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Collaborations Across the Pond

By Madelaine Anderson, a PhD student at the Université de Sherbrooke

In May 2023, I participated in a three-week internship at the School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh in collaboration with Professor Isla Myer-Smith and her research group, Team Shrub. One of the main goals of the internship was to work on wrapping up a manuscript with my co-authors based at the University of Edinburgh. Over the three weeks I was there, I was able to meet with my co-authors in person to finalize the manuscript that we will be submitting for publication this fall. In person collaboration facilitated discussion and interpretation of our results and helped contextualize our findings within the broader scope of the literature.

Gorse around Edinburgh in spring bloom.

The project we are collaborating on examines what happens when tundra willows grow in warmer conditions. Using a common garden experiment set up on the shores of Kluane Lake, Yukon, we compared growth rates, plant traits (e.g. specific leaf area), and phenologies (timing of leaf out, timing of leaf yellowing) between three common willow species growing in the wild and in a warmer (approx. seven degrees warmer) environment. The willows were transplanted from alpine (high elevation) sites around the local Kluane region, or from Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island in the Yukon Arctic to the boreal site and have been growing together since 2013.

Common garden experiment set up on the shores of Kluane Lake in southwest Yukon.

Results suggest that willows from the southern population grow rapidly under warmer conditions, and both southern and northern willows shift the timing of leaf out earlier in the year. The northern willows seem to be stunted by the shift in photoperiod (when in the Arctic they have 24 sun for 40 days each summer, but daylength is significantly shorted in the Kluane region) and overall have a shorter length of time between leaf out and leaf yellowing, likely contributing to less overall growth. Not all willow species responded the same, however, with the Arctic willow (Salix arctica) demonstrating similar rates of growth between the northern and southern populations in the common garden. The common garden growing conditions simulate projected Arctic warming by the end of the century. The experiment helps us understand the responses of shrubs to future warming and gives us insights into how landscapes may change with shrub growth and expansion. Shrubs are a shaping feature of many tundra landscapes and impact on wildlife populations like caribou, as well as peoples’ livelihoods. 

The internship was a great balance of science and fun and included a few long days in the lab and in the pub. My Edinburgh lab-mates went out of their way to show me around and make me feel welcomed. It was also a great experience to network with other Arctic researchers and ecologists both in and beyond Team Shrub. Attending guest lectures, discussion groups, and meeting graduate students and professors at another institution gave me new perspectives on the science and research I contribute to. One highlight of the internship was a writing retreat in the Highlands of Scotland in the Cairngorms. We split our days writing, hiking, talking about science, and admiring the beautiful landscape dotted with lambs. Overall, the trip was a major success, and it inspired many daydreams about moving to Scotland, whether it is for a postdoc or to become a sheep farmer in the Highlands. A huge thank you to Isla and Team Shrub for hosting me and I look forward to publishing the common garden manuscript soon!

Lambs on the lookout in the Highlands.
Hiking near Newtonmore.

About the author: Madelaine is a PhD student at the Université de Sherbrooke in Sherbrooke, Quebec studying tundra ecology in Prof. Mark Vellend’s lab. Her research contributes to the Arctic portion of the Canadian Airborne Biodiversity Observatory (CABO) project that uses new technologies to map biodiversity across Canada.

Photo credit: Isla Myers-Smith

Post date: January 15, 2024


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