2015 Fellowship Winners

Graduate student Jennifer Provencher gathers information from a common eider while performing field research in the Canadian Arctic. © Jennifer Provencher

Educating the next generation of conservation scientists is critical to ensuring DUC continues achieving success toward its mission.

We support a number of graduate students annually as they pursue important research across the continent. Every year, students throughout North America apply for these prestigious fellowships, and the competition is fierce.

Here are some of the talented young scientists we currently support:

2015 Fellowship Winners:

Amelia J. Raquel

Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Fellowship

Thesis: Patterns of Duck Community Composition in the Prairie Pothole Region: Effects of Climate and Land Use.
Department of Biology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK, Canada.

Changes in duck community composition are evident from long-term surveys in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). Altered temperature and precipitation regimes associated with climate change could strongly impact community structure and ecological functions of ducks in this region. Duck species have already been shown to respond to changes in climate, adjusting their timing of migration and subsequent timing of nesting. Additionally, climate change may alter habitat, which may further exacerbate land use changes already present as a result of agricultural intensification. Changes to these habitats may impact the duck community because each species has affinities to specific pond conditions and adjacent upland habitat.

Understanding impacts of both climate and land use changes on duck populations will help identify species that may be more seriously affected by ongoing and anticipated environmental changes, which will assist appropriate adaptation of conservation strategies. Amelia’s broad research objective is to more fully understand mechanisms underlying how these changes influence duck community composition in the PPR. She will focus on three main hypotheses: redistribution, climate change, and land use change. Amelia will use existing long-term datasets and obtain new field observations in Alberta and Saskatchewan to determine whether and how:

  • the duck community has redistributed over time within the PPR,
  • varying spring phenology associated with climate change has altered timing of breeding activities and subsequent nest success,
  • land use change has contributed to shifts in duck distribution and abundance.

David Iles

Bonnycastle Fellowship in Wetland and Waterfowl Biology

Thesis: Effects of climate change on waterfowl phenology, trophic interactions, and demography
Department of Wildland Resources and the Ecology Center, Utah State University, Logan, Utah

The most widespread ecological impacts associated with recent climate change are shifts in timing (i.e., phenology) of species life cycle events. These shifts may occur at multiple levels within food webs, which may have implications for waterfowl if their life cycle events become mismatched with seasonal patterns in food availability, presence of predators, or both.

Migratory waterfowl may be particularly susceptible to climate-driven mismatches, since traditional cues encountered during migration may become less predictive of conditions on distant breeding grounds, reducing their ability to time arrival to maximize breeding success.

David’s research will help manage Lesser Snow Geese by examining how climate-related changes in plant phenology and polar bear behavior are likely to influence goose populations under climate change scenarios. His objectives are to:

  • examine relationships between plant phenology/diversity and gosling growth and survival,
  • assess the relative importance of polar bears in goose nest failure and determine sources of variation in bear predation rates,
  • use population models to examine the relative effects of phenological mismatches on snow goose population dynamics from both food and predation perspectives.

Jennifer Provencher

Bonnycastle Fellowship in Wetland and Waterfowl Biology

Thesis: Assessing multiple stressors in northern waterfowl: parasites and pollution, why both may matter to conservation
Department of Biology, Carleton University, Ottawa, ON

Reproduction in waterfowl can be influenced by nutrients available for egg laying, incubation, and brood rearing. Some species rely largely on internal nutrients such as fat and protein for reproduction. Thus factors that influence amounts of those stored nutrients, also known as body condition, can indirectly influence breeding success and, hence, waterfowl abundance. Parasites and contaminants are two such factors that may increase negative effects of each other through complex relationships. For example, females exposed to contaminants such as mercury may have a compromised immune system, which then decreases her ability to fight parasites that consume internal nutrients.

Mercury burdens in arctic wildlife have been increasing. Meanwhile, with warming climatic conditions in polar ecosystems, parasites are predicted to be an increasing risk for arctic waterfowl. Given changing environmental conditions in Canada’s north, understanding how both parasites and contaminants drive reproduction is a key to predicting potential changes in population dynamics.

Jennifer’s research will work closely with northern communities to assess potential for contaminants and parasites to influence populations of northern Common Eiders. Her objectives are to:

  • measure concentrations and distribution of gastro-intestinal parasites and mercury,
  • assess relationships between gastro-intestinal parasites and mercury concentrations and condition when birds first arrive on breeding grounds,
  • conduct an experiment to investigate how gastro-intestinal parasite and mercury concentrations may interact with reproductive success.

Hannah Specht

Bonnycastle Fellowship for Prairie Ecosystem Studies

Thesis: The impacts of prairie potholes oil development on habitat use of upland-nesting waterbirds
Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN

The Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) is known as core habitat for grassland-wetland species. Approximately one-third of the PPR overlaps the Bakken Formation, where an impending tenfold increase in oil and gas wells is forecasted to change 20% of remaining high-quality grassland. Landscape changes and human-related activity are known to make animals avoid good habitat within disturbed areas (among other responses), which further reduces habitat available for sensitive species.

Hannah’s research will evaluate the response of low-density, grassland-nesting waterbird species (Marbled Godwit, Willet, Wilson’s Phalarope and Northern Pintail) to oil well density and proximity in Western North Dakota. She will study distribution patterns (occupancy) relative to development at a landscape scale and avoidance of infrastructure and disturbance at a local scale.

Ongoing Fellowship Research:

Adam Janke

Edward D. and Sally M. Futch Graduate Fellowship

Thesis: Evaluating Wetland-ecosystem Health in the Prairie Pothole Region Using Real-time Nutrient Dynamics of Waterfowl
Department of Natural Resources Management, South Dakota State University, Brooking, SD USA

The Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) of the United States and Canada is one of the most productive wetland and grassland ecosystems in the world, making the region both ecologically and economically important. Economic drivers have resulted in widespread wetland drainage and grassland conversion to agriculture throughout the 20th century, which has exerted both direct and indirect impacts on remaining prairie wetlands. My research will attempt to understand the relationship between agricultural land use intensity and wetland quality for waterfowl during spring migration. I will do this by using concentrations of key lipid and protein metabolites in blood plasma as an indicator of short-term physiological responses of waterfowl to wetland quality during spring migration.

Wetlands within study sites distributed across an agricultural intensity gradient (low, medium and high row crop production) in the PPR of South Dakota will be sampled using traditional indicators of wetland quality, such as waterfowl abundance, vegetation composition, physiochemical metrics, and invertebrate abundance and diversity. Additionally, blood samples will be collected from female lesser scaup (Aythya affinis) and blue-winged teal (Anas discors) on the same wetlands to measure plasma metabolite concentrations. Land use and extent of drained and extant wetland basins on each site also will be quantified and used along with information from sampled wetlands to investigate the relationship between short-term nutrient dynamics, agricultural land use intensity, and wetland quality. Identifying agricultural influences on prairie wetlands will highlight targets for waterfowl conservation and management in agricultural landscapes throughout the PPR.

David Johns

DUC-MBNA Canada Bank Conservation Fellowship

Thesis: Landscape-level breeding ecology in prairie ducks: Patterns in settlement, reproduction, survival and physiology.
Department of Biology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK, Canada

Agricultural intensification in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) has replaced much of the grassland and wetland habitat with annual grain and oilseed production. Landscape change may impact the ability of waterfowl to survive and breed successfully, so understanding the mechanisms of impact is critical for waterfowl management and conservation strategies. Impacts of landscape change on breeding birds may be both exogenous (e.g., affecting predation rates), or endogenous (e.g., affecting individual energy allocation).

This study will examine sources of variation in duck reproductive success across landscape gradients ranging from cropland-dominated to intact native grasslands. Primary objectives are to:

  • determine brood- rearing habitat selection and consequences for female and duckling survival,
  • examine the influence of individual physiology and past reproductive history on future reproductive performance,
  • identify habitat selection patterns and trade offs between breeding effort and brood production.

This study will use a combination of existing long-term datasets, and recently collected field data on waterfowl breeding effort and reproductive success from across the PPR. A novel method of examining corticosterone deposited in feather tissue will be used to index past energetic status. Results of this project will benefit researchers and managers in attempts to better understand the effect of habitat modification on waterfowl.

Read this article on David’s project from the University of Saskatchewan Campus News. This article first ran as part of the 2013 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Profile office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Christopher Malachowski

Dr. Bruce DJ Batt Fellowship in Waterfowl Conservation

Thesis: Factors influencing habitat selection, movement patterns, and population dynamics of the endangered Hawaiian duck (Anas wyvilliana) on Kaua’i
Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR USA

The Hawaiian duck (Anas wyvilliana) is the only endemic dabbling duck remaining in the main Hawaiian Islands. Significant population decline has led to endangered status; however, little is known about the relative impact of population threats (wetland loss, introduced predators) on movement patterns, habitat use, and population demographics (e.g., adult and nest survival).

This research will employ a combination of radio and satellite telemetry, and band-resight surveys to address the following three objectives:

  • identify factors affecting daily and seasonal movement patterns and habitat selection,
  • quantify the effect of sex and life-history stage on adult survival,
  • determine the influence of landscape type, topographic features, and vegetation characteristics on nest site selection and nest survival.

This information will help inform efforts to estimate population size, develop population models, and identify factors most limiting population growth of the Hawaiian duck.

For more information on fellowships and the application process, visit DUC’s Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research website.