Mammals of Nova Scotia
The wilderness areas of Nova Scotia are home to many species that have long gone extinct in many parts of industrialised Europe, such as bears, moose and beavers. This peninsular province, located on the eastern coast of Canada, harbours a diversity of habitats owing to its unique geographical location on the mid-temperate zone. This is where southern deciduous forest regions make the transition into the northern coniferous boreal zone.
Although the population of Nova Scotia totals less than one million inhabitants who are mostly concentrated on 7,500 kms of meandering shoreline, the wildlife here is increasingly impacted by human activities such as forestry (the area is popular for its cultivation of Christmas trees), hunting, urban expansion and road building. Nova Scotia is also at the front line of climate change impacts, since its warm, continental climate is heavily influenced by the ocean currents around it. Changes to these currents will lead to changing climate conditions in the province itself, which will in turn have profound impacts on the province's flora and fauna.
Understanding how such local and global-scale environmental change will impact the endemic mammal populations and landscapes in these temperate areas is crucial to developing effective management strategies for their conservation. This is the key objective of the Mammals of Nova Scotia project, led by Drs. Christina Buesching and Chris Newman. The project has just come to the end of its second year in the field, and during the past two years, 12 teams of Earthwatch volunteers have collected data on species abundance and helped establish two principal long-term monitoring sites that will enable comparisons between inland and coastal areas to be made.
The original field site at Cook's Lake comprises a diversity of habitats ranging from mixed coniferous and deciduous woodland, to hay meadows, ponds, streams and wetlands. It will provide ideal monitoring opportunities as the site is exclusively under the project's management. Another site, East Port, was included as a new coastal monitoring site in 2008. Volunteers have helped to set up these monitoring sites by expanding trail networks, putting up nearly 50 bat boxes for future bat surveys, and mapping out the specific environmental features using a GPS device.
Earthwatch volunteers have contributed their efforts to a variety of tasks. Through careful training, volunteers have learned to identify animals and their field signs, helping researchers to build up comprehensive site-specific species lists of mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Species spotted in the last two years include red squirrels, voles, raccoons, black bears, otters, red foxes, salamanders and garter snakes. These lists are an important prerequisite to ecological monitoring and will help to relate fluctuation in species distribution to environmental factors in a given ecosystem.
A great amount of progress has been made in collecting baseline data on species such as bears, snowshoe hare, white-tailed deer and other forest species. Volunteers were introduced to the myriad techniques used to collect data on species distribution and abundance, including field sign transects, camera traps, small mammal traps, and animal dropping counts. Some changes, such as decreasing numbers of foxes and coyotes spotted along transect surveys, are already being observed. This baseline data can be studied later to assess how and if the distribution of species can be related to other environmental factors such as habitat changes (e.g. forestry) or climate change.
An important finding made after the first two field seasons was the rise in white-tailed deer populations in the area. White-tailed deer are a major threat to moose populations as they carry an infectious worm that causes fatal brain degeneration in moose. Along with habitat disappearance and human disturbance, the increase of white-tailed deer has caused a severe decline in moose numbers, which are now listed as provincially threatened. Carrying out a deer census using a method known as ‘standing crop faecal counts' (where deer abundance is extrapolated from deer dropping counts on randomly placed quadrats) has suggested that the average density of deer in the area is about 17-fold higher than official figures from 2003, which will have important management implications in an area where white-tailed deer have reached pestilential levels.
The project has also looked at how small mammals have been impacted by forest management strategies, especially important in an area where forestry and paper-mulch production is one of the most important remaining industries. Volunteers compared the abundance of several small mammal species (voles, mice, lemmings, and squirrels) between areas that had previously been cleared for forestry and replanted with a native mixture of trees in 1992, and ‘natural' forest. Initial results found that the ‘natural' forest is still richer in both small mammal abundance and diversity. However, the second field season has shown more complicated trends, whereby numbers of individuals from different species continue to rise in the clearing plots during the late summer months, as opposed to natural plots, where numbers level out after August. This provides a good baseline which the researchers will continue to build on and analyse next year.
The trends uncovered by this research so far will be further monitored in coming years. Although it is still too early to take results to policy-makers, the scientists have begun discussions with landowners and hunters to achieve conservation through education by raising awareness of the richness of the environment in Nova Scotia. Project results are already being used to advise one of the project's partners, the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute, in developing outreach programmes to attract eco-tourists to Nova Scotia's national parks, and will continue to inform the development of volunteer observation programmes.
Report by Nina Raasakka.
Find out more
Find out more about volunteering on the Earthwatch expedition Mammals of Nova Scotia.
Visit the scientists' website, or check out this volunteer blog.