2018 Proposals

Six applications were received for the 2018 MSE Research Award, summarized below. Winner of the $7,500 prize will be announced at the 2018 Muskoka Summit on the Environment on May 24th.

Waverley Sunday Birch, MES in Planning, University of Waterloo
Examining the effects of land use and land cover change (LULCC) on ecosystem functionality of Muskoka Watershed wetlands

This project will examine effects of land use and land cover change (LULCC) on ecosystem functionality of Muskoka wetlands. The main research objective is to increase understanding of ecological outcomes from wetland LULCC and identify key areas for habitat and dispersal corridor conservation by answering the following questions:

1. What patterns of land use and land cover change have occurred?

2. How does wetland LULCC impact ecosystem connectivity in the study region?

3. How may wetland ecosystem connectivity be impacted by climate change projections?

LULCC involves conversion of natural lands for human use and profoundly impacts ecosystem function. Biodiversity losses result from diminished habitat amount, diversity and connectivity. Assessing ecosystem functionality factors, like connectivity, has not been a common approach to land use planning, but allows for prediction of how ecosystems will react to changes in land management.


Kevin Erratt, PhD in Biology, Western University
Investigating human exposure to β-N-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) due to the increase in cyanobacteria harmful algal bloom (cHAB) reports in drinking and recreational waters

The objective of this research is to survey lakes throughout Ontario to determine if BMAA (a neurotoxin) is present in local waterways. This research aims to: (1) investigate environmental conditions that influence BMAA biosynthesis; (2) explore the relationship between cyanobacteria biomass and BMAA production; (3) identify cyanobacteria taxa of particular concern; and (4) measure BMAA concentrations in lake aerosols to identify potential human exposure routes.

The presence of BMAA in Ontario waters remains to be elucidated and this study aims to address this knowledge gap. Insight gained from the research will be essential for advancing the science on this topic and could have important implications for monitoring water quality in Canada, as algal blooms are currently not routinely tested for BMAA.


Sean Hudson, MSc in Environmental and Life Sciences, Trent University
Developing detailed estimates of detection probability in Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes

This proposal continues a collaborative project between Trent University and Blazing Star Environmental which has been researching detection probability of at-risk snake species, which are typically elusive and cryptic in the field. The objective of this research is to provide detailed estimates of detection probability in the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, and to describe its variation across regions, habitats, survey methods, and environmental conditions.

This study aims to: (1) calculate and compare species-specific detectability and site-occupancy, (2) model the effects of environmental, ecological and methodological factors on these parameters, (3) create a predictive map of survey effort required in various habitats and regions and (4) estimate true detectability of Massasaugas in a detectability experiment. Information gained from this research will contribute towards improving monitoring programs and environmental impact assessments, as well as our ability to track responses to conservation efforts in this hard to detect species.


Robert Jeff Martin, PhD in Biology, Western University
Understanding the relationship between food caching and breeding success in a declining population of Gray Jays

The main objective of this study is to understand the relationship between food caching and breeding success in a declining population of Gray Jays. Evidence is emerging that climatic factors are affecting food caching behaviours and cache success, and this work aims to relate these findings with the observed population declines. The following questions will be asked to understand this relationship, 1) Are Gray Jays provisioning their offspring from food cached in the Fall? 2) Are Gray Jays actively caching food with the appropriate macro-nutrients to provision their offspring? 3) Are Gray Jays sensitive to perishability in an effort to ensure the long-term survival of their caches?

The Gray Jay population in Algonquin Park has declined by 50% since monitoring began in the 1960s, and this may be partially due to climate change. As a caching species, Gray Jays rely on below freezing temperatures through the winter for the preservation of stored food items necessary to provision offspring in the late winter and early spring. As the climate warms, these food caches may thaw and spoil, resulting in food scarcity and decreased breeding success.


Alex McClymont, MSc in Biology, Queen’s University
Examining the individual and interactive effects of road salt and increasing temperature on zooplankton communities

The objective of this research project is to examine the effects of road salt and increasing temperature on zooplankton communities. It is hypothesized that salt will decrease zooplankton abundance and diversity at concentrations lower than current water quality guidelines, and that this effect will be exacerbated under warmed conditions.

Approximately 5 million tonnes of road salt are applied annually in Canada and road salt runoff has increased the salinities of many freshwater lakes, but the long-term effects on aquatic communities remain largely unknown.  Increased salinity is known to have negative impacts on zooplankton, which are a critical link in aquatic food webs. Additionally, lake temperatures are increasing faster than air temperatures under climate change and warming has direct impacts on zooplankton abundance and diversity. The results of this study will be used to guide future policies committed to preserving lake ecosystems.


Robin Valleau, PhD in Biology, Queen’s University
Determining the extent and nature of biological responses to road salt additions in lakes in the Muskoka River Watershed (MRW)

The primary goal of this research is to assess the impacts of chloride additions on lake biota (phytoplankton and zooplankton) to help inform management practices for road salt application and storage. This research aims to: 1) use paleolimnological techniques to assess whether or not biological changes have occurred in MRW lakes, concurrently with known historical road salt applications; 2) experimentally determine salt tolerances of littoral Cladocera (zooplankton) species using bioassays; and  3) identify potential lakes at risk within the MRW.

Considerable advancements have been made by municipalities to reduce the impact of salt in the MRW since the development of the District of Muskoka’s Salt Management Plan in 2006. Furthermore, Muskoka lakes are below the provincial average for chloride concentrations. However, chloride concentrations are increasing in many Muskoka lakes, and the current Canadian Water Quality guideline for chloride may be too high for low-nutrient lakes typical of the Muskoka region. Additional research is needed within the MRW to determine the extent and nature of biological responses to road salt additions in lakes.