The Secret Love Life of Painted Turtles

Here’s a video I produced about Patrick Moldowan (a Laurentian biology masters student) and his turtle research. The video won Best Picture at the 2013 Laurentian’s Annual Eagle Awards Gala.

Food insecurity and Facebook

Things that usually clutter facebook newsfeeds: cat videos, instagram pics and party invitations. And increasingly, at least in Nunavut’s capital city, caribou carcasses.

In a startling shift away from the long-rooted Inuit custom of sharing food among families, a growing number of opportunistic northerners are instead using facebook to sell their traditional food.

 Iqaluit Sell/Swap, an open group on the popular social networking site, serves primarily as a convenient place to auction off old children’s clothes or fix-er-up cars. But lately, some members have been offering up bounty from their latest hunting trip such as caribou or arctic char – for a price.

 It’s an avarice born of desperation.

 Warmer winters have led to unpredictable and dangerous ice conditions, taking their toll on traditional hunting. For Inuit who don’t have the money to supplement the shortages with store-bought food this means long months of never-full stomachs and mental stress.
The winter of 2010/2011 was particularly hard. McGill graduate student Sara Statham, 24, wanted to find out how vulnerable the climatic changes (freeze-up came about two months later than average) would leave the impoverished neighbourhoods in Iqaluit. At the International Polar Year conference in Montreal this week, Statham presented her findings.

In addition to the strained sharing networks – which is the Inuit’s traditional way of dealing with food shortages – she discovered that 54 percent of publicly-owned households did not have enough money to buy store food and could not get country food. Previously, only 46 percent of households had reported the same.

“One week… we had no food. We only had one dried noodle pack for 4 people. We can’t live like that,” Statham recalls the mother of one young Inuit family telling her. However, Statham said she found that while environmental changes had some impact on the vulnerability of Iqaluit’s poor, there were larger socio-economic issues that were affecting food insecurity.
Food and water insecurity have been highlighted at the conference as one of the major issues facing northern communities.
Previously published on Canadian Geographic’s blog; April 27, 2012

NB researchers monitor invasive tunicates

Lurking just across the St. Croix River, an invasive species with a deceptively innocent name has slowly been making its way toward New Brunswick, and it has some researchers worried.

The pancake batter tunicate, which resembles its namesake, blankets everything from docks to sea floors and poses a threat to the local ecosystem’s diversity, Jennifer Martin said. She is the lead researcher on a team of scientists and divers that will head to Campobello Island and Deer Island at the end of the month to spend two days monitoring the spread of the species that has been causing problems for north-eastern American states since it first snuck into the area aboard a mussels ship from Japan.

Tunicates, also known as sea squirts, are invertebrate filter-feeders that can largely carpet ocean floors. They usually move around by hitching a ride on something faster, such as a boat.

“It can smother and out-compete anything that is in our natural environment,” Martin said.

The researchers at the St. Andrews Biological Station have been monitoring the spread since 2009. At last inspection it was growing on pontoons and wharves in Eastport, Maine. They haven’t yet seen it in New Brunswick waters.

But Martin said it wouldn’t be a big jump to make. The two sides have nearly identical environments.

In late September, St. Andrews researchers will lead a diving expedition to Eastport, where they will study the invasive species to determine if there has been any progress since last year.

The researchers from St. Andrews Biological Station will be joined by counterparts from Halifax, Montreal and P.E.I., as well as some partners from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Maine.

This year will be their biggest team yet, at about 14 people in total, Martin says.

While species that get buried beneath its quarter-inch shell still seem to be able to breathe, the tunicate impedes growth. It can also latch itself to and weigh down fishing gear, aquaculture structures and buoys.

Unfortunately, Martin said there’s not a lot people can do once it’s there. They can scrape it off surfaces with a paint chipper, but this poses possible threat of spreading it further.

On Sept. 27 and 28, divers will go down during low tides, when the current is calm, to take photographs of the species and retrieve samples, which will be taken to the lab for study. They will also drag for scallops, which will likely haul up some of the tunicates at the same time, if present.

Tunicates can also be monitored by deploying collectors (plates) attached to floating docks or buoys.

In recent years, there has been increased efforts to study the invasion of aquatic species, as international trade expands and more vessels enter the Bay of Fundy.

To date, the Bay of Fundy tunicate monitoring program has provided evidence that the golden star tunicate, and the vase tunicate are present in the Bay of Fundy.

The pancake batter tunicate has been observed on the U.S. portion of Georges Bank and in northern Maine, including Eastport in Passamaquoddy Bay. But as Martin said, nature knows no political boundaries.

Previously published by the Telegraph-Journal; Sept. 1, 2011

East N.A. coast among places that merit protection

The waters around New Brunswick and along the northeast American coastline have been cited in a new study as being among the top nine marine places in the world that merit protection.

The study criteria looked at how many marine mammal species are there, how rare they are, and how at risk they are from human influence.

While 20 sites were highlighted worldwide, the report’s authors determined that by preserving just 2.5 per cent of the ocean, they could protect the vast majority of marine mammal species.

“We’re in a very important species extinction crisis,” researcher Gerardo Ceballos said in a telephone interview.

Like all the hot spots, eastern Canada is at a medium to high level of dangerous human impact, Ceballos said. He and Sandra Pompa Mansilla co-authored the study from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

They worked on the study for four years with a fellow researcher at Stanford University and published the paper in the Aug. 16 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The key sites seem to congregate in upwelling oceanic areas, where cold currents meet warm ones. These often produce areas of high primary production, which are good feeding grounds for marine mammals.

Southern New Brunswick, which is known for its whale-watching industry, serves as the summer home of the right whale, an endangered species that was pinpointed as one of the animals of particular concern by the scientists. Other species frequenting the Fundy area are the minke whale, the humpback whale, the finback whale and white-beaked Dolphins, among other species.

Although they are known to visit, it’s considered rare to see a blue whale, sperm whale, killer whale or beluga whale.

Marine mammals provide some of the best-known cases of population and species extinction through overexploitation, the study states.

For the North Atlantic, the study lists the whale-watching industry, toxic waste dumping and vessel collisions with whales as the most dangerous threats to the rich marine population in the North Atlantic.

The researchers are the first to combine various habitat maps of marine mammals around the world into an all-inclusive map showing the hot spots, Mansilla said from her university office in Mexico.

But Ceballos said their study “is a guideline for some of the most important places … but it doesn’t mean that the rest of the areas shouldn’t be taken into account.”

The other nine sites are located off the coasts of Baja California in Mexico, Peru, Argentina, northwestern Africa, South Africa, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Of the 129 species of marine mammals on Earth, including seals, dolphins and polar bears, approximately 25 per cent are facing extinction, the study said, ranging from being considered vulnerable to critically endangered.

Previously published by the Telegraph-Journal; Sept. 6

Oak Island treasure: the search renews

Click to Enlarge
Photo: Archives of Nova Scotia This 1938 photo shows one of the treasure dig pits on Oak Island, off Nova Scotia’s south shore. A group is using technology on the island to locate secret underground tunnels that may lead to fabled pirate’s treasure.

In a renewed bid to uncover the elusive and mystical treasure believed by man to be buried deep within Oak Island off Nova Scotia’s south shore, a group of treasure hunters is using electrical currents to detect secret underground tunnels

For the past six years, Rick Lagina and four others – including Dan Blankenship, whose lifetime dedication to the island is almost as legendary as the place itself – have been searching for the hidden treasure.

This summer, they put their hopes in technology.

On a hot, cloudless day in early July, they placed a device in the middle of the island that miners, archeologists and environmentalists often use to map underground structures.

Powered by a car battery, the square, greyish-green box zapped 800-volt bursts of energy through attached cords to various points on the island, to depths sometimes the length of a football field.

The method, called electrical resistivity, pulsed electric currents through the earth and recorded how much each area repelled the charge.

Lagina said he hoped to pinpoint spots that were particularly resistant or unexpectedly conductive compared to their surroundings – anything out of the ordinary.

Lagina has been dreaming about the fabled Nova Scotia island ever since he was an 11-year-old living in Michigan. He read a magazine article about the 200-year-old search for the fabled money pit some believe was buried on Oak Island by pirates.

Now 59 years old, Lagina is still dreaming.

After two weeks of gathering data, the team sent the numbers to a geological analyst in Montreal. Lagina said he got the results back three weeks ago.

When asked if there was anything interesting, he paused.

“There are interesting anomalies, yes,” he said. He later added, “There are more than several sites that we are very excited about.”

But the island has a well-documented history of thwarting discovery efforts, Lagina said.

While they were cutting through the brush to make way for their line grid, everything that could go wrong did, he said. The truck’s engine blew, tools went missing, and the resistivity device itself stopped working more than once.

When they phoned the manufacturer in France, the woman on the line said, “‘Can’t happen, never happened, not in the history of the instrument. The unit is incapable of shutting down.’

“Five times it shut down,” Lagina said.

Legend has it that the Oak Island treasure will not be found until seven humans have died trying to find it and all the oak trees on the island are gone. So far the island’s native umbrella oaks have all wilted away, and the treasure hunt has claimed six lives – none of them from Lagina’s crew.

For the rest of the summer, Lagina said he and the others will assess which anomalies show the most promise and warrant further investigation with drilling. They have to be selective because wherever they drill needs to be worth the cash, he said.

They’ve already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, exploring Oak Island (Lagina’s brother Marty – who’s also in on the search – did well in the oil and gas industry). Each new drilling venture costs about the same as a water well, foot for foot.

However, they must do the drilling soon, though; their government-granted treasure trove licence expires in December.

“I wish I had an X-marks-the-spot, but alas, I have no ‘X’.”

While Lagina acknowledged they might not find anything, he said they’re excited about their chances.

“I believe that it will be a fairly rich, to use the word, story of what happened there.”

However, not everyone is so sure.

Alex Storm got into the Nova Scotian treasure hunting business in the 1960s and has had substantial success, finding famous wrecks, such as the French treasure ship Le Chameau. He said he bases all his searching on documentation and verifiable data – something he said Oak Island lacks.

“I don’t think it will work out to anything. It’s just people keeping busy and trying to keep a dream alive.”

But that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Ever since a teenaged Daniel McGinnis came across a curious depression in the ground in 1795, there have been many excavations of the Money Pit – all of which have been fruitless except for the discovery of various booby traps and suggestive bits of metal.

Theories abound as to what might be hidden there, from pirate booty to knights Templar treasure to Shakespeare’s manuscripts.

But Lagina said that for him, it’s more about filling in the blanks of the story and solving the mystery.

“What really happened on Oak Island?”

 

Previously published in the Telegraph-Journal, Aug 22, 2011

Hospitals reuse medical devices to save cash

In a bid to save cash and reduce landfill use, New Brunswick’s largest health network has started reusing medical equipment originally meant to be trashed after first use.

The process though, is completely safe, Nancy Parker said. She is the administrative director for the surgery program at the Moncton hospital.

In the past few months, the Moncton hospital has piloted the initiative, which entered the planning stages about a year ago, she said.

“Patient safety is certainly a priority … we’re confident that every measure and precaution is being taken to lessen any risks for patients.”

The single-use medical equipment, which had been originally labelled as such by the manufacturer, is sent to certified reprocessing companies in the United States. The practice is stringently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Reprocessing” means taking all the necessary steps to ensure the device is safe and ready for another patient. This could include cleaning and sterilizing, functional testing, repackaging and relabelling. The companies are held to the same standards as the manufacturers, Parker said.

The hospital can then buy back the items at a fraction of the original cost – from 30 to 50 per cent less. When a hospital is stocking up on $5,000 ultrasound catheters, the difference can be substantial. The savings can be upward of $100,000 for a single hospital, Parks said.

An added perk, she said, is the “greening effect” of less medical waste gets tossed into landfills.

Other hospitals in the provincial Horizon Health Network will soon be jumping on board and, as far as she knows, Vitalité Health Network has also been working towards third-party reprocessing, Parks said.

Canada has no federal regulation when it comes to reprocessing single-use devices. But some provinces create their own policies. New Brunswick Health did this almost four years ago, when the department sent a bulletin to all of the hospitals in the province indicating they had a year to change their practices.

The new policy, which still stands today, states that only “non-critical” single-use devices can be reprocessed in-house. Hospitals can only reuse a device that has been cleaned at that hospital if it has not been inserted in a body. One example, Parker said, is a compression sleeve, which is fastened around an arm or leg to increase blood flow.

It is the critical and semi-critical single-use items – such as surgical saw blades or the pricey ultrasound catheter – that they must send to third parties for appropriate care.

Until there is Canada-wide regulation, New Brunswick will keep this policy, said Tracey Burkhardt, a communications officer for New Brunswick Health.

A report released in 2008 by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health, stated that New Brunswick hospitals held the Canadian record for most widespread single-use item reprocessing, at 57 per cent. In comparison, the national average was just over 25 per cent, the agency stated.

Parker said she doubts that statistic still holds true today.

Reusing medical devices labelled as single-use by manufacturers is a common practice in hospitals all over the world. Most of the hospitals in Spain and Japan do it (80 per cent and 80 to 90 per cent, respectively), according to a 2010 report in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Science.

Advocates say it is safe if done properly and is good for both the environment and hospital budgets, but there is still controversy surrounding the ethics of it, the journal stated.

Previously published Aug 2, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Scientists try to breed better bees

After suffering hard losses during the worldwide colony collapse, New Brunswick’s bee population seems to be on the mend.

This trend will continue if researchers in Manitoba and Ontario get their way.

Robert Currie is an entomologist at the University of Manitoba. He has partnered with the Ontario Beekeepers Association to breed a better bee. Specifically, a bee with a higher immunity to one of the principal causes of bee colony collapse – the varroa mite. Currie’s lab has been working toward this for the past seven or eight years, he said in an interview.

The theory is simple. Find bees that have particular resistance to the mites and the parasites that go with them, and breed them to pass along and strengthen those characteristics.

When a progress report was done two years ago, researchers found that their selected brood had a higher chance of living than a bunch of regular honey bees that hadn’t been specially bred.

While only 40 to 45 per cent of the unselected stocks survived the winter, about three quarters of Currie’s selected stocks made it through.

In about five years they should have significant overall resistance in Canada’s bees, Currie said. And while he said these bees should be able to integrate into New Brunswick colony’s, Richard Duplain has his doubts. Duplain is the vice-president of the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association and said that what might work for one region might not work in another.

To breed a bee that is completely resistant to the mites is a “laudible goal,” he said, but the chances of it happening are unrealistic.

Currie agrees to an extent.

“If you’re trying to find the silver bullet and trying to say that this is the end-all be-all?…?I think that’s probably not going to be the case,” he said. “But I think what we can do is make significant progress in reducing a lot of the chemical treatment that we’re putting in place and also increasing the survival rate of the bees.”

New Brunswick’s boost in survival rate since 2010 could be due to a favourable position in a cycle of good and bad years, but it’s also partly because many commercial apiarists use Apivar. Apivar is a varroa mite treatment in the form of a rigid polymer strip impregnated with the antiparasitic drug amitraz. It is registered under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and has no effect on the bee, honey or wax.

Other more labour-intensive methods (and thus less popular among commercial apiarists) include wafting the hives with vapour from organic formic and oxalic acids, which are found naturally in honey. This from Fletcher Colpitts, the chief inspector at the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association.

But the mites aren’t the only cause of failing bee colonies.

Other likely factors include increased pesticide use, air pollution and a possible interference of cell phone towers into the bees’ ability to navigate their way home.

It’s normal for some bees to die over the winter, but Canada (and the world) have been dealing with above-average colony losses since 2006. Bees are important because farmers rent them to pollinate their crops, usually blueberries and cranberry fields.

Previously published July 25, 2011; Telegraph-Journal, Times & Transcript

NB med school top of its class

It may just be a year old, but New Brunswick’s medical school already has some of the most advanced technology on the continent. Or at least they’re using it in a most advanced fashion.

As per the usual classroom setting, a professor delivers a lecture and students take notes, ask questions which the professor then tries to answer. The thing is, more than 400 kilometres separate pupil and teacher.

The school is being hosted at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus, but is actually an expansion of the medical school in Halifax, and is formally called Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick. The goal is to give New Brunswick students an opportunity to learn medicine in their own province, but without sacrificing quality of education. By using the high-definition video-conferencing equipment, students get the exact same education as their colleagues in Nova Scotia.

And now they’ve installed the equipment at four hospitals across the province so students completing their clerkship can be equally linked to their peers.

“It’s just a real tremendous improvement,” Pamela Bourque, Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick’s program manager, said of the new installations, which took place in June. The four hospitals are located in Saint John, Fredericton, Miramichi and Moncton.

Each video-conferencing classroom is identical, with grey walls and light grey wall-hangings, medium brown tables, pleasant lighting and carpets with a grey-toned, geometric design. This way, the two parties feel more like they’re in the same room. At the front of the room are three large flat screens. During class, one displays the professor, the second the material, and the third screen shows the other students sitting in Halifax.

Sheldon Wood is going into his second year – or M2 – at the Saint John location. After next year, Wood will start his clerkship at a New Brunswick hospital, where he will be able to take advantage of the new equipment expansion. He admits that he was at first skeptical about not having the professor in front of him, but said he didn’t notice a difference. He said there is no noticeable time gap between a student asking a question in Saint John and a professor responding in Halifax – the broadcast transmission is that instantaneous.

The professor can even see the student, thanks to a table buzzer. There’s one for every two student seats, and when pressed, a camera at the front of the room swivels to point there and the student appears on the screen in front of the professor.

Representatives from other medical schools across the country have already visited Saint John to see and possibly copy the set-up. Ken Lerette is the technical operations manager at Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick and said they’ve given tours to representatives from the University of Toronto and even Saudi Arabia.

The pilot year passed virtually flawlessly, Bourque said. She estimates that if you added up all the time that was used to fix technological problems, they probably only lost about 17 minutes of class time, over five incidents. Two impressive, futuristic central command centres in Saint John and Halifax handle all the troubleshooting and maintenance.

While similar video-conferencing equipment has been used for long-distance education, this is the most advanced system for medical education.

Previously published July 25, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Researchers monitoring salt water in wells

Sea water is gradually seeping into the drinking water wells along the Northumberland Strait, a University of New Brunswick researcher says.

While no one’s gotten sick yet the future looks grim, Kerry MacQuarrie said.

Climate change experts warn of rising sea levels, which have the unfortunate side effect of leaving groundwater sources ruined by salt water intrusion.

MacQuarrie is looking specifically at the coastal community of Richibucto, where the water has a history of being too salty. The two-year project is part of the Atlantic Regional Adaptation Collaborative, which is a branch of a larger federal climate change planning initiative.

“We would say that the issue is definitely there in Richibucto now,” said Robert Hughes, an adaptation co-ordinator at the Department of Environment. Hughes manages the province’s various climate change adaptation programs, which includes MacQuarrie’s salt water intrusion project.

While Richibucto’s water is currently well within the Canadian drinking water standards, studying the case could illuminate possible future problems and solutions, MacQuarrie said. When the water does eventually become too salty, Richibucto could serve as the model for other communities’ action plans.

About a decade ago, Richibucto was forced to abandon a well and drill a replacement in a new location when the salt water intrusion became a real issue. It resolved the problem, but the town’s seaside location still puts it at risk.

While salt is essential to a healthy diet, too much can be dangerous. Sodium and chloride occur naturally in groundwater, but high levels can turn the water corrosive and damage household plumbing, not to mention cause a salty taste.

“You can’t drink seawater, as everyone knows,” Hughes said.

But rising oceans aren’t the only cause. Higher demand for water means excessive pumping and the groundwater doesn’t have time to replenish with fresh rain or snowmelt. With nothing to stand in its way, the lower, denser salt water is suctioned into the well’s reserves.

“The concern is that if salt water really gets into those aquifers, it’s pretty much there. It doesn’t go away again. That groundwater area is no longer useful,” Hughes said.

MacQuarrie is measuring sodium and chloride levels in Richibucto’s wells with his project partner Karl Butler, a geophysicist at UNB.

Working with two of the university’s master’s students, they shoot electric currents about the power of a car battery through the water. Electricity passes through salt water more easily than fresh water, so the measured conductivity indicates daily levels. The technique is well-established and causes no harm to humans or the water, MacQuarrie said.

With their data in hand, MacQuarrie and Butler then create 3D worlds on their computer screens in which they control a well’s hypothetical pumping rate or possible sea-level rise, among other variables, and see the effect. They also assess where the salt water is beneath the surface. Combined, the findings could be the basis for an action plan.

The project ends around next March or April, MacQuarrie said.

Previously published July 20, 2011; Telegraph-Journal