Byron V. Weckworth

PhD Candidate

Faculty of Environmental Design
Professional Faculties Building, Room 1140
University of Calgary

Telephone: 1.403.220.2475
Cell Phone: 1.517.256.2883
Facsimile: 1.403.284.4399
Email: bvweckwo@ucalgary.ca

 

 



Biography

I grew up in Montana where the inherent beauty of the state, along with annual family vacations to places such as Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, fostered a love of nature and being in the wilderness. These influences ultimately led to a degree in Zoology at the University of Montana. As an undergraduate, the mentoring and friendship of some of my professors, particularly Drs. Alex Badyaev, Ken Dial and Erick Greene, helped to promote my interest and aptitude in scientific research. Later, during my masters degree, my supervisor, Dr. Joe Cook, and colleague, Dr. Sandy Talbot, further added to my intellectual and practical development as an objective and critical scientist. Along the way, many supervisors, fellow graduate students and other colleagues have contributed greatly to my growth, and helped to build the framework of my professional and personal interests in biology.

I have had the opportunity to work in a variety of ecosystems, including; montane, wetland, riparian, desert and freshwater aquatic; on an equally varied number of species, including plants, fish, small and large mammals, and birds of all sizes. The science has covered a wide spectrum of ecological and evolutionary questions. This diverse background, in both public and private sectors, has been invaluable towards shaping my thoughts and philosophy on the role of science in conservation and preservation of species and their habitats. My primary career goal is to help produce rigorous and relevant scientific research and make it accessible and applicable to the people and organizations that have the influence to form and change public perceptions of environmental issues and the dire challenges that our planet is currently facing.



Current Research

Rangifer tarandus caribou (woodland caribou) are one of two subspecies of caribou in western Canada, the other being the migratory barren-ground caribou of the tundra. Woodland caribou are distributed across the mountainous and forested areas of Canada, including in northern and west-central Alberta. Woodland caribou are further classified into different ecotypes based upon the location and habitat in which they are found. These caribou rely on large contiguous areas of mature forests that contain an abundance of lichens, their primary food. Consequently their movement patterns (which might also include migration) are driven, in part, to acquire food, but are also influenced by mating behaviours and predator avoidance.

Mountain caribou are classified as threatened by the Committee for the Status for Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and the Species at Risk Act (SARA). The reason for the species’ decline is not well understood, but has been attributed to the fragmentation and alteration of their primary habitat through human land-use activities such as oil and gas exploration and timber practices. It is well established that a primary concern for species with depleted population numbers or habitat is the retention of genetic diversity. However, current management units (MU) divide herds based upon watersheds, political jurisdictions, and imprecise ecotype designations. Classification schemes and names of these ecotypes are inconsistent across provinces. In Alberta there are two ecotypes, mountain and boreal, which are classified according to migrant and non-migrant behaviour, respectively. Whereas in BC there are northern and mountain ecotypes defined according to whether they prefer terrestrial or arboreal lichens. Preliminary data from our research group indicate that caribou designated as one ecotype or another may overlap in migration and feeding behaviours of another ecotype. Consequently, there is the potential for interbreeding (i.e. gene flow) between ecotypes and among herds that are currently managed as separate entities. As a result, with the goal of optimizing and maintaining genetic diversity, current management strategies may be ineffective, or even detrimental. Appropriate management will require a concordant understanding of caribou behaviour, ecology and population genetic structure. Furthermore, caribou are a northern species subject to climate change, and are impacted by industry such as forestry and oil and gas development. Their natural history is organized into a hierarchy of herds, populations, meta-populations, and perhaps ecotypes, thus, they provide an ideal conservation biology case study on the impacts climate change and industry at higher latitudes at both local and broad scales.

Molecular techniques allow for the analysis of genetic variation within a species at multiple hierarchical levels. With genetic tools we can evaluate the broad scale genetic differentiation of all woodland caribou in western Canada, starting with phylogenetic analysis examining how past biogeographic factors have influenced their evolution over large geographic and temporal scales. This level of study provides the context for comparing caribou at the next scale, such as determining whether some population are distinct ecotypes or reproductively isolated due to geography or behaviour (i.e. migratory vs. non-migratory). Genetic data will also allow us to determine levels of relatedness among individuals within and among ‘herds’, thus calculating rates of gene flow among subpopulations (i.e. between putative herds), genetic relationships between migratory and non-migratory individuals, potential for sex-biased dispersal, and the influence of habitat fragmentation on populations that may be experiencing declines in genetic diversity. In concordance with these genetic measures of historic and contemporary gene flow, we can analyse movements of radio collared animals, thus evaluating several different types of independent data across evolutionary, ecological, and behavioural spectrums. This information is essential for determining the proper units with which to optimize management strategies for woodland caribou survival in perpetuity.

Population genetic level studies in western Alberta have not been done for these threatened caribou. The major applications of the project would be to contribute assessing, evaluating, and maintaining a population/meta-population genetic structure that reflects the biodiversity found in nature. Understanding both ecological and evolutionary population dynamics, and the mechanisms guiding them, will be essential in not only effectively restructuring current management practices, but also adjusting and refining them as we are faced with a changing landscape due to increased human disturbance and climate change. In the face of these challenges the long term persistence of woodland caribou is yet uncertain. Woodland caribou are protected under SARA, young legislation that has yet to be tested. The results of this study will elucidate discrete population units for management, and have the potential to be used as a basis for the caribou recovery plan at both federal and provincial levels.

Finally, this study will provide the foundation upon which to begin evaluating a species’ hierarchical (individual, herd, population, etc.) response to climate change and anthropogenic landscape impacts that may contribute and/or alter the unique and important patterns of biodiversity. These patterns govern the predisposition for genetic, ecological, and behavioural variation for adaptation in contemporary landscapes.

Publications

Weckworth BV, Talbot S, Cook J (2010) Phylogeography of wolves (Canis lupus) in the Pacific Northwest. Journal of Mammalogy 91: 363-375. [pdf]

Grear DA, Samuel MD, Scribner KT, Weckworth BV, Langenberg JA (2010) Influence of genetic relatedness and spatial proximity on CWD transmission among female white-tail deer. Journal of Applied Ecology 47: 532-540. [pdf]

McDevitt AD, Mariani S, Hebblewhite M, DeCesare NJ, Morgantini L, Seip D, Weckworth BV, Musiani M (2009) Survival in the Rockies of an endangered hybrid swarm from diverged caribou (Rangifer tarandus) lineages. Molecular Ecology 18: 665-679. [pdf]

Blanchong JA, Samuel MD, Scribner KT, Weckworth BV, Langenberg JA, Filcek K (2008) Landscape genetics and the spatial distribution of chronic wasting disease. Biology Letters 4: 130-133. [pdf]

Weckworth BV, Talbot S, Sage K, Person DK, Cook J (2005) A signal for independent Coastal and Continental histories among North American wolves. Molecular Ecology 14: 917-931. [pdf]

Badyaev AV, Hill GE, Weckworth BV (2002) Species divergence in sexually selected traits: increase in song elaboration is related to decrease in plumage ornamentation in finches. Evolution 56: 412-419. [pdf]