Have you ever taken a good close look at the Canadian quarter?

This 25-cent coin features a caribou – making the caribou a cultural iconic symbol to Canadians all over the country!

In addition, the caribou is incredibly important to indigenous peoples because it is both a cultural symbol and an important food source in various regions.

Unfortunately, however, caribou across Canada are “on a pathway to extinction” due to various threats, mainly caused by human activity, like resource development and climate change.

In Canada, there are many diverse types of caribou, which has resulted in the classification of 12 conservation management units to help preserve the species.

11 out of the 12 units are currently considered at risk of extinction – and 1 has already been lost. We don’t want the rest of the herds to face this grim fate.

That’s why researchers, like Kirsten Solmundson, a Trent University PhD candidate, are dedicating their time to studying high-risk caribou populations in the southern discontinuous range.

This range of boreal caribou in Ontario has been moving northward for over a century, resulting in isolated southern populations along Lake Superior’s islands and coasts. Kirsten is using newly developed DNA sequencing technologies to examine their evolutionary history.

She wants to discover where the Lake Superior caribou originally migrated from because, by understanding their history, researchers like Kirsten can help them fight external threats – as well as potentially finding ways caribou could adapt and respond to a warming climate.

Her methods include collecting DNA data from tissue samples from wolf-kill, road-kill sites, and fecal pellet samples in the winter. Who knew road-kill could be used for research?!

She then downloads the sequence data onto her computer to conduct the analyses.

Her results have so far indicated that the Lake Superior caribou are closely related to other nearby boreal caribou in the south of the continuous range. However, the main difference is that boreal caribou in the northern continuous range have undergone historic inter-breeding with a different subspecies, whereas the Lake Superior herds have not.

This indicates that the Lake Superior caribou could represent the last of the boreal caribou that have not mixed with other subspecies – increasing the need to protect them.

If the Lake Superior caribou are in fact distinct from other caribou herds, they should be treated as their own Designatable Unit for conservation management – bringing the total number of caribou units up to 13.

Upon completing her research, Kirsten will be making direct management recommendations to the government, both provincially (Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry), and federally (Environment and Climate Change Canada).

It is her hope that through these policy recommendations, her research findings will have a direct conservation impact on one of Canada’s most iconic species – currently on the brink of extinction.

It is now clear that the planet has entered its 6th mass extinction event; the first mass extinction in 66 million years – and caribou species here in Canada are not exempt from this fate.

“More alarmingly, for the first time ever, mass extinction has been caused by a single species – humankind”, Kirsten says. “We must acknowledge and address these negative impacts, including habitat loss, climate change, and the resulting species declines.”

Thank you Kirsten for sharing with us this important research and for fighting to protect one of Canada’s most symbolic species.

Here is what she has to say about her Trent University experience:

Trent is a fantastic university for wildlife research, due to the large Environmental and Life Sciences graduate program, nearby areas for field research of various projects, and collaborations with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. ”