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.

-Maggie

Squirrel Meeting 2k17!

Squirrel Meeting 2k17!

Squirreled out /skwir(ə)ld au̇t/

Adjective.

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!

Verb.

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

Take a peek into the Yukon wilds through Canadian Tire

This year Canadian Tire decided to brighten up the Yukon by testing out its NOMA Christmas lights with our friends at the Kluane Lake Research Station (Arctic Institute of North America). This research station is also located in the southwestern Yukon, and this commercial was shot just a few minutes down the road from our own Squirrel Camp! Take a look at the type of scenery some of our lucky McLabbies get to conduct research in. What a beautiful place.

- Maggie Bain

 

A McLabbie's Favourite Things

Life outside of work does indeed exist, even if those days are few and far between for some. Here's a monthly glance into the life of the McLabbies, because academics are people too! - Maggie Bain

Time to get social

Time to get social

Sound the bells, get out the bunting and take up the cry, they said yes! The next conference hosted by the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution (CSEE), held in Victoria, BC in May 2017, will feature a symposium organised by McLabbies Erin, Julia and David.

The title is “Ecology and Evolution in a Social Context”. The idea is that the social environment (the network of other animals you interact with) is a really important part of the natural world, both influencing how animals behave, but also being created by their interactions. This in itself is not a new idea, but it is only relatively recently that we’ve started to appreciate the role it plays in a wide range of ecological and evolutionary processes. We are bringing scientists together to highlight how the social environment matters in a diverse range of fields, from communication to sexual selection and the functioning of animal groups. We will also be seeing how the techniques used to study animal social behaviour are informing us on classical questions in ecology and evolution. We aim to end the symposium with a discussion on where our speakers think the field is heading.

Organising a symposium like this is great experience for when we hope to be organising entire conferences, working groups and possibly our own labs in the future. But it also means something we think is really important gets discussed at a major conference. By bringing together a diverse array of speakers, we’re confident that almost anyone will find something of interest, and that a bunch of different insights will arise.

Only one way* to find out though, so come join us as CSEE2017, and check out the symposium.

- David FIsher

 

 

*we’ll probably be tweeting a bunch during the symposium, so you may be able to keep tabs on what’s going on through that medium. But it won’t be nearly as fun!

 Spaghetti, Spinach, and....Strawberries?  Oh my!

Spaghetti, Spinach, and....Strawberries? Oh my!

This past Friday the McAdam and Turetsky Labs gathered to celebrate the second annual Spaghetti Night in Canada. The goal of the evening (beyond the conversation and camaraderie of fellow scientists) was to create a culinary delight through purposeful lack of planning and sheer luck. Andrew and Merritt provided the spaghetti and red sauce, and each lab member was required to bring one item for the sauce without coordinating flavors that might nicely meld. (You might be beginning to see the dilemma here…) Said lack of coordination resulted in the addition of much broccoli and leafy greens to the pot. I threatened to bring pineapple (Hawaiian sauce anyone?) but David threatened to excommunicate me from the office sooo… the sauce went wanting. However, the addition of strawberries and Chorizo lent the sauce a spicy and slightly sweet taste, leading to smiles and laugher all around, even from the littlest of the McAdam-Turetsky clan. 

Erin Siracusa

McAdam and Turetsky Lab members prepare to feast!

McAdam and Turetsky Lab members prepare to feast!

The results of our saucy concoction...

The results of our saucy concoction...

Surprise! It's palatable after all :)

Surprise! It's palatable after all :)

(Careful) Adventures in marking Drosophila

Drosophila is a great system to study the evolution of aggression. To understand how aggressive and non-aggressive flies interact, we are individually marking them with acrylic paint. We anesthetize the flies and apply different combinations of blue and pink paint to their thorax. It's a delicate process, and takes a bit of patience, but it's worth it to find out how aggression persists in populations.

Julia Kilgour

Buckets and bunny feet, oh my!

Left: Female squirrel guarding her peanut butter (credit: Simon Tardif); Right: Carrying 20kg of peanut butter through the boreal forest (credit: Andrea Wishart).

Left: Female squirrel guarding her peanut butter (credit: Simon Tardif); Right: Carrying 20kg of peanut butter through the boreal forest (credit: Andrea Wishart).

I started this semester as an MSc student in the McAdam lab working on red squirrels, but I was just up in Kluane for six months this year working as a technician on the core data collection for the long term Kluane Red Squirrel Project. Designing your own thesis and collecting your own data is really rewarding, but it's also super cool to be part of a long term collaborative project like this.

One of the longest running experiments in KRSP is a food addition experiment where we supplement one of the grids with peanut butter in buckets we hang from trees to see how the squirrel population changes. Over winter we refill the PB in all the buckets around the grid every six weeks (as I am doing in the photo above), which also gives us a chance to see what else the squirrels are doing with the buckets. Some of them, like this female, build nests next to the PB-filled yogurt containers, or cache other stuff in the buckets – like snowshoe hare feet. It’s always a surprise of what you might find when you open the lid of a squirrel bucket!

Welcome to Our New Website

Welcome to our shiny new lab website!  We will use this 'News' page to keep things fresh with updates on recent papers, accomplishments and awards in the lab as well as some less formal updates on the kinds if things we are up to.  Comments are also most welcome!

Andrew