Faculty of Science

Tracking Biodiversity in the Boreal Zone

The Boreal zone is Canada’s largest ecosystem and is responsible for roughly half of the country’s annual timber harvest.  Even though this region makes up almost one third of the nation very few details are known about how this ecosystem works. Thanks to an Ontario Early Researcher Award, Western Biologist Zoë Lindo can now begin to tease out the links between the biodiversity and the ecological function of the region. She is looking at how climate change factors such as elevated temperature and elevated levels of CO2 affect below ground processes and biodiversity in peat land systems.

Boreal foreat

At the edge of the peatland in the Boreal Zone

One of the first steps in this research is finding out just what species are below ground. The award will pay for five new graduate students and undergraduate students who are interested in becoming experts in classifying different organism groups.  “My goal is to train regional, if not, potentially national or global experts in certain taxonomic disciplines,” says Lindo. While she works on mites, one of her students will work on a precursor to insects known as springtails.  Another student is working on nematodes, these tiny worm-like bodies which are the most abundant organism on Earth in terms of biomass. Lindo adds, “we have no taxonomic experts in Canada working on any of these groups. There are very few people left who do this kind of work.”

One of the ways to see how an ecosystem is developing is to look at the different body sizes of the species which live there. This is something that is easy to measure and patterns emerge when the whole community is studied. “Typically, there are more small bodied organisms than large bodied organisms. At the same time we know that when a species is under disturbance it is the large bodied organisms that are more extinction prone.” They are usually the first ones lost out of the system and so the relationship shifts where there are proportionally more small bodied organisms than large bodied organisms.

“Some of the previous work has shown that when we have loss of some of these larger bodied predator species this changes how nitrogen moves through the system and how carbon is stored in the system,” says Lindo. At the same time, this dynamic system is going through a number of other changes all at once.  Species go extinct; or adapt either behaviourally or through successive generations and new organisms move into the system. As these processes are underway novel communities emerge full of species which may or may not have ever interacted with each other before.  So far changes have been seen in the carbon/nitrogen dynamics but work remains on finding the mechanism which leads to those changes.

Understanding carbon budgets is critical to raising awareness within government in order to develop interest in anything that is going to affect carbon sequestration and forest productivity.

There is also work to be done on the nitrogen side of the equation. Lindo is exploring the function of nitrogen fixing cyanobacteria, given that they are taking unavailable nitrogen out of the atmosphere, and bringing it into the soil system. The outcome is the large biomass seen in trees. What has yet to be established is the transfer mechanism of nitrogen from the bacteria to the root system in a variety of climatic conditions.

“I became interested in this area of research when I was a Masters student, at a time when biodiversity ecosystem function work was very new. With this award I will be able to delve into questions that have inspired my curiosity for more than a decade.”