Current and On-going Research at rare

Researcher Andrew MacDougall and students look over rare’s Blair Flats.     Photo courtesy of Peter Kelly.

 

At rare, we welcome researchers in a multitude of disciplines and are always looking for new and exciting research opportunities. We view rare as an opportunity to examine restoration and agricultural initiatives and to study the structure and functioning of a natural environment within an expanding urban area. Due to our goal of keeping over 900 acres intact and in perpetuity, we can uniquely offer stability to projects that extend over the long term. Individuals interested in conducting research at rare are encouraged to contact our Research Department to discuss their research ideas and needs. All researchers must file an Application to Conduct Research prior to initiating their project.

Below are the current and ongoing research projects taking place at rare. Click on any to be taken to the respective summary:

 

 

Effects of agricultural intensification on juvenile survival and dispersal in the Savannah Sparrow
York University, Department of Biology
Heidi van Vliet, M.Sc. Candidate. Supervisor: Dr. Bridget Stutchbury

Summary: Grassland birds have been in decline in North America for several decades. Habitat loss and degradation through agricultural intensification is one of the primary causes of these declines. This research will compare the breeding success and survival of juvenile Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis), a declining grassland species, between agricultural and non-agricultural land. I will be testing the hypothesis that agricultural intensification negatively effects breeding success and nestling body condition, and, subsequently juvenile survival. Little is known about the direct effects that agriculture has on the breeding success of grassland songbirds, and there is a large gap in the literature focusing on juvenile survival, dispersal, and migration. In my study, I will be utilizing a new technology for tracking songbirds, the Motus Wildlife Tracking System, to monitor juvenile birds once they leave the nest and their parent’s territory. This radio telemetry array extensively covers southern Ontario, where my proposed research will take place and will allow me to track the juvenile birds to understand their survival, dispersal, and the onset of the fall migration. Understanding all aspects of a bird’s life, and what stages of their life are more sensitive, is critical to the conservation of declining migratory songbirds.

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Collaborative activities in support of Mottled Duskywing recovery
Natural Resource Solutions Inc.
Jessica Linton

Summary: The project, funded through the Species at Risk Stewardship Fund (SARSF), involved a collaborative approach between Conservation Halton, NRSI, Dr. Gard Otis (University of Guelph) and MNRF to address key knowledge gaps identified in the Draft Recovery Strategy for Mottled Duskywings (and Endangered species in Ontario).

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The significance of synanthropic stress physiology for sylvatic disease dynamics in Sciurus carolinensis
University of Guelph, Department of Integrative Biology
Mason Stothart, M.Sc. Candidate. Supervisor: Dr. Amy Newman

Summary: One of the primary mechanisms hypothesized to facilitate the invasion of nascent niches created by urbanization is synanthropic modification of a species’ stress response. In vertebrates, stress physiology plays an important role in regulating everything from homeostasis and immunity, to ‘fight or flight’ behavioural responses. The closer human-association implicit in synurban adaptive modification of an organism’s stress response, would not only increase incidences of human-wildlife conflict, but also zoonotic disease risk. Further exacerbating this risk is the connection between stress and immune physiology, since changes in the former could compromise the latter, thereby increasing pathogen prevalence on the urban environment. While the importance of understanding these processes is emphasized in the literature, little is known about synurban stress physiology, and even less about its interaction with disease transmission. Using a combination of field, lab, and citizen science techniques, I propose to characterize longitudinal synanthropic patterns in stress/immune physiology, and disease ecology in urban and exurban populations of eastern grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis).

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The evolution of leaf endopolyploidy and its functional consequences in flowering plants
University of Guelph, Department of Integrative Biology
James Seery, Research Assistant. Supervisor: Dr. Brian Husband

Summary: Endopolyploidy is a form of somatic genome duplication that increased cell size, and can create a ploidy mosaic in plant tissues. However, the functional significance of endopolyploid tissues and the relative occurrence of leaf endopolyploidy in angiosperm species are unknown. To determine whether leaf endopolyploidy is common in plants, I will survey the local flora to quantify its occurrence and magnitude, and use a molecular phylogeny to both reconstruct its evolution and infer transition rates. To examine the functional consequence of endopolyploidy magnitude, I will test whether it co-varies with specific leaf area, a correlate of growth rate, and leaf water content, a correlate of water storage capability.

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Management of giant hogweed using chemical and manual control options with a focus on seed viability after regeneration
University of Guelph, Department of Plant Agriculture
Meghan Grgruic, M.Sc. Candidate. Supervisor: Dr. François Tardif

Summary: As a human facilitated introduced species, giant hogweed poses a threat to habitat diversity and ecosystem health. As an invasive species, giant hogweed is thought to reduce diversity among native plant communities where its colonies have established. This is especially true when monocultures become established within populations due to the high quantity of seeds produced per plant. Its large leaf area has the potential to shade smaller plants, as well as increase riverbank erosion when the senescence of vegetation creates bare ground in the fall and winter. This erosion can have a number of consequences, including the threat to fish and other organisms, from both changes to their habitat and possible addition of chemical substrates. With these negative influences giant hogweed has on communities it’s invaded, safe and effective management is important. Giant hogweed’s proximity to water makes control without chemicals necessary but challenging due to its persistence and regenerative abilities. This research will investigate different manual control treatments and how they affect the ability hogweed has to produce viable seed through regeneration.

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From field to forest: monitoring the distribution of the invasive fruit fly pest, D. suzukii, in a non-agricultural setting
Wilfrid Laurier University, Department of Biology
Yvonne Young, M.Sc. Candidate. Supervisor: Dr. Tristan Long

Summary:  Drosophila suzukii, commonly referred to as the spotted-wing drosophila, is an invasive vinegar fly of Asian origin that attacks ripening or ripe, sound fruit.  Clearly a significant pest to the soft-fruit industry, it is possible this species may also significantly utilize naturalized plants of wild North America.  In fact,  in Ontario, berries of Rhamnus cathartica (buckthorn) have been confirmed to be infested by this species.  The impact this species has upon natural ecosystems, however, remains far from known.  Here, I propose a research project that will provide a baseline understanding of how D. suzukii is distributed among old forest interiors, forest edges and flood plains using traps and collections of fruit.  Additionally, previously non-identified host plant species attacked by this insect will be catalogued.  Understanding how D. suzukii distributes itself among different landscapes and which plant species are attacked will be an important first step in designing better management strategies (e.g. knowing where to focus efforts for best impact) and will provide direction for future studies looking at ecosystem changes brought about by this invasive species (e.g. knowing which habitat types D. suzukii is attacking).

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Community assessment of invasive earthworms in restored Southern Ontario tallgrass prairie
University of Waterloo, School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability
Heather Cray, Ph.D. Candidate. Supervisor: Dr. Stephen Murphy

Summary: Since only 1-3% of tallgrass prairie habitat remains in North America, dedicated citizens, scientists, and government officials are working to restore prairie in southern Ontario. Most of these restorations are done by either hand-broadcasting or drilling-in seeds on ex-agricultural land. While there is increasing evidence that invasive earthworms are important ecosystem engineers, surprisingly little is known about their effect on invaded habitat. Despite knowing that exotic earthworms are spreading across Ontario and that they both eat and bury seeds, key information about the presence, community structure, and population density of these seed predators is lacking. This project will address this knowledge gap at rare by assessing the earthworm population in the restored tallgrass prairie at the rare Charitable Research Reserve. The results of this work will inform future prairie restoration by adding another piece to the complex food web of establishing habitats and will deepen our understanding of factors related to earthworm invasion.

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Spatio-temporal and population-level variation in avian immune-genes and parasite communities
Western University, Department of Biology
Leanne Grieves, Ph.D. Candidate. Supervisor: Dr. Beth MacDougall-Shackleton

Summary: Blood-borne parasites are found on nearly every continent and infect approximately 70% of bird species worldwide. Given their ability to infect multiple species and the anticipated range expansions of parasites associated with climate change, understanding host-parasite interactions is increasingly important. The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) is a diverse gene family that plays a crucial role in the immune response to pathogens. MHC genotypes may affect the ability of populations to persevere under changing parasite pressures. I will study three song sparrow populations in Ontario, including sparrows at the rare Charitable Research Reserve. Using next-generation sequencing, microscopy, and song analysis software, I will explore whether 1) MHC genotypes are correlated with parasites, 2) different breeding populations show differences in parasite load (intensity of infection) and diversity (number of lineages), 3) parasite communities differ throughout the breeding season, and 4) increased parasite load decreases song performance. Understanding population differences in how birds cope with parasitic infections and the correlations between infection and fitness may inform future management decisions in songbirds.

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Queensnake presence in relation to prey and habitat dynamics in the Grand River
Natural Resources Solutions Inc., rare, Ontario Nature, Nature Conservancy of Canada, Huron Stewardship Council, University of Toronto, Scarborough

Summary: This collaborative project will address the current lack of knowledge regarding the distribution, habitat and prey selection of the Grand River Queensnake (Regina septemvittata) population through targeted surveys. This work is being funded by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) Species at Risk Stewardship Fund and OLTAP. The information gathered as a result of this study will be invaluable for the protection and recovery of Queensnakes both within the Grand River as well as throughout Ontario.

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Vibrational signals: sexual selection and species boundaries in Phymata
Royal Ontario Museum, Department of Natural History
Dr. David Puzalan

Summary: Despite a long and successful tradition of studying animal signaling and communication, only recently have biologists been able to uncover a form of communication that is ubiquitous and remarkably diverse among invertebrates: vibrational signaling. In the ambush bug Phymata americana, an insect native to old fields in Southern Ontario, vibrational communication has been observed but not officially described, let alone understood in terms of its adaptive function. David’s goal is to identify how these signals might be employed during courtship and its potential role for maintaining reproductive isolation between P. americana and a related species, P. pennsylvanica. The initial phase of the work simply requires the collection and identification of the species present at rare. Analysis of vibrational signals in these insects is possible due to the advent of technological tools allowing the capture of substrate-borne vibrations (i.e. laser vibrometry) and some preliminary work suggests stereotyped signals are generated by both sexes during courtship. Formal analyses incorporating aspects of vibrational communication are required to determine whether these signals are targets of directional selection as predicted by several models of sexual selection invoking mate choice.

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Assessing the consequences of gene flow between cultivated apples (Malus x domestica) and their wild relatives
University of Guelph, Department of Integrative Biology
Paul Kron, Research Associate. Supervisor: Dr. Brian Husband

Summary: Closely related species can sometimes reproduce to produce hybrid organisms. Two such species are the domestic apple and the wild crabapple. Paul is studying the complex genetic interactions between these two species. This involves several components. What is the genetic variability within the wild crabapple? What is the fate of hybrids in the natural environment; i.e. do they survive and reproduce? Over 25 saplings from each of five genetically different apple strains were grown from seeds collected on rare property (three crabapple variants plus two hybrids with the domestic apple) and planted in the alvar complex. The fate of these individuals is being monitored over a ten-year period. The genetic variation of pollen and seed from mature trees of both species will also be determined. This will provide insight into the nature of the reproductive pathways that occur among these two species that lead to the production of fruits and seed. This research will provide important information on the potential impacts of introducing genetically-modified organisms (organisms intentionally modified by humans) into the landscape.

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Long-term restoration of tallgrass prairie
University of Guelph, Department of Integrative Biology
Dr. Andrew MacDougall

Summary: Tallgrass prairie formerly occupied 80,000 to 100,000 hectares in southwestern Ontario but less than 5% of that remains. Andrew plans to convert an agricultural field on rare property (most recently used to grow soybeans) into a native tallgrass prairie. There are several main goals of this research. The first is to determine the factors that ensure success in prairie restoration especially the ability of tallgrass prairies to resist invasion from non-target species; particularly exotic agronomic grasses. The second objective is to determine the factors that influence the pattern of distribution of plant species in a tallgrass prairie; i.e. are these factors environmental or non-environmental? The third objective is to restore a tallgrass prairie research site that will eventually look like a tallgrass prairie rather than a checkerboard pattern of research plots that will require constant maintenance. This sampling design will help address the research questions but will also restore the function of this ecosystem for creatures such as birds, insects and small mammals. The research project consists of a five-year building phase followed by a longer-term monitoring and manipulation phase.

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Influence of riparian and hyporheic zones on stream hydrology and nutrient biogeochemistry
University of Waterloo, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Philippe Van Cappellen

Summary:Traditionally, management of water resources has focused on surface water bodies (streams, lakes, reservoirs, wetlands, etc.) or on groundwater as if they were separate entities. As the use of land and water resources intensifies, the hydraulic connection between surface water and groundwater has become recognized as a crucial element in water management. This research will monitor the spatial distributions of nutrient elements (C, N, P, Si, K and S) and key biogeochemical redox indicators (in particular, iron) in the riparian and hyphoreic zones of a small, groundwater-fed stream on the rare Charitable Research Reserve over the course of one year. The spatio-temporal patterns will be used to unravel the key biogeochemical transformations affecting nutrient speciation and fluxes within the riparian and hyporheic filter zones, and establish their response to seasonal variations in stream hydrology, soil temperature and biological activity.

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Unreduced gamete production in Brassicaceae species
University of Guelph, Integrative Biology Department
Paul Kron and Julia Kreiner

Summary: The transition to polyploidy is important in plant species’ evolution, but some aspects of polyploidization remain poorly understood. Polyploids are believed to arise primarily through unreduced gamete production, but little data about the rates of occurrence and triggers (genetic and environmental) for unreduced gamete production in natural populations are available. Using relatively new methodology (flow cytometric DNA content measurement of pollen nuclei) we propose to measure unreduced male gamete production rates in natural populations of species in the Brassicaceae, as well as variation in these values within and between populations. We will then relate these measures to aspects of the environment and to the phenotypes of the species.

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DNA barcode-based biodiversity assessment of arthropods in the rare Charitable Research Reserve
University of Guelph, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG)
Dr. Paul Hebert

Summary: Arthropods make up the vast majority of terrestrial ecosystem inhabitants therefore it is critical to assess their responses to anthropogenic disturbance. The inclusion of arthropods in terrestrial assessments however, has faced three substantial barriers: ineffective sampling due to complex terrestrial environments, poor knowledge of species distributions and prevalence, and unreliable tools for species identification. Fortunately, the latter barrier has been circumvented with the use of DNA barcoding, a method that utilizes the sequence variation in a standardized gene fragment to rapidly sort and objectively differentiate species. The first barrier will be tackled through comprehensive sampling methods, including various collecting techniques over multiple timeframes. The combination of these methods will allow for the development of more complete species data and ultimately move towards the establishment of a time- and cost-efficient approach for repeatable terrestrial environmental assessments. Furthermore, these efforts will be combined with the rare Bioblitz event (an intense biological survey by expert taxonomists to record all living species within an area) to establish a comprehensive species inventory and corresponding DNA barcodes for the reserve.

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A constructive approach to maintaining nesting habitat for Barn Swallows in Ontario 
Bird Studies Canada
Kristyn Richardson

Summary: Barn swallows nest almost exclusively on human-made structures such as barns, sheds, bridges and culverts and are the most widely distributed of all swallows. As such, many people would be shocked to learn that the Ontario populations has declined by 66% since 1970. Despite how frequently humans overlap with these swallows (part of a group of birds collectively called aerial insectivores because of their habit of eating flying insects while flying high in the air) we know relatively little about them. While the causes of these declines are unknown, here in Ontario educations in the amount of available nesting habitat as well as human-caused disturbance are two potential reasons. The results of the artificial nesting structure project on the rare property, as well as the complimentary social cues research, will be used to determine what breeding habitat characteristics are most important for Barn Swallows in Ontario and inform Best Management Practices for the conservation of this species.

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Assessment and prediction of the restoration of a former agricultural field
McMaster University, Department of Biology
James Marcaccio, Ph.D. Candidate. Supervisor: Dr. Patricia Chow-Fraser

Summary: Satellite imagery and orthophoto-imagery are both common forms of digital data used to produce maps for ecological research. The advantage of the former is that the data can be updated frequently (2-4 weeks), while the advantage of the latter is that they are high resolution; however, neither are fully suitable for mapping landscape features for ecological studies. Using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), we will be able to provide both high-resolution and seasonally-relevant imagery (taken multiple times during a season) for the reclaimed agricultural land north of Blair road that is owned by rare. With the infrared camera, we will also be able to characterize the chlorophyll response (i.e. plant health) as well as the pattern of soil moisture in the field. We will combine this information with a 3-dimensional topographical model (generated by remote sensing) to forecast how the ecosystem will be returned to its former state. The high-quality data we derive from the senseFly eBee UAV will allow present and future researchers at rare to gain a better understanding of the spatial relationship among different habitat classes in the changing landscape.

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A genetic link between foraging tactic and dispersal
University of Toronto, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Allan Edelsparre, Ph.D. Candidate. Supervisor: Dr. Marla Sokolowski

Summary: The overall goal we are working towards understanding is whether dispersal patterns observed in natural animal populations can arise from genes that are known to influence differences in foraging behaviour. A common phenomenon in dispersal biology, particularly in studies involving invasive species, is that the successful spread of a given species is dependent on the individuals at the forefront of invasion (Llewelyn et al. 2010, Philips et al. 2010). Advances in behavioural ecology demonstrate that dispersal tendencies can be associated with behavioural strategies that individuals employ during foraging, predator escape responses or mate searching (Fraser et al. 2001, Réal et al. 2007, Edelsparre et al. 2013). Consequently, a candidate approach to understanding the genetic mechanisms underlying dispersal is to investigate the relationship between dispersal and behaviours where the genetic and physiological mechanisms are already well understood. We are testing whether a gene influencing foraging strategies in fruit flies is a potential mechanism underlying variation in
dispersal.

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Characterizing the effects of water quality and wetland plant species on the structure and function of microbial rhizosphere communities
Wilfrid Laurier University, Department of Biology
Lindsey Clairmont, Ph.D. Candidate. Supervisor: Dr. Robin Slawson

Summary: To further our understanding of how plant-bacteria community dynamics influence effective contaminant removal from wastewater I will be examining the effects of varying water quality on the structure and function of the bacterial rhizosphere community on roots of Phalaris arundinacea. I will also be examining how the composition of microorganisms within the rhizosphere of several wetland plants differ and how these differences translate into the ability of these communities to remove contaminants from water using a combination of field and mesocosm based approaches.

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Spatial epidemiology of co-infecting amphibian emerging infectious diseases
Laurentian University, Department of Biology, Genetics and Ecology of Amphibians Research Group
Kirsten McMillan, Ph.D. Candidate. Supervisor: Dr. David Lesbarrères

Summary: We are facing a global population decline of amphibian taxa. It is critical that we confront this issue as amphibian declines may be an early indicator of the impending loss of freshwater aquatic ecosystem services. As these declines occur in both human-disturbed and seemingly pristine habitats, this matter has been acknowledged as a global conservation priority. Disease is among the top suspected causes of amphibian population decline. Ranavirus and the Chytrid fungus are the primary pathogens associated with mortalities. Both pathogens spread rapidly within aquatic environments. One of the challenges regarding the study of disease dynamics is to understand the pattern of spread. Most model-based projections fail to account for environmental variation. Yet, as the environment determines the distribution of hosts and parasite vectors, it is probable that this variation will be instrumental in determining disease risk. By comparing environmental differences between populations exhibiting different infection characteristics, we can start to disentangle the mechanisms allowing for disease spread. I hope to investigate this important epidemiological issue while bridging a gap between landscape ecology and conservation management.

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Quantifying relationships between water quality and mycorrhizal associations in wetland vegetation
Wilfrid Laurier University, Department of Biology,
Daniel Marshall, M.Sc. Candidate. Supervisor: Dr. Kevin Stevens

Summary: This project is part of a larger collaborative effort between Dr. Kevin Stevens’ wetland ecology laboratory and Dr. Slawson’s microbial ecology laboratory. Their research program is focused on the interactions between the plant, fungal and microbial communities in the rhizosphere and how they are affected by contrasting water quality, particularly comparing areas receiving municipal, agricultural or industrial effluent to areas less severely impacted by anthropogenic activities. Specifically, this project will focus on the characterization and quantification of the plant communities and their interactions with associated root endophytes. This will aid in determining the effects of water quality on mycorrhizal fungi colonization of wetland plant root systems, important plant symbionts in wetland and terrestrial habitats.

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Exploring toxicity responses and bioaccumulation in the Hyalella azteca species complex
University of Waterloo, Department of Biology,
Jessica Leung, Ph.D. Candidate. Supervisors: Dr. Jonathan Witt and Dr. George Dixon

Summary: Hyalella azteca is not just a single species, but several distinct species erroneously grouped together due to morphological similarities. For my project, I hope to collect different species that belong to the H. azteca complex to monitor their different nutritional needs. In addition, I hope to expose them to metals to see whether differences in mortality and bioaccumulation exists within the H. azteca complex.

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Distribution and function of soil Thaumarchaeota
University of Waterloo, Department of Biology,
Xinda Lu, Ph.D. Candidate. Supervisor: Dr. Josh Neufeld

Summary: Nitrogen is a key element controlling terrestrial productivity. Nitrification, mediated by microorganisms, converts reduced (ammonia) to oxidized (nitrite and nitrate) forms of nitrogen. Nitrification has profound influences on the environment, for example, by contributing greenhouse gasses (nitrous oxide) and leaching fertilizer nitrogen (nitrate). Although nitrification has been studied for over a century, it is only recently that ammonia-oxidizing archaea (AOA) were discovered in addition to their counterparts, ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB), which were formerly regarded as the sole contributors to nitrification. Since their discovery, questions regarding the ecology, physiology, and metabolism of AOA are still not well answered. This project will combine molecular methods, microcosm incubations, and bioinformatics to study the biogeography and activity of soil AOA in an effort to better understand AOA distributions and function. As main part of this project, soil samples will be collected at rare Charitable Research Reserve, and microcosm incubation will be set up under different conditions (temperature and substrate form). Short-term and long-term soil incubation aim at elucidating the influence of temperature and different forms of nitrogen (organic/inorganic) on AOA activity, adding more evidence to the niche seperation of soil AOA.

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DNA Barcoding Aquatic and Soil Mites of the rare Charitable Research Reserve
Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, University of Guelph, Department of Integrative Biology,
Monica Young, Ph.D. Candidate. Supervisor: Dr. Paul Hebert

Summary: Mites are one of the most abundant and diverse groups of arthropods, and inhabit a vast array of ecological niches including aquatic and terrestrial habitats. However, mites are rarely targeted for detailed biodiversity surveys because of taxonomic barriers.  The status of many species is uncertain due to synonymies, morphotypes which are distinct species, and sexual dimorphisms.  These factors inhibit detailed assessments of the fauna, such as estimating species diversity and distribution patterns in space or time. However, the use of DNA barcoding can alleviate such barriers by providing a transparent, consistent method for delineating species, and serve as a window into the patterns of molecular evolution that underlie species diversity.  Evaluating mite diversity with the use of DNA barcoding at the rare Charitable Research Reserve will provide a comprehensive assessment of the mite diversity in aquatic and terrestrial (soil) habitats in the reserve. Moreover, the survey may provide insights into several taxonomic issues common in acarology, such as cryptic species and synonymies related to life stage or sexual dimorphism.

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rare Charitable Research Reserve
1679 Blair Road
Cambridge, ON N3H 4R8
(519) 650-9336