Wildlife Wednesday: Toronto Zoo animals threatened by wildlife smoke

Plus: Rapidly evolving cod, surprise science, two new bird monitoring stations and how to protect clams against extreme heat 

Most animals were allowed to stay outside where they are comfortable, but animals at higher risk are brought indoors. (Photo: Alexander Ross/Unsplash)
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Where there’s fire, there’s smoke… and a whole lot of it has been blowing down to southern Ontario and Quebec in recent days. With a worse-than-usual fire season in full swing, the haze is affecting more than just humans. On June 10, for the first time in history, animals at the Toronto Zoo were seriously threatened by the city’s poor air quality, ranked one of the worst in the world. Like humans, animals that are young, old, pregnant or have a history of respiratory issues are more prone to the negative effects of air pollution. These animals were immediately brought inside.

To check the other animals’ levels of distress, zoo staff examined their abdomens and made note of how quickly they were moving as they breathed — those breathing more quickly than usual were sent inside to join the animals at a higher risk. Precautions were also taken by engaging in “enrichment and training,” adding toys and scents to habitats to create a calming and safe environment.

Laura Cabak, a spokesperson for the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, said that although Winnipeg was not dealing with the levels of air pollution Toronto was experiencing, the zoo did have similar protocols in place should things deteriorate. 

To me, my X-Cod

Atlantic cod have evolved rapidly over the 20th century in response to overfishing. (Photo: Wolkeblau/Pixabay)
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Atlantic cod are evolving at warp speed — and that’s not necessarily a good thing. New research from the University of Rutgers in New Jersey has found that Atlantic cod has rapidly evolved new survival traits over just a few decades, a process that scientists previously thought would take millions of years. 

The study links this quick evolution to overfishing. Since the 1950s, commercial fishers have been able to harvest cod in larger and deeper areas of the Atlantic thanks to fishing trawlers equipped with increasingly powerful radar and sonar technology. By 1992, northwest cod stocks had been decimated, estimated at just one per cent of historical levels. 

To survive the intense fishing pressures, cod have started to mature earlier and stay smaller. These new traits allow the fish to reproduce quickly and make them less likely to be singled out and caught. Researchers made these discoveries by comparing catch data from as far back as 1907 with catch data on 21st-century cod. 

The study attributes Atlantic cod’s rapid evolution to a number of rapid shifts across many cod genes. The study’s authors say it’s the first clear evidence of small changes to many genes in an overfished species and proof that human activity can force evolutionary changes in their environment faster than previously thought.

Because these new survival traits were developed through small changes in cod genes rather than large changes in just a few genes, scientists expect these new survival traits to fade away if we stop overfishing the species. 


 Feathers in the filters

Canada’s air quality monitoring stations have been collecting bits of animal and plant material, like feathers dropped by this great horned owl, for decades. (Photo: Samantha Postman/Pixabay)
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Surprise! A long-running program to monitor air pollution has unintentionally collected a significant database of information about Canada’s flora and fauna.

Since 1969, the National Air Pollution Surveillance program (NAPS), has been tracking the country’s air quality. Today, NAPS has nearly 260 air monitoring stations across the country — and new research suggests those monitoring stations have been collecting more than just air quality data.

Canadian and British researchers report that the stations have likely been inadvertently collecting data about Canadian wildlife in the form of environmental DNA, or eDNA, for more than five decades. 

eDNA is small bits of genetic material left behind by plants and animals as they interact with their environment. It comes in a number of forms, from fur to feces to shed skin. 

When they analysed the filters from two British stations, researchers identified eDNA from 182 species, encompassing plants, fungi, insects, mammals, birds, fish and amphibians. The study’s authors suggest that some air-monitoring stations could hold the eDNA of Canadian wildlife dating back to the 1970s. 

eDNA information gleaned from the filters could be used to develop a holistic view of Canada’s biodiversity and help track declining wildlife stocks. 

Flight path

The eider, part of an annual bird hunt, is just one of many birds the province of Labrador is set to start tracking. (Photo: Kathy Büscher/Pixabay)
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Watch the birdie! Two new radio towers  — the first installed in Nunatsiavut — have joined a network of more than 2,500 bird monitoring stations in Canada and worldwide. The monitoring stations — one in North West River and one in Happy Valley-Goose Bay — will allow researchers to track birds that pass through the province’s skies — and that’s just for starters. 

Researchers are interested in finding out what species of birds that are passing through Labrador and whether the mix is changing. Temperature shifts and extreme weather events may be changing the way birds migrate and researchers need to better understanding the migration patterns of all birds. Data on waterfowl will be used to help better understand and manage the birds that are a staple food of hunters in the province.

Scientists from Birds Canada’s Motus Wildlife Tracking System will capture birds and suture trackers into their backs using dissolvable stitching that’ll fade away and let the trackers fall off. Those trackers — the largest of which uses solar panels and a battery — will allow researchers to follow the flights of birds from up to 20 km away. 

Next up, Birds Canada will install two more radio stations near the Nunatsiavut towns of Rigolet and Hopedale. Eventually, they would like to install towers near every Nunatsiavut town along the coast. 

Cooling clams

New research from SFU suggests ancient Indigenous clam gardens might be a modern climate solution. (Photo: Kindel Media, Pexels)
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Indigenous clam gardens have been cultivated along the B.C. coastline for up to 3,500 years. Now, a student at Simon Fraser University is looking to this tried-and-true farming practice as a way to protect clams against extreme heat. 

Clam gardens are designed to increase the area of shallow water beach habitat. To create these gardens, Indigenous people would build up a seawall — sometimes more than a metre high — along a stretch of beach, then backfill the wall to create an expanded plateau where clams would thrive at optimal tidal heights. The result? Bumper clam harvests.

SFU master student Emily Spencer is working on new research that suggests these gardens could also help clams survive extreme heat events like B.C.’s 2021 heat dome, which is estimated to have killed roughly a billion sea creatures.

Spencer has been working in partnership with nine Coast Salish Nations and Parks Canada to simulate heat dome-like conditions on Vancouver Island clams and document the effects. She found that clams living in these gardens were more resistant to extreme weather events than clams living on their own. Because the gardens create an extended plateau, water recedes more slowly than normal when the tide goes out, giving clams a cooler, wetter environment during low tides. This, in turn, helps to shield them from the heat.

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