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DNA samples collected from caribou

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The Ministry of Natural Resources is undertaking research on the “threatened” forest-dwelling woodland caribou in Ontario to confirm their presence, and identify individual caribou through DNA, by collecting pellet samples left by the caribou on the snow.

On Jan. 30, four MNR biologists flew by helicopter to the Slate Islands Provincial Park and stopped at locations that had been randomly selected to collect pellet samples.

“The pellets not only confirm the presence of a caribou at a location, but with new advances in DNA extraction techniques, identify or ‘fingerprint’ that individual caribou,” noted Wabakimi Park biologist Natasha Carr, who made the trip with fellow MNR biologists Ted Armstrong and Hilary Gignac, as well as Steve Kingston, an ecologist with Ontario Parks.

“This non-invasive collection technique is the preferred method of collecting DNA from a species at risk,” she added.

The pellets were sent to Trent University’s forensic lab for analysis, where the DNA is extracted from intestinal wall cells frozen on the coating of the pellets.

From these samples, scientists can understand the genetic relationships of caribou across various locations of the province.

This research will allow caribou managers to better understand the historic and current movements of caribou within Ontario, and how to better manage for the recovery of caribou in the future.

“In addition to improving the understanding of the genetics of caribou across Ontario, these ‘fingerprinting’ techniques may also be useful in estimating the number of animals, especially in areas where caribou are isolated, such as the Slate Islands Provincial Park,” noted Kingston.

“Another flight is scheduled for the Slate Islands at the end of February,” said Gignac. “We will stop at the same locations and collect samples again.

“From these collections, we hope to estimate the woodland caribou population of the Slate Islands.”

Forest-dwelling woodland caribou officially have been listed as “threatened” both provincially and nationally.

The designation is given to a native species that is at risk of becoming “endangered” through all or a significant part of its Ontario range.

The Species at Risk program is the biggest natural heritage protection program in Ontario history.

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