Trent Student Spotlight: Michael Peers, Ecological Researcher

Trent University Environmental and Life Sciences Master’s student Michael Peers had an exclusive interview with the Arthur about his two latest studies on the Canada lynx. The studies were published in prestigious journals and publications that captured the attention of the international ecological community.

lynx chillin like a villain

Photos by Michael Peers.

Can you give us a brief description about your studies?

I recently published a paper titled “Evidence for large-scale effects of competition: niche displacement in Canada lynx and bobcat,” which was the lead article of the December 2013 issue of the widely respected journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society.
This study showed that the presence of competition between lynx and bobcats could be observed at large geographic scales and influence species’ environmental selection. If lynx are being displaced to areas of high snow by bobcat, then the future of the lynx might be at risk because these regions are going to decrease in the future due to climate change.

The second publication entitled “Prey switching as a means of enhancing persistence in predators at the trailing southern edge” was published in Global Change Biology, and modeled the future distribution of Canada lynx under climate change, and demonstrated how lynx can continue to persist in the southern range of their distribution. This study showed that habitat in the southern range is becoming less suitable for lynx and, coupled with variation in the response of snowshoe hares, the primary prey for lynx, will lead to mismatched distributions. Lynx will need to diversify their traditional diet and increase reliance on more alternate prey, like red squirrel, to increase persistence in their southern range.

What are the major implications of these studies?

If species can compete and influence where they exist at continental scales, it is important to determine the responses of species to climate change. If we assume that it is only climate that influences the large-scale distribution of species, then ranges are going to predictably shift with climate change.

However, if interactions with other species are highly important, then it is going to make projections a little cloudier. It’s hard to determine exactly what is going to happen to lynx under climate change if other species are influencing their occurrence at the large-scale.

The most recent paper expands on this concept taking into account prey species in climate change modeling. If our observation, that increased reliance on alternate prey increases the persistence probability of predators in the southern range, then we must gain a better understanding of the potential for species to adapt to changing conditions.

Could you comment on the accuracy of the study?

It’s hard to determine accuracy without actually going into the field. There is minimal uncertainty in our results, but since it utilizes computer modeling, we will actually have to go into the field to prove the accuracy of the models. However, the main importance of this research is the theoretical examination of how species interact, and how these interactions may affect responses to climate change to direct future research. I am not conducting an actual research study in the field, but I propose that it should happen, and hopefully someone does it.

Could you briefly explain the process of the research?

The foundation of the research was conducted using species distribution modeling, where climate variables are compared with species presence data to determine the suitable habitat of a species. In the climate change modeling, we take this suitable habitat and project it under future climate to determine how species’ ranges might shift.

How did you become interested in these ideas?lynx face

During my Honour’s thesis here at Trent, we were working on distribution modeling, and we were modeling lynx and bobcat distributions trying to test if they were competing at large-scales. This was a topic of interest for my supervisors, and we had two species familiar with the laboratory with historical evidence of competition. It was a good system for examining competition on large scales.

During this time, I came across numerous studies estimating the impacts of climate change on species, using techniques I became familiar with. Examining lynx persistence in their southern range was an idea I had discussed with fellow lab members and supervisors, and I decided to conduct this project for a graduate class during the first year of my Master’s. I am very interested in examining climate change effects on species and understanding what communities might look like in the future, lynx being a specialist predator of snowshoe hares while having an alternate prey set up a perfect system to test these questions.

Did you come across any challenges while doing the research?

There are many different parameters and decisions to make while developing these models that can make it difficult. The best way to go about it is reading what has been done previously, and being able to justify everything you do and have an ecological reasoning for why you came to certain conclusions. Luckily, fellow researchers helping me on these projects had valuable expertise in the subject, and I think we made the right choices during this process. Once we gathered our results, they seemed very clear, and the next difficulty was finding the correct way to present the data and getting the message across the best way possible.

What are your future research plans?

After graduating from Trent University, I plan on pursuing a Ph.D., examining the impacts of climate change on species, and, more importantly, how changing temperatures will impact ecological communities.

Do you have any last message?

My research interests examine the effects of climate change on species and determine ways to manage ecosystems in the future. However, the only way to improve the future of species like Canada lynx is to reduce our carbon footprint and implement policies that reduce the impact and severity of climate change.

About Ugyen Wangmo 87 Articles
Ugyen Wangmo is a self trained media personal, steadfast to 'right to information'. She has about six years of media experience through a variety of roles as Reporter, Editor, Stringer, and Freelance writer. She graduated from Trent with a degree in Chemistry and Biology. When not nosing around for leads to write a thing or two about, she indulges in books, fashion, and dance.