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Field Note: Finding more than parasites north of 60°

by Demi Gagnon (MSc Student, Department of Biological Science, University of Manitoba)

Quinquerserialis quinqueserialis

As part of my master’s research, I was interested in investigating how geographic isolation influences trematode speciation. I set out to collect specimens from each host in the life cycle (snails, muskrats, and voles) at the northern and southern extent of my study system’s, Quinqueserialis spp., range. However, I did not know how far north this endeavor would take me. In September 2017 we received 42 muskrats from a collaborator, Dr. Jeremy Brammer (Environment and Climate Change Canada), from the Mackenzie River delta in Northwest Territories. After long and seemingly never-ending days of necropsies, we found that muskrats from this region had a 100% Quinqueserialis quinqueserialis infection prevalence, and the highest intensities we had ever encountered! It was then that I knew exactly how far north I would have to go…beyond the arctic circle.

Scott Kasook (left) and Demi Gagnon (right) collecting planorbid snails in the Mackenzie River delta.

Arctic field work requires months of planning and networking with local, territorial, and sometimes federal agencies. Seven months before my collection trip I was sending proposals to agencies, applying for permits, and establishing collaborations. The long process of planning was completely worth the experience. Once I arrived in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, I contacted the Inuvik Hunters and Trappers Committee to hire a local fur trapper to guide me to one of the locations where the muskrats sent by Dr. Brammer were harvested. I got lucky and was out collecting snails in the river delta the next day! My guide, Hank Angasuk, watched me curiously from the boat as I waded into creeks and combed through aquatic vegetation in search of tiny planorbid snails. He would chuckle when I celebrated after finding snails and when I complained about the cold water. Evidently, my field collecting wasn’t that entertaining as the next day he brought a fishing rod. If only Q. quinqueserialis was a fish parasite…

Demi Gagnon setting snap-traps to collect voles.

During my 3-week stay in Inuvik, I worked with two other fur trappers, Ryan McCleod and Scott Kasook. Every day for over a week, I set traps for voles with Ryan. On about the third day, he asked if he could bring his daughter out with us. The next day, Ryan’s daughter tagged along and helped recover voles from traps. I was impressed by Ryan’s daughter’s keen interest in not only learning how to trap animals, but also learn their biology. As we walked along our trapline, she would ask questions about what vole’s ate, where they lived, and why they got parasites. In return, she taught me which berries made for a good snack along our walk.

View from the boat on our way to our trapping location in a tributary of the Mackenzie River.

After my time with Hank and Ryan, my collections were complete at one of my locations of interest, so it was time to move on. For five days, I travelled for two hours by boat into the Mackenzie River delta with Scott Kasook to collect at my next location. This time, after our first day together, Scott asked if his mother could tag along since she had not been out in the delta for a while. Even in the dreary weather, Scott’s mother Rachel made our collection trips a fun event. She would bring us tasty snacks, like smoked inconnu (Stenodus leucichthys), for the boat ride, and point out places in the delta she used to visit as a child. She pointed out one place, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, where there used to be a “store”, where people living throughout the delta could obtain various foods and supplies. Both Rachel and Scott shared my excitement when we recovered voles from the traps and when we found planorbid snails hiding beneath a log submerged in the water. I was extremely lucky to have shared this experience with people who are passionate about the land and about learning. Without their knowledge of the delta, I would not have been able to have successfully collected my specimens at the same locations where the muskrats we originally necropsied were obtained. Each of them taught me that simple things, like snacks or story-telling, can make field work in dreary situations, like 35 F weather, an enjoyable affair. On top of the memories made, I was successful in collections and returned with larval and adult Quinqueserialis specimens, checking off the most northern location in my sampling.

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