus (a huge tank of an armadillo-like monster), Homo floresiensis (an early dwarf hominid found on the island of Flores) and Andrewsarchus (a giant pig-like predator which was once thought to have been the largest mammalian land carnivore ever). Yet, none have been able to stand before the Ambelodon, (a massive shovel-tusked elephant-like behemoth) who may now be favourite to go all the way. However, an injury it sustained in defeating the Doedicurus may hinder it against the crocodile, so all bets are off.

I’m particularly pleased with this as I have the crocodile going all the way, a pretty controversial stance in a mainly-mammology lab. Folks just do not want to hear that just because it is furry does not mean it has got what it takes, mwahahaha. Ahem...

Smack talk aside, March Mammal Madness is a fantastic opportunity for connecting non-scientists and scientists. By tying these mammals to a sporting contest, Hinde et al have captured the attention of a huge audience that might otherwise not be interested in the conversation status of the Sumatran rhino (the winner in 2015), or the size of the Y chromosome of the fat-tailed dunnart (a tiny 4 genes!). Yet by following these mammals’ fortunes they find all these things out. A huge number of schools are sent material every year to allow students to follow the competition and for educators to make the most of this opportunity to teach kids about the weird and wonderful creatures all throughout the world. Hopefully, increasing the appreciation of all kinds of biodiversity by the general public will raise the importance of conserving the natural world in all walks of life. It gives scientists on Twitter the chance to have fun, and show they have a playful, funny, weird and ultimately downright human side. Finally, it breaks down barriers between scientists and non-scientists, and demonstrates they are all just people who also have strong feelings about felines (do not mention #CatScandal), a penchant for winding up old rivals (Bobcat vs gila monster anyone?), or irrational allegiances to walking acupuncture models (Leave the porcupine alone for heaven’s sake!).



So who will be crowned champion of March Mammal Madness 2018? Tune into @2018MMMletsgo on 2nd April for the semi-finals, and 4th April for the final, both 8:30pm Eastern Daylight Time, while following the hashtag “#2018MMM” for maximal madness. See you there!

- David F. (@DFofFreedom)

Strategies and Struggles of Work/life Balance

Strategies and Struggles of Work/life Balance

Whether you're in academia or not, lots of people share the struggle of keeping successful work/life balance. Creating a mindset of being kind to yourself and recognizing your own needs, strengths, and weaknesses is important for your productivity and happiness both inside and outside the workplace. Below, you can read about various ways the members of the McAdam lab promote work/life balance for themselves, and also some stuff they wish to improve to keep that balance. Don't forget to follow @mcadamlab and the rest of us on Twitter for more sciencey and lifey insights!

Julia K (@jules_kils): I keep a work/life balance by getting involved in community efforts outside of academia, like social justice activism and advocacy. Doing this keeps me grounded and connected, and reminds me of the bigger picture and of everything that I have outside of my thesis. I think it's important to use my privilege in productive ways, and this also gets me out of the office!

I struggle the most with over-committing myself and getting involved with too many projects, both in and out of work. This is problematic because things that I care about are either not getting done well or are not getting done. I remind myself, "thesis comes first" and try to prioritize my daily tasks with that in mind. I also try to only allocate a certain number of hours a week to activism (usually 5-7).

Sarah GP (@sci_sgp): I strive to keep a work/life balance by spending time with friends and family outside of work. Every week, I prioritize cooking, walking my dog, and at least one hobby (currently pottery), which also serve to help me relax and unwind - this eventually makes me more productive since I do my best work when I am well rested and happy.

As a new post-doc, one aspect of my job I find challenging involves making decisions about allocating my time towards old vs. new projects. I end up spending a lot of time worrying about how to balance these, time which could better be spent working on my research! Similarly, I still struggle with feeling guilty when I take an entire weekend off or when I bring work home in the evenings. I am working towards letting go of those non-productive feelings, and instead focusing on setting realistic goals and timelines for myself, ensuring that downtime is also built in to my schedule.

Simon DB (@si_denbro): Balance for me is helped by keeping a solid routine that involves taking time to do things like read, play music and, in particular for me, make dinner with my wife, allows me to commit myself to taking time away from work in a manner that I know is productive and leaves me feeling positive and fulfilled rather than guilty for not working on my thesis. I still struggle with keeping such a schedule though; this is particularly true in times when many deadlines accumulate at once and I feel the urge to try to "push through it" which invariably leaves me feeling burned out and effectively useless in a few days time.

Jack R (@ecolojack): I'm trying to shift away from considering how many hours a week I work, and instead focus on what I'm actually accomplishing. I set one (or a few) goals each day, and once I've completed those then I'm finished working. Figuring out what is a manageable but still ambitious goal is challenging, but I find it helpful to prevent me from spending hours chastising myself for not getting enough done.

Maggie B (@maggsbain): I promote a lot of the "work" part of work/life balance by doing work in environments that make me feel productive and creative, such as coffee shops and restaurants. Recently, I also allow myself time for self-care without guilt. This includes time relaxing with exercise, hobbies, or being with friends and family, as well as finishing errands and housework. All of this helps reset me and keep me grounded.

I'm a creative person and can get bogged down by forcing too much structure on myself, so I've been working on allowing time to be still and think through problems. This can be hard because I feel guilty giving myself time that isn't "traditionally" productive, but it's what I need to produce good quality science.

David F (@DFofFreedom): To promoting a work like balance I plan fun things and guard them jealously like a mother badger. I go boxing 3 nights a week at 6pm, so I always leave at 5pm on those days, and I do not cancel these due to work. I have a similar philosophy at weekends, they are for things other than work (sadly not always fun things) and so work is a last resort. If I do plan to work at a weekend, I pick a café I like, and try and treat the endeavour as some time in a place I like, with maybe some work getting done, so it isn’t too stressful. Also I say no to things occasionally, like review requests, to prevent my to-do list becoming too full.

I’m bad at taking proper holidays. Aside from taking a few days after conferences, and seeing family over xmas (arguable whether that serves as a break…). I don’t tend to book trips away purely for fun.

Erin S (@erin_sira): One of my primary work/life balance goals is to maintain interests and skill sets outside of academia that help prevent me from centering my entire worth as a human being on my thesis. I love music, which means that I often take voice lessons or other instrument lessons from folks in the community. I also enjoy creative writing, and during nice weather will sit outside with pencil and paper to scribble ideas, stories, or poems. Most recently I’ve taken up Irish dance with a local group in Fergus, Ontario, which is something I’ve wanted to learn since I was a kid. I also enjoy teaching and find it very rewarding to devote time to science communication with local grade school students. Knowing that I have skills outside of science (be it writing, teaching or music) helps me keep things in perspective when I’ve had a particularly rough day.

One of the things I struggle most with is separating my work and relaxation time. I will often sit down to watch a movie with my partner and think to myself-- this is a good time to get some mindless work done (i.e. formatting tables for a paper, checking e-mails, updating my website). Instead what happens is I don’t get any work done and I don’t relax… which just leaves me feeling grumpy and frustrated at the end of the night. This is a problem I often run into when visiting family, and I am trying to get better at working hard for a few hours and then setting aside time purely to visit and relax… with no distractions.


Thanks for the read folks, and we hope some of our strategies and frustrations ring true for others who also wonder how best to keep this important balance.

-The McLabbies

The Secret Sociality of Squirrels

The Secret Sociality of Squirrels

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Secrets? Science? Sociality?

What do these three words have in common?

It only takes 60 seconds to find out!

I have created a short (1 min) video about my doctoral research which has been entered as part of the Science, Action! contest sponsored by the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). My video is currently featured as one of the top 75 videos on NSERC's YouTube channel. All videos are currently in the 'public voting' stage where each view on YouTube counts as a vote. On March 2nd the videos with the most views move on to the next round of the competition!

These videos offer a quick glimpse into some amazing Canadian science. I urge you to take one minute of your day to learn something new about some of the fascinating research happening here right here in Canada. Please share widely with family and friends!

A McLabbie Holiday Mix

The holidays are here again, and the McAdam Lab would like to send you all off with a holiday mixtape! Here's a combo of our personal faves (with a pinch of childhood nostalgia). Hope you enjoy.

You can find it here through Spotify >>

David: Christmas Wrapping - The Waitresses, Fairytale of New York - The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl

Jack: Winter Song - Ingrid Michaelson & Sara Bareilles, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - Barenaked Ladies ft. Sarah McLachlan, Text Me Merry Christmas - Straight No Chaser ft. Kristen Bell

Maggie: You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch - Thurl Ravenscroft, Christmas in Killarney - The Barra MacNeils, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - John Gracie

Shelby: It Came Upon a Midnight Clear - The Great Lake Swimmers, What Are You Doing New Years Eve? - The Head and the Heart, Christmas Means to Me - Stevie Wonder

Sarah: Don't Bring An Elephant (To A Family Meal) - Sharon Lois & Bram, Merry Christmas Darling - Leslie Odom Jr

Erin: Thistlehair The Christmas Bear - Alabama, Thankful - Josh Groban, Song for a Winter's Night - Gordon Lightfoot, Don oiche ud i mBeithil - Eileen Ivers, Greensleeves - Michele McLaughlin

Simon: County Road Christmas Time - Craig Cardiff, Wonderful Christmastime - The Shins, Blue Christmas - Bright Eyes, The Christmas Song - Paul McCartney

Andrew: Christmas At My House - Jessie Farrell, Santa’s Coming For Us - Sia

- Best wishes from The McLabbies

McLabbie Fall Reading List

What do we read for fun? Check back often for more updates on what our lab is doing in our lives outside of science-ing!

Simon: "The Wayfinders" by Wade Davis. An examination of traditional knowledge from indigenous cultures around the world and why these world views and knowledge systems matter in the modern world.

Erin: "Lab Girl" by Hope Jahren. Lab Girl is at once a compelling memoir of one woman's journey to become a scientist, a treatise on the miraculous nature of plants, and a stirring portrait of a longtime friendship.

Maggie: "Mort" by Terry Pratchett. In the genre of comic fantasy, a young man becomes an apprentice for Death and accidentally disrupts the space-time continuum when he fails to kill someone who should be dead. Calamity and hilarity unfold.

Sarah: "The Patron Saint of Liars" by Ann Patchett. The story follows a young newlywed as she discovers she is pregnant and promptly runs away from her life. It's unclear what she is searching for, but she winds up at a home for pregnant girls who aren't equipped to deal with motherhood.

Jack: "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyazi. A novel following the descendants of two sisters from 18th century Ghana to present day, one of whom was brought to America during the slave trade and the other remained in Africa.

Shelby: "Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley" by Charlotte Gordon. A biography of the authors Mary Wollstonecraft (The Vindication of the Rights of Women) and Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) that explores their impact on society and their relationship, though Wollstonecraft died shortly after Shelley was born.

David: "Life" by Keith Richards. No holds-barred account for "Keef's" life and the fortunes of the Rolling Stones, which are completely entwined. Fascinating stories from the bands early days in London, tales of famous people caught up with the Stones, insights into his song and music writing process, and of course details on his and others' drug use.

Julia: "Open City" by Teju Cole. This is the story of Julius, a young doctor in the last year of his psychiatry fellowship in New York City. The reader is brought along for Julius's extensive walks around the city, where we hear about memories that are brought to surface as he interacts with different people and places and the way those memories then influence those dialogues and interactions.

Cheers for now!

KRSP Newsletter

Time for the KRSP Newsletter from the Summer/Fall 2017 season! Squirrel Camp makes sure our local community in Haines Junction, YT knows all the goings on at our research station. Using community outreach to inform the public of what we do is such an important part of science. Thanks to all KRSP folks who put hard work into this issue!



Taking the squirrels (and flies) on the road

Summer is for many people a time to work on their tan at a baseball game, find some way of distracting the children, or head off on a well-earned break. For us at the McAdam lab, however, it also means something else: conference season.

Due to the absence of teaching obligations, the summer is when many academic societies choose to host their annual meeting. This allows scientists to get together, share with their colleagues their latest research, brainstorm genius new ideas, and find out about job opportunities and openings for graduate students. While one can share research or job opportunities online, a face-to-face interaction is a lot more conducive to generating ideas and building genuine connections with those working in the same field.

So where have we been this summer? And what was it like? Below we share some of our experiences as well as some of the pros and cons of the conferences we attended.

The McAdam Lab’s conference season started in May with the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution meeting (CSEE) in Victoria, British Columbia. Not only was I excited to head to the Pacific coast, but myself, Erin and Julia had co-organised a symposium at this conference. Our symposium (Ecology and Evolution in a Social Context) brought together 6 researchers to talk about their work on how variation in the social world of animals and plants (yes, really, social behaviour in plants!) influences their lives and how populations evolve. Organising such an event is a great feather in our caps, but does add a bit of extra stress to attending a conference. It went really well however, with 6 great talks and a really stimulating discussion. 

CSEE is rather unique in that it hosts an annual symposium addressing the obstacles and issues faced by women and other minority groups in Ecology & Evolution (the Symposium for Women Entering Ecology & Evolution Today; SWEEET). The symposium is for people of all genders and stages in their academic careers. Julia was one of the co-organizers and it was a great success. The McAdam lab also contributed to the development and incorporation of a Diversity Statement for the Society. The deliberate implementation of these values will help promote the voices of minority groups in the society, and allow all members a safe and supported experience during annual meetings.

The rest of the conference was great. Julia, Erin and I gave our talks about social interactions in fruit flies and squirrels, respectively, while Andrew talked about what happens when you feed squirrels around 9,000kg of peanut butter (Not all at once!). We also heard about some fascinating research, met previous acquaintances and made new friends before taking off to explore Vancouver Island for a long weekend. Our adventures took us to Botanical Beach, the Juan-de-Fuca trail, and we even got to see a professional surfing competition in Tofino. Who said that ‘conferencing’ doesn’t have its perks?

After that, things really heated up. In June, Erin, Julia, and I went to the Animal Behaviour Society meeting (ABS) in Scarborough, a less salubrious suburb of Toronto. What the conference lacked in surroundings however it more than made up for in content, as we all agreed it was one of the most interesting conferences we had ever been to. Every session there were multiple simultaneous talks we wanted to attend, and every break was filled with chatting to people who we were desperate to talk to about their research. I gave a talk on social interactions and how they can influence evolution, which was well received, even if Julia appeared to be drifting off during it:

While Erin and Julia spoke about their squirrels and flies respectively. One of the fun things at conferences is tweeting about everyone’s work. It also allows you to meet up in real life with people you’ve only interacted with electronically, turning twitter friends into real ones. Also, you stumble across areas of research you never knew existed!

After two excellent meetings together, the McLabbies went their separate ways to advertise the on-going research in the McAdam lab. Erin and I had a brisk turnaround following ABS. Erin headed to Moscow, Idaho for the 97th annual meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists (ASM) where she bonded with friends over locally made ice cream. ASM was a much smaller conference, about 300 attendees, compared to the 700-800 at CSEE and ABS. This made it an ideal conference for networking, and through a cool program called “Meal with a Mammalogist”, which pairs up students and professors over breakfast or lunch, Erin had the chance to meet and chat with some prominent scientists.  

Erin bonding with newly made friends over ice cream at ASM.

Erin bonding with newly made friends over ice cream at ASM.

I, meanwhile, headed over to Evolution, in Portland Oregon, which, unlike ASM, was one of the largest conferences I had ever been to. This meant there were quite a lot of talks on subjects I knew nothing about, but generally I managed to find stuff that was interesting. I fought jet lag, gave an edited version of the talk I gave at ABS, and went to a sci-comm workshop put on by the American Society of Naturalists, which was really great as I got to practice being interviewed about my research.

Finally, after another quick turnaround and fighting conference fatigue, Andrew and I headed up to Montreal, and then further north to Saint Michel-des-Saints, for the Wild Animal Modellers BiAnnual Meeting (or WAMBAM, which is easily the best acronym for a meeting). This was a smaller, more focused meeting for those interested in studying the microevolution of animals in the wild.

Such a conference has a totally different feel to the others, as you see the same 40 people every day, almost everyone presents their work, and you know every talk is going to be closely related to your research. It’s exciting to know that the people there are likely to be your collaborators in years to come.

After a busy but productive and stimulating conference season the McLabbies have spread their research far and wide. See below for our “Conferences At-a-Glance” table to help guide you as you plan ahead for the 2018 conference season!

- David Fisher

What the McLabbies are into right now

Time for a March 2017 re-write of the McLabbie interests section! We're still human beings who enjoy winding down to pretty sounds and the occasional post-work spirit to help reset us for the next exciting day of sciencing.


Squirrel Meeting 2k17!

Squirrel Meeting 2k17!

Squirreled out /skwir(ə)ld au̇t/


A state of tiredness due to a recent and lengthy immersion in squirrel-related activities: Boy am I squirreled out after living in a tree and burying acorns the whole weekend!


The act of escaping from a tricky situation through tenacity, the element of surprise and animal cunning. Commonly used in baseball: “Jeez, the Blue Jays squirrelled out of that one didn’t they Ernie?” – “Yes they sure did, squirreled out of it like a fox” - “…….”

We are all squirreled out. From the 3rd to 5th February, the McAdam lab at the University of Guelph hosted fellow Kluane Red Squirrel Project (KRSP) researchers from the Universities of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Michigan (plus a McGill delegation via video call) for the annual KRSP workshop. The Kluane Red Squirrel Project is a long-term research initiative (going on 30 years of data collection!) that uses red squirrels a model system to study questions about ecology, evolution and energetics. With talks starting at 8:30AM, running until 6PM, and socialising continuing into the night, it was a fairly intense experience. But a fantastic one at that. There aren’t many long-term research projects that are jointly run by multiple universities in different countries like this, so the opportunity to meet new and old members, exchange ideas and lay out plans for the future is invaluable.

It began on Thursday, with Michigan people rumbling up from the south in the faithful truck “Growler”, and Alberta and Saskatchewan people flying over in an equally faithful Boeing 737. Greetings, hugs and introductions were exchanged over a pub dinner, before we placed people either in hotels or on sofas and prepared for the next day.

We started with a round-table discussion of stress in the red squirrels, led by Dr. Ben Dantzer (Michigan) and Dr. Amy Newman (Guelph), and look at some of Dr. Freya van Kesteren’s research findings on activation of the stress axis. This rolled into a discussion on maternal behaviour. Over lunch Dr. Andrew McAdam (Guelph) ran through how the long term database was to be accessible from an online server, with reproducible analysis code the focus to allow everyone to recreate each other’s analysis from complete scratch – an important development. The rest of the afternoon was devoted to discussing the research findings of Drs. Jess Haines and Anni Hämäläinen (both Alberta). Jess has just finished her PhD, so has multiple works lined up based on her PhD thesis on how resources and reproductive trade-offs affect fitness, life history traits, and sexual selection in the squirrels. Anni focused on her work on how the peak of an individual’s reproductive effort represents a key life-history trait, and how peaking during a mast year really was key for a female squirrel. After all that, we hit the Baker Street Station pub for dinner and a good time.

Saturday was set up to allow each research group to present their recent findings and plans for the future. First up, the Alberta group, with Prof. Stan Boutin, giving KRSP a report card-style assessment in a range of different areas, giving us all plenty of ideas to think on. Anni and new PhD candidate April Martinig then outlined their plans for investigations into the inter-relationships between life-history, personality, dispersal and survivorship. Next we had the Dantzer group (Michigan), with Ben leading it with his plans for investigating how maternal stress relates to squirrel life histories. Current PhD candidate Sarah Westrick then presented how stress levels of mothers relate to the activity and aggression of their pups, while Freya described the pitfalls and success stories involved in manipulating the stress levels in wild squirrels. After lunch, Dr. Jeff Lane (Saskatchewan) outlined his plans within a “Evo-Eco-Energetics” framework, including exciting plans to non-invasively assess the body composition of individuals. PhD candidate Andrea Wishart then hit us with a double whammy, updating us all on her investigation into how the sex ratio varies (or fails to) in litters, before outlining her plans for understanding the variation in resource acquisitions among squirrels. Finishing up the day was Andrew, outlining how his research group is investigating different components of the role of the social environment in evolution. Said research group then presented: PhD candidate Erin Siracusa showing us how squirrels individually respond to the characteristics of their social neighbourhood, while MSc candidates Jack Robertson and Maggie Bain, and post-doc Dr. David Fisher outlined their plans to look at how familiarity modulates intra-specific aggression, how individual specific vocalizations depend on the acoustic properties of an individual’s neighbours, and whether squirrels supress each other’s resource dependent traits through competition respectively. This is a really key part of the whole workshop: researchers looking for feedback to ensure their plans for experiments are realistic and that they are tackling interesting topics.

Andrew McAdam giving a brief introduction to the McAdam lab's research plans.

Andrew McAdam giving a brief introduction to the McAdam lab's research plans.

After a bit of down-time we were hosted by Andrew and his family for another lovely evening, and Matt Sehrsweeney (Michigan) definitely did not have to sleep on a friend’s sofa after his host fell asleep. Not a word of it.

Sunday was a lot more free-form, with wide ranging discussions on the on-going food addition experiment, plans for any new experiments, plans for an upcoming mast year, and thoughts on how we could be more efficient as a group. Such long-range planning is key to ensure the KRSP remains ready to deal with unforeseen eventualities and remains at the forefront of the fields of ecology and evolution.

That is the true purpose of the annual meeting, but it also serves other purposes. For one, it’s great to hear first-hand what everyone is working on, and get a sneak-preview at some exciting results. It is also really important to meet up and socialise with people who you may have spent months in the field with, or who work on similar topics to you, as it encourages a sense of togetherness which is vital for making research a stimulating and enjoyable field to work in. It looks like the next edition, KRSP Workshop 2018, will be held in Saskatoon. Let’s hope we all survive the next field season and come fresh-faced and ready for more squirrelly discussion the next time around!

- David Fisher

Everyone for a family photo after a long weekend of KRSP talk!

Everyone for a family photo after a long weekend of KRSP talk!

The Invaluable McLabbies by Julia Kilgour

I love graduate school.

I love having the freedom to think creatively, to obsess over tiny details of experimental protocols, to throw myself into the literature and learn as much as there is to know on a subject that almost no one knows anything about. I love pouring myself over hypotheses and predictions, waking up at un-godly hours to slide over to my computer and just.keep.writing. I’m less fond of spending a week trying to figure out my model won’t run because I forgot a comma, accidentally missing a small but critical detail of fruit fly care (I work with Drosophila), trying to fix a nonsensical paragraph of a manuscript, or realizing that I fell behind on ordering lab supplies and now I have 20 minutes to troubleshoot that shit.

I decided to come back to school for my PhD after my finishing my Masters and working as a wildlife biologist/museum specimen preparator/lecturer for 3 years because I was never as passionate about those jobs as I was about doing research. And I love my PhD research; my advisors are awesome, the department and the university are fantastic. There are so many amazing things to keep me motivated everyday.

But then there’s the darker side: the culmination of self-doubt, imposter syndrome, never ending guilt, missed deadlines, and fear for the future. And if that soup weren’t spicy enough, my recipe adds a cup of anxiety, a few tablespoons of depression, and an ounce (or ten) of borderline personality disorder. All of this is to say that while so many aspects of graduate school give me the energy to fuel my best self, there are also long, draining days where I… just can’t. Given the high prevalence of mental health issues in academia, and that we’re only just starting to talk about it, I have a feeling I’m not alone.

Universities are often full of great resources to help students get through these rough patches. Sometimes, these resources are directed more toward the undergraduate student body and aren’t quite suitable or helpful for grad students. But grad students have a secret weapon. We have this invisible and resilient safety net, where we can both act as fibres giving it power and simultaneously gain strength from the toughness and durability of the other strands. What is that secret weapon? Labmates.

I have been incredibly lucky in both my Masters and my PhD to be sharing a lab with an assortment of supportive, caring, and generous people. These are other grad students who, although going through their own daily peaks and troughs, are there to point out

the missing comma in the R code, to read over the paragraph that our advisor keeps saying doesn’t make any sense, to help keep up on the lab supplies (because they probably need them too). But this safety net doesn’t end at academic expectations. My labmates have been there to reel me back in when I’m obsessing over irrelevant details; to take a walk with me when the day becomes overwhelming; to remind me that I’m not alone. And even better, when I am in a low point, my labmates have been there to feed my fruit flies, or submit that order form, or even just to tell me it’s okay if I can’t come in to the office that day.

My experience is one of incredible privilege: I am lucky to be working with open-minded, compassionate people who are willing to listen and learn from each other. Sadly, this is not the case for everyone. Some people may be (understandably) reluctant to share with or lean on their labmates, and some students do not want to listen or be leaned on. It’s easy to get swept away into our theses and to forget about the rest of the world. With the stresses and demands and expectations of graduate school, spending time and energy to build a community based on trust and understanding has the ability to empower each of us.

Academia is full of outrageous expectations that can seem almost impossible to achieve. These feel even more unobtainable as a woman, as someone with mental health issues, as a queer person. And for students with other marginalized identities (people of colour and indigenous people, trans folks, people from low income families, different nationalities or ethnic backgrounds, people with different abilities) the bar of expectations can seem entirely out of reach. This secret weapon then becomes even more important.

A funny thing about this safety net is how, for many of us, we can decide how much we want to use it. I have found that the more I contribute to the safety net, the more strength I get out of it. By providing care and support for my labmates, I can trust that they will give me that care and support right back. They are the secret weapon that will always be there for me. And I will always be there for them.

I love graduate school. And I love my labmates.

- Julia Kilgour

Listening In to Red Squirrel Conversations

Listening In to Red Squirrel Conversations

Red squirrels are a territorial species that actively defend exclusive, food-based territories from other conspecifics. One of the things the McAdam lab is interested in is how the composition of an individual red squirrel’s social environment (i.e. relatedness and familiarity of neighbours) affects how much time that individual expends on territory defense rather than devoting time and energy to foraging, feeding, and reproduction. One of the ways that we are measuring this is by deploying Zoom H2n audio recorders on red squirrel territories to look at rates of territorial vocalizations called “rattles”.

A red squirrel with red ear tags producing a territorial vocalization ('rattle') at a nearby neighbour. This is a squirrel's way of saying "stay off my territory!". Photo credit: Ryan Taylor

A red squirrel with red ear tags producing a territorial vocalization ('rattle') at a nearby neighbour. This is a squirrel's way of saying "stay off my territory!". Photo credit: Ryan Taylor

This past summer, I, along with two field assistants (Marta and Yuqing), deployed audio recorders on 112 red squirrel territories over the course of 4 ½ months. Audio recorders were put out first thing in the morning (ideally before squirrels woke up), which meant MANY early mornings for me and my assistants!

Here’s what an audio recorder set-up looks like in the field. Zoom recorders are kept under umbrellas to help protect them from the elements.

Here’s what an audio recorder set-up looks like in the field. Zoom recorders are kept under umbrellas to help protect them from the elements.

After returning from the field one of the things that we have to do with this data is determine a decibel threshold at which we can distinguish the territory owner’s rattle from neighbouring rattles (i.e. we want to know how loud owner rattles are compared to their neighbour's rattles). Nana, Cristina, and Adam are three work-study students at the University of Guelph that have been hard at work on this over the whole semester. They listen to the recordings of these red squirrel rattles and record the decibel level ("loudness") of known territory owner rattles versus rattles from neighbouring squirrels.

Above: Adam hard at work listening to red squirrel rattles. Below: Sonogram of a red squirrel rattle.

Above: Adam hard at work listening to red squirrel rattles. Below: Sonogram of a red squirrel rattle.

With this information and the help of Dr. Dave Wilson at Memorial University, who is currently working to develop an automated process to extract red squirrel rattles, we will soon be able to measure rattling rates for territory owners and assess whether these rattling rates are affected by the composition of the social neighbourhood. This will give us insight as to whether the phenotypic composition of the social environment might be an important selective pressure in a species typically considered to be “asocial”. 

Erin Siracusa