Science & Tech

Blouin-Demers in the field. Image: Gabriel Blouin-Demers/Provided
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University of Ottawa professor Gabriel Blouin-Demers interviewed with the Fulcrum to discuss his research, career and conservation work. 

In his undergrad, Blouin-Demers studied environmental biology at McGill University. Afterwards he was admitted to a direct-entry PhD program at Carleton University, where he studied thermoregulation and habitat use by black rat snakes. Soon after he completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Ohio State University. 

The researcher’s main areas of study include spatial variation in the abundance of ectotherm populations, the evolutionary maintenance of polymorphisms, and applied conservation work by identifying reptile habitats and species at risk. 

The research in spatial density, as explained by Blouin-Demers, “is related to trying to figure out what are the driving factors behind the variation we observe across species.”

“The goal is to understand how animals distribute themselves through space, and why certain habitats have more animals than others. So for instance, we work mostly on reptiles, it could be food abundance, but it could also be availability of basking sites, etc,” he said.

In terms of applications, this could aid in the designing of reserves containing habitats with high population densities rather than low. 

Polymorphs, as Blouin-Demers explained, exist amongst many other plant and animal species. However, the most intriguing ones are those that exist within larger populations. In male lizard populations there are different colour morphs, all of which can have different coloured throats. The researcher studied why these males can coexist, considering the expectation that natural selection would ideally find one optimal coloured throat (phenotype) instead of three. Blouin-Demers says a reasonable hypothesis as to explain this, as worded by Blouin-Demers, is called frequency dependent selection.

 “So [in frequency dependent selection] phenotypes gain a rarity advantage. When phenotypes get rare, they’re favored. And when they become abundant, they’re less favored. So that creates cycles of abundance where a phenotype is rare, it increases in frequency and when it gets common, then it becomes less advantageous. So this hypothesis about maintenance predicts cycles that can be observed and can explain the abundance of polymorphs.” 

One of his major applied conservation projects was one that studied turtle bycatch: “we basically tagged along with commercial fishers to see how they fish, and then we bought the same nets and fished them the same way. What we first documented was how many turtles get caught because freshwater fishers are not mandated to report bycatch. What we first saw was the magnitude of the problem and we found out it was big,” said Blouin-Demers. 

Researchers then began experimenting with the nets to develop modifications to reduce the bycatch of turtles, one of which includes adding a “bycatch reduction device” to the end of the nets to allow turtles to escape before they drown. The escape device was made in a way that the horizontal bars allowed for turtles to escape while containing as many fish as possible due to the fact that fish are flat sideways.  Additionally, the research group found that including a float inside the net provides air space for the turtles which can help reduce the number of turtles drowning. 

When asked if he could provide any insight to students looking to pursue a career in science research, Blouin-Demers responded, “I think taking a variety of courses should help, do you prefer your ecology course or do you prefer your cell biology course notwithstanding who teaches it right, for the for the material itself. I think you have to go with what sort of strikes you as most interesting in your studies and then try to focus on that because otherwise that’s going to be a long long career.”

In terms of the realities of university research, Blouin-Demers added that “a colleague of mine compares it to running a small business and it’s a bit like that. There’s all the more glorious aspects of making knowledge, testing hypotheses and all that but, there’s also a financial aspect, finding the money and administering the money, providing salary for my team in the lab, paying for equipment, repairs, etc. All of this costs money and so keeping the whole affair afloat is a big component that can be stressful because the university is not going to bail you out either, the only thing that university provides me is this office, an internet connection and a phone. So that’s not the romantic view of a scientist with a butterfly net, just you know, having fun in the field.”

In the future, Blouin-Demers is looking forward to continuing his teaching and researching at the University of Ottawa. For more information about Gabriel Blouin-Demers, visit his website here, and, more specifically, his research regarding the development of escape devices inside fishing nets and their efficiency can be found here.