Category Archives: Outreach project

Just Another Seal? A look at the Northern Fur Seal

Climate change is a looming reality that we are all faced with. We are all aware that the earth is warming, but what you may not have considered, is how animals and their habitats will be affected. In this article we will look at how the results of climate change may influence Northern Fur Seals and their conservation.

So what is a Northern Fur Seal?

Northern Fur Seal

Northern Fur Seals are marine mammals who differ from other seals in that they have a thick fur coat. They eat mostly squid and fish such as pollock, herring, and anchovies. Their habitat ranges in the North Pacific from the coast of California, up to the Bering Sea and over to Russia and Japan. They spend their winter at sea, while during the summer they migrate to islands such as the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea to breed.

In the past the population of Northern Fur Seals has faced many challenges. They were commercially hunted for their fur which resulted in almost wiping out the species. Here an audio clip of our podcast which explains the how Northern Fur Seals were affected by the Fur Trade.

Seal FM Radio Podcast

 As you have heard in the podcast, despite the fact that Northern Fur Seals are no longer hunted, their population is still declining. It has been estimated that since 1998 there was has been an annual decrease in their population by about 6%.  One possible factor which may greatly affect their ability to survive is climate change. Northern Fur Seals are only able to live in a specific temperature zone, without expending energy. This ability to convert stored energy into a warming or cooling mechanism is called thermoregulation. We interviewed Dr. Rosen, a researcher at the UBC Marine Mammal Research Unit to learn a bit more about how thermoregulation works:

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As you have learned from our video, thermoregulation is a factor essential to the survival of Northern Fur Seals. However, in view of the changing climate they may be forced from their natural habitat. This would additionally affect the distribution of their prey, potentially making it much harder for them to obtain food. Can you imagine how difficult it would be if your grocery store kept moving to a new location without you knowing?

Julia, Vishav, David and Rubeen

DNA Barcoding: The Blueprint for Fungi and Beyond

Whether it is taking antibiotics to combat bacterial infections, relaxing at home sipping on drinks like wine or beer, or simply baking a delicious loaf of bread, we have fungi to thank.

At the University of British Columbia, Anna Bazzicalupo and her team are hard at work uncovering the mystery that are fungi. The importance of Anna’s research on fungi cannot be understated. Some of humanity’s most important innovations have utilized fungal research. One critical example is the discovery of the antibiotic Penicillin, perhaps the greatest innovation of the modern medical world. Anna’s research is crucial in finding new species and even lineages of fungi that we’ve never before stumbled upon. Applications of fungal research do not end there, as right in our classroom another Scientific Outreach team is studying the ways in which fungi might be the key to solving malaria.


Check out this podcast to learn more about Fungi:

A class of life we know very little about, fungi are gold mines for researchers like Anna. So what is it that Anna and her team is doing to mine these mines?

Anna Bazzicalupo at work. Photo by Jessy Duhra.

To dig into the specifics of the research, Anna and her team of researchers are studying fungal communities by examining the Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)  of fungal samples through what is known as next generation sequencing. To fully appreciate the value of this technique, we must recognize that DNA, the specific fingerprint for every form of life on Earth, is perhaps the best way to identify an organism. Next generation sequencing works by gathering a test sample and getting in return the entire collection of DNA strands that are in the sample. The video below gives a more detailed overview of the research:

Anna Bazzicalupo, armed with the weapon that is next generation sequencing, is on a mission to open the floodgates of fungal applications. With over five million species of fungi and many new species yet to be discovered, the possibilities of its applications are essentially limitless. We are headed in the right direction thanks to Anna and her team’s hard work on digging the fungal gold mine.

 Jessy, Kevin, Shamim, Sydney

The Sharp Truth of the Hook

An alien planet lives closer than we ever would’ve expected. Not far beneath the surface of the water lies a mostly undiscovered world, complete with its own set of aliens.

Leafy Dragon (Photo Courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons)

Coral reefs may look like they don’t belong on our own planet, but this world is not as isolated as we may think. In fact, our actions, above and below water, can have drastic consequences on their world.


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The Giant Clam is only one of many species being affected by human activity. Coral reefs and their marine inhabitants around the world are in serious danger of being lost forever. Unfortunately, it has already begun to happen. Reefs face

Giant Clam (Photo Courtesy of: Monica Leslie)

many challenges today, including increasing sea temperatures due to climate change as well as increasing ocean acidity. In addition, pollution and larger sediment loads on the reefs are also causing stress to the ecosystem. However, according to Krista Greer, it is overfishing of these reef ecosystems that often push them over the edge. Greer, a researcher for The Sea Around Us Project says:

“There are all sort of outside stresses, [and] maybe the reef can handle one or two of them, but when you also add overfishing, there’s a breaking point.”

We often think of commercial and industrial fishing as being the major cause of overfishing, but even smaller scale fishing practices can impact the ecosystem.  Due to this manner of thinking, many places around the world are unaware that they’re fishing to a point beyond what is sustainable for the reef. This is the case with many island communities, such as Cocos (Keeling) Island.

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Although not every species is affected by human fishing activity, the loss of even a single species can lead to an overall decline of ecosystem health. Overfishing is the final straw that can cause the delicately balanced ecosystem of coral reefs around the world to collapse.

Cocos (Keeling) Island Locals (Photo Courtesy of: Saripedia)

The first step in remedying this situation is implementing appropriate management of fisheries throughout the world. However, it is not enough to simply create laws and policies regarding fishing. Education is crucial, especially in small island communities as the local people need to understand the consequences of their actions. Krista Greer says,

“In order for it to actually work … they need the local population to be on board. They’re not going to be there to watch and regulate and enforce, so they need … the local population to do that.”

A global effort is needed if we are ever to start on the road to recovery. If our current actions don’t change, we risk losing this mysterious and enchanting world forever, before we have a chance to fully discover it.  Can we really live with the sharp consequences that our hooks cause? 

-Monica Leslie, Richelle Eger, Justin Sidhu

Audio Credits:
Sound Effects/Music Courtesy of:  iMovie, Garage Band                                   Narrated By: Richelle Eger

Perfect Pitch by Popping a Pill?

Have you ever wanted to win that karaoke contest on Saturday night, but just couldn’t seem to stay on key?

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Commons: Encore Entertainment

Well, you may be in luck! Researchers have recently found that you can learn how to detect and produce absolute pitch, even as an adult, with the help of a pill.  In this study it was demonstrated that the ability to achieve absolute pitch could still be learned as an adult (with the aid of a pill) even though there is normally a critical period (usually early in life) for being able to learn this type behaviour.

Absolute pitch is the ability to identify or produce a tone without the aid of any reference tone and it is estimated that only 1 in 10,000 people actually have the ability to do this. Although it is believed to be a genetic trait, it was previously thought that if absolute pitch  was not learned during the critical period (from birth until around age 7) that it could never be obtained. However, with the help of a medication this critical period can be reopened and allow us more time to learn absolute pitch.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Commons: Yngve Bakken Nilsen

Valproate, or valproic acid is normally used to treat epilepsy, bipolar disorder and migraine headaches. However, in the study mentioned earlier it was individuals taking valproate that were able to learn to identify pitch significantly better than individuals taking a placebo. Takao Hensch, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University, says: 

“It’s quite remarkable since there are no known reports of adults acquiring absolute pitch.”

Valproate is thought to be able to achieve these results by modifying the brain’s plasticity to a more juvenile state. As we age, our neuroplasticity decreases and that’s what causes these critical periods to exist. So, a higher plasticity in adulthood allows us to learn things we were once only able to learn as a child. It makes the brain “young again”.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Commons: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

What does this mean? Well, being able to win that karaoke competition may only be the start of it. Critical periods exist for a wide variety of other things including language development. This discovery could also potentially enable us to learn new languages more effectively. The possibilities are truly endless.

However, Takao Hensch warns:

“…Critical periods have evolved for a reason and it is a process that one probably would not want to tamper with carelessly … If we’ve shaped our identities through development, through a critical period, and have matched our brain to the environment in which we were raised … then if we were to erase that by reopening the critical period, we run quite a risk as well.”

Although this finding seems to have incredible potential, would winning karaoke really be worth losing part of your personality?