Arctic Facts: Bring your bug spray

Thick-billed murre
Thick Billed Murre
Photo courtesy of Dr. Kyle Elliot

Did you know that mosquitoes can kill birds? A seabird colony of Thick-billed Murres (Uria lomvia) on Coats Island, Nunavut nest on its rocky shores. Lethal parasitism (aka; excessive mosquito bites) on the legs and webbed feet of these birds can cause terrible dehydration. Parents trying to rear their young face either; being ravaged by mosquitoes while incubating or tending to chicks, or attempt to escape mosquitoes by heading out to the water leaving an unattended egg or chick behind.  Both adult and chick mortality in this seabird colony was evident in an interesting study; Gaston AJ and Elliot KH (2013) Effects of climate-induced changes in parasitism, predation and predator-predator interactions on reproduction and survival of and arctic marine bird. Arctic 66.1:43-51.

Dr. Elliot, one of the authors behind his study, graciously allowed me to use some of his photos he took during his field work on Coats Island. When asked about his research project and field work, he says “The mosquitoes at Coats Island are the worse I’ve seen anywhere in the Arctic. They wake you up in the morning, pattering on the windows. Their momentum is so strong that you can sometimes lean forward slightly over the cliff and have them hold you upwards. But being a biologist at Coats is nowhere near as bad as being a Murre, at least for those Murres that nest near the top of the cliffs. On hot, windless days, their feet will look like they have fur boots, as they are covered with mosquitoes. To cool down, the birds pump blood to their feet; which is one of the few parts of their body that is exposed. The mosquitoes take full advantage”.

After my chat with Dr. Elliot, I went out and bought a bug net to cover my sleeping bag. I react pretty aggressively to mosquitoes, so hopefully I won’t end up one giant itchy mass of bites.

Here’s a Toast to bug spray! May it be my fighting chance against lethal parasitism.

-Many thanks to Dr. Kyle Elliot for sharing his “field experience in the arctic”

Polar Bear with Penguins
Some unfortunate individuals even get attacked by polar bears if their nests are within climbing reach. Not exactly paradise for the Thick-billed Murre! Photo courtesy of Kerrie Woo

You can read a review of Dr. Elliot’s work in the Nunastiaq online paper:

Or the full paper here:

Polar Bear with Penguins
Photo courtesy of Kerrie Woo
Polar Bear with Penguins
Photo courtesy of Kerri Woo


KEEN to support research


If you’re a biologist like me, 9 times out of 10 you most likely do it because you love it. Why else would be risk; being a polar bear snack, getting skin cancer from the Sahara Desert or having a snake in your sleeping bag? Whatever your specialty, you forego some comforts for the work that you love.

My dad always says, “to get the job done right, you need to have the right tools”. So, passion aside, I gotta have the right tools to get ‘er done. My dad also says (clearly a wise man) that, “cold and or wet feet destroys the outdoor experience”. You aren’t going to walk very far if you have uncomfortable feet. Understandably, during the field season everyone is checking out each other’s tooties asking, “What you wearin’?”, and rating their own hiking boot experience out of five stars.

Notebooks and key chains from KEEN
Notebooks and key chains from KEEN

I’m excited to announce that KEEN Canada is supporting arctic research and supplying me and a team of technicians each a pair of their hiking boots. KEEN Canada and KEEN USA have graciously offered support for our tootsies and will feature this blog on their webpages. I also received great durable KEEN notebooks for in the field and token KEEN mini-shoe key chains.

Clad in KEEN, you’ll find me and the team romping the V17 UTM on Southampton and Coats Island Nunavut for the summer months. I’m thrilled to have KEEN as part of our arctic adventures. Thank you KEEN!

Crew T-Shirts

Crew T-Shirts

This year I’m making shirts for the research crew. I carved an image into a rubber stamp and printed the design using an ink roller. The plan is to paint and stamp this image onto t-shirts. This is year one of the study. I’m really looking forward to making the shirts for this summer! T-shirt and stamp colours TBD.


Preparing for somewhere you’ve never been

Lisa in a sleeping bag

These days I feel a little like Alice in Wonderland, only I intuitively know I’m about to drop down the rabbit hole. Now, taking that feeling, imagine someone saying, “Write a research proposal 40 pages long and plan the next four years of your life”. Hmmmm…..challenge accepted!

Step 1: Open Google Images, search “arctic”……not helpful, all I see is snow.

Lisa in cozy sleeping bag
Snow in summer? No problem, got the super cozy sleeping bag.

Step 2: Silent thanks that I work at a University and have access to a wonderful library with paid subscriptions to countless scientific journals. Time to start reading.

How do I write a research proposal and plan a three year experiment for a place I’ve never been?

Step 3: Use my imagination.

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve envisioned myself camo clad and poised on the arctic tundra, confidently conducting a perfectly designed first field season. Like Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, I will spread my arms and call to my feathered friends, “Come, receive a leg band and a radio transmitter! Whisper your secrets into my ear.”.

Step 4: News flash, time to rethink data collection.

All kidding aside, things have been going really well. My supervisors have been nothing but encouraging and my excitement has been building.

**Once my first field season is over, I’ll come back to this spot and comment. Who knows, maybe I’m the next bird whisperer? Doubtful, but I’m staying positive.

Step 5: Read A LOT, then….write two sentences.

Watch youtube videos in between reading bouts. I recommend funny puppy videos but really, anything light will work. Are you stuck in a writing phase? This one will help you forget that overwhelming feeling of, “I’m PROBABLY going to have to rewrite this entire document”.

Lastly, this is the most important step.

Step 6: Befriend someone who has actually been to the arctic.

This is the person whom you can ask those questions you feel silly asking your supervisor, for example, “how many days is the socially acceptable time frame to go without bathing?” or “Can I bring my coffee maker?”.

Obviously, we all know that determining coffee availability is the most important thing in order to prepare you for somewhere you’ve never been.