VROC virtually brings a Western expert to the classroom


Dr.Brent Sinclair

Dr. Brent Sinclair will virtually be in the Grand Erie District School Board District to talk about invasive species thanks to the Virtual Researcher On Call (VROC).

By Mitchell Zimmer

Mrs. Norma Bingham’s Grade 6 class at the St. George – German School is learning a unit about species invasion and its threat to biodiversity. The school, just six kilometers north of Brantford, would normally be out of the way for a visit by Dr. Brent Sinclair of Western’s Biology Department. That is where Virtual Researcher On Call (VROC) comes in. VROC is an initiative of Partners In Research which allows students from anywhere across Canada to speak through today’s digital technology to a researcher in an area that is relevant to their curriculum.

Sinclair is preparing a video presentation for VROC “I go into a room with a computer and a camera and they sit in a room over there where they see me being projected. We have a live link and I do a little presentation, we talk, they ask questions and I answer the best I can… it’s basically a way to get one-on-one contact with scientists in places that don’t have easy access to scientists.”

“Invasive species are probably one of the top three big threats to biodiversity," says Sinclair. "The others are habitat destruction and climate change. Part of my research is on invasive species but most of it is on physiology of insects.” Sinclair earned his undergraduate and PhD degrees from Otago University in New Zealand which he says is “just about the invasive species capital of the world, so through my whole education we learned about invasive species and it’s very prominent in New Zealand because you have all of these birds being eaten by mammals.”

If New Zealand is a the capital of invasive species then Ontario is a hot spot. “In Ontario we have a mass of invasive species problems, but they’re not so apparent because they don’t look so different. So you have things like zebra mussels and quagga mussels in the Great Lakes." Sinclair's own work focuses on emerald ash borers but he adds that other invavsive species include the "Asian longhorn beetle, wood wasps, European starlings are effectively an invasive species, rats, housecats.” At first, housecats seem to be out of place in the list but Sinclair explains that feral housecats are a huge problem because they eat native mammals which means they are both competing with other predators and also suppressing the competition populations. “It doesn’t help that people feed cats,” adds Sinclair. “Now you have something called subsidized predators. These populations don’t fluctuate with their prey.”

In the plant world, purple loosestrife has generated a lot of news stories but something that isn’t widely known is garlic mustard. Garlic mustard is insidious in that the roots of this plant exude chemicals that prevent other seeds from sprouting “and that’s how we get these big carpets of it", says Sinclair. “It actually changes the forest structure in Southwestern Ontario.” Getting rid of this plant pest seems easy at first glance since the weed is very easy to pull out, but there is a catch. “When you pull it out, you disturb the soil and garlic mustard grows well in disturbed soil.” So in this scenario, even more seeds germinate. To make matters worse, the seeds endure from ten to fifteen years so eradicating this pest is a long term process. You need to pull this weed for fifteen years before the plant goes to seed, it is only then that “you’ll probably get rid of the garlic mustard seed bank. That’s the scale of the problem you have to deal with these things.” Even though the problem is serious, there are actions prople can take to combat the spread of some invasive species. In the case of the Asian longhorn beetle “you can cut down the trees and then control the infestations.” Sinclair stresses that “it’s really important to institute things that prevent the spread.… There are other simple things that people can do, like not moving firewood.”

To find out more about the Virtual Researcher On Call program, click here.