A Natural Lab!
By Ryan Scheer and Janelle Laing
Why conduct ecological research in a national park? From ants to herring gulls to large-scale mapping projects, Pukaskwa National Park (PNP) has hosted many research studies over the years. Researchers are drawn to national parks to take advantage of their uniquely natural environments.
Given their relatively undisturbed state, national parks often provide fantastic sites to study natural processes within ecosystems. In 2019, a visiting researcher travelled to Pukaskwa to study ants during the first nationwide survey of this type in approximately 30 years! Broadly, the goal of this research was to identify new species and study patterns of genetic variation and local adaptation. This ant research could not be conducted in urban environments due to additional stressors commonly found there, but PNP provided the well-preserved habitats and relatively unaltered genetic diversity required.
National parks provide excellent sites to conduct long-term studies of natural changes in habitat. An ideal example of this is the Great Lakes Shoreline Ecosystem Inventory and Mapping Project. This project aims to map all habitat within 2 km of the Great Lakes shoreline, including the types of sediments and vegetation. The ecologically significant contributions of Pukaskwa’s coastline were included in this project during its final year. These data create a baseline to which future data may be compared and changes detected. Having information about a landscape that is relatively free of human interference may prove particularly useful to researchers and park managers alike!
Furthermore, national parks in Canada can provide established reference sites to be used for comparison with more disturbed locations. PNP monitors aquatic invertebrates using the Canadian Aquatic Biomonitoring Network’s program. Biomonitoring is used worldwide to assess integrity of an ecosystem by studying the living communities to detect early changes.
Scientific studies in protected areas are increasingly important because they help us understand natural and human-caused changes in ecosystems over time. Pukaskwa, like all parks, is not immune to outside influences. PNP has seen an important decline in colonial water bird populations, and understanding why has become a serious question. The Resource Conservation team at Pukaskwa collaborated with researchers from Environment and Climate Change Canada and Carleton University to assess whether the decline in the herring gull population is due to changes in the fish communities that form their diet.
Many of the studies done within Canada’s National Parks could not be completed elsewhere. As relatively undisturbed sites, national parks provide an excellent setting for short and long-term studies of natural phenomena, while establishing useful ecological benchmarks in the process!
All visiting researchers must apply for a permit from Parks Canada to do research. If you are interested in conducting research in one of Canada’s national parks, national park reserves, national marine conservation areas, or national historic sites, please visit the Research and Collection Permit System.