Trent University Research Biologist Debbie Jenkins explores the ecology of arctic island-dwelling caribou and muskoxen in a changing environment

Debbie Jenkins, originally from North Bay, Ontario, is recently from Pond Inlet, Nunavut where she worked as a research biologist across the Canadian High Arctic islands for 7 years.

She completed her Masters of Science at Trent University, studying habitat selection of reintroduced elk and native white-tailed deer.

Today, she is completing her PhD in the Environmental and Life Sciences program at Trent University, exploring the ecology of arctic island-dwelling caribou and muskoxen in a changing environment.

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The aim of her research is to study the influence of “spatial heterogeneity”  and climate change on:

  1. Island-dwelling caribou
  2. Island-dwelling muskoxen.

Here, “spatial heterogeneity” refers to variation in habitat across space – for example, changes in vegetation, sea-ice cover, and climate.

Generally, species are unevenly dispersed because different landscapes have their own unique combinations of plants, animals, terrains, and environmental characteristics (e.g. rainfall, temperature, or wind). A very interesting area of study!

With climate change an increasingly prominent issue in the Arctic, Debbie’s research focuses on two of the most ecologically and socially significant species of the polar region. Her research will help inform conservation efforts.

Her project uses rare field observations and samples from across the Canadian Arctic Archipelago – the most remote terrestrial habitat in North America!!!

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Specifically, Debbie’s research uses genetic fingerprinting to evaluate patterns of genetic diversity and gene flow among these island-dwelling caribou.

Using environmental data and wildlife observations she also evaluates habitat selection, and she applies climate change models to understand the future distribution of these important arctic species.

Although Debbie’s research is ongoing, current results indicate that caribou are genetically structured across the arctic islands and that sea-ice acts as a natural bridge for their movement  – and thus supports gene flow.

Another important finding is that genetic diversity of caribou is influenced by the distance animals are from the mainland, by the size of the islands they occur on, and the extent of open water around the islands. Basically, caribou that are closer to the mainland and on larger islands have higher genetic diversity while caribou on remote, smaller islands, and islands surrounded by open-water –  have lower genetic diversity.

Her research identifies the importance of sea ice to caribou and highlights the  threat of climate change and sea-ice loss to their persistence.

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Overall, Debbie’s research will support management initiatives and increasingly important conservation and protection efforts for caribou and muskoxen in the rapidly changing Arctic environment.

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Debbie says,

“The Environmental and Life Sciences program is outstanding –  and for me, has supported large-scale collaborative research with powerful learning and break-through science.  I am inspired by many faculty at Trent, but particularly Dr. James Schaefer for his exceptional research, mentorship and teaching and his unyielding commitment to students, communicating science and conservation biology. As well, I have been fortunate to have the support of many agencies and sponsors – this has allowed me to use powerful tools and science to realize my research goals.  I have traveled north for field work, analyzed hundreds of samples, participated in multiple courses here and abroad, and advanced my research, my collaborations and my knowledge. As a northern scientist, I am intent on making a difference and the academic excellence at Trent University continues to support and inspire this.”

Thank you so much for sharing your research with us, Debbie!
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