Biological Research at St. Mary’s University

Within our department our faculty are involved in interesting, innovative and significant research that encompasses the diversity within the field of biology.  Below is an example of a few of the exciting research projects our faculty are conducting.

Dr. Gary Grothman studies tardigrades

tardigrade They waddle slowly on eight legs, happily munching on moss and other microscopic organisms until the moss dries up. Then they crumple down to resemble a speck of dust, living up to ten years in a desiccated state until conditions are right to resume munching and waddling again. They’re incredibly hardy creatures and are the only organisms to have survived the radiation and vacuum of space.

Scientists affectionately call these fascinating invertebrate organisms “water bears” or “moss piglets”, but they’re technically known as tardigrades. With no known economic benefit or threat of disease from them, however, tardigrades haven’t been well studied by biologists, especially in North America. Dr. Gary Grothman aims to fill this void, searching for and characterizing tardigrades in nearby Fish Creek Provincial Park and other areas of Alberta. It’s still a long ways off, but unlocking the secrets of how tardigrades survive could lead to discoveries related to the storage of living tissues and other applications. In the meantime, simply studying and learning about these poorly understood organisms is highly interesting. Read more about Dr. Grothman’s research on his profile page.

Dr. Scott Lovell studies speciation of white-crowned sparrows

bird As you’re struggling out of bed at 8 am for your 8:30 am spring class, Dr. Lovell has probably already been awake and recording bird songs – specifically that of the white-crowned sparrow – for many hours. During the last ice age this bird species was separated by vast, impassable regions of ice and individual isolated populations evolved differently, eventually becoming two distinct subspecies of the original white-crowned sparrow. However, as the ice receded these two species were brought back in contact with one another. Dr. Lovell studies the population genetics, hybridization, speciation, biogeography, and vocal evolution in these birds. By examining patterns of variation in song, morphology, and genetics, he can address whether the two subspecies are interbreeding or if some or complete reproductive isolation has evolved. He is currently examining a contact zone between these subspecies that meets along the front range of the Rockies. Not only will he study their song and breeding patterns along this contact zone, he will also examine a northern shift in the zone, asking if this shift could be due to climate change or another interesting dynamic.

Dr Mary Ann McLean studies an invasive parasitic plant

thesiumopensite-23july2014-weedbusters2One of Dr McLean’s research projects is a long term study of the invasion of a Eurasian hemi-parasitic plant into Fish Creek Park. Since the plant is new to Canada and isn’t a weed in Eurasia, not a lot is known about it, such as how it arrived in the park or what method it uses to spread. Since a single plant can produce thousands of seeds, it seemed likely that it could be spread by seeds. However, it turned out that the seeds were really hard to germinate. In fact, not a single seed germinated, which was proved extremely frustrating! The most significant discovery this past summer was that ants were repeatedly observed carrying Thesium seeds to an ant hill. Details of the relationships between Thesium and ants will be the focus of explorations this summer and could be the breakthrough we have been hoping for in terms of how this plant gets around. Hemi-parasites like this plant are green and can photosynthesize but get a lot of their energy by sucking carbohydrates out of the roots of host plants. Detailed investigations of the roots showed that Thesium can parasitize every one of the 40+ species (including grasses, weeds, native plants, shrubs & trees) that were checked. So much for the hope that it only parasitized weeds! thesium-in-grassland-glennfield-fcpp Summer 2017 will be the 4th year of a collaborative study with the park on how to control this species. Like many plants, it seems that the weather makes a huge difference to Thesium abundance and growth in a particular year. Data from experimental plots show that herbicide application once a year and hand-pulling once a year are equally effective methods for controlling it. A recent grant from Alberta Environment and Parks Innovation Fund in collaboration with Parks colleagues funded a pilot project on the use of sniffer dogs to locate Thesium. The hope is that volunteers, working with the dogs & trainers could locate and pull the plants early in the season before it can seed.