March 12, 2013
Photo credit: Luther Caverly

From Trout to Turtles

Whether it’s the spawning of sockeye salmon in the Pacific, the metabolic rate of a Bahamian bonefish or the hybridization of largemouth bass in Illinois, when it comes to fish, Carleton University biology and environmental science professor Steven Cooke is fully committed — hook, line and sinker.

As he writes on his website, the Canada Research Chair in Fish Ecology and Conservation Physiology admits, “I love my job, studying fish, writing papers about fishy things . . . and educating the next generation of environmentally literate citizens.”
Committed especially to the emerging discipline of conservation physiology, Cooke’s laboratory focuses on aquatic ecology, conservation biology, physiological ecology, animal behaviour and environmental science.

Its activities range from the study of sunfish in the American Midwest and salmon and trout of British Columbia, to the flats and mangrove communities of the Caribbean.

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His lab is particularly interested in the ecology of stress in wild animals

Steve CookeDisparate as these areas may seem, there are, says Cooke, common problems and challenges experienced by the fish in all these environments. His lab is particularly interested in the ecology of stress in wild animals and applying research results in the field. This could involve examining the interactions going on in fisheries, the consequences of winter, as well as the changes brought about by climate change.

Cooke’s lab is also at the forefront of defining the new field of conservation physiology, which uses techniques to understand mechanisms underlying conservation problems and to evaluate and develop strategies to solve the issues.

In fact, conservation physiology is so topical, says Cooke, that a new journal is being launched this year that will allow physiologists working in applied realms to finally find a home for the significant work they are doing in not only identifying conservation problems, but also in determining causes and effects and throwing out solutions.

The Oxford University Press opened for submissions to the journal Conservation Physiology in January, and the new journal will be officially launched this July in Spain by the Society for Experimental Biology.

As editor-in-chief of the new publication, Cooke recognizes the need for articles relevant to this growing area of interest. Cooke’s first contribution is an article defining conservation physiology.

… as conservation scientists, we need to be doing more than documenting problems. We need to be coming up with solutions

… as conservation scientists, we need to be doing more than documenting problems. We need to be coming up with solutions

The experience these students gain is making them more desirable to potential employers

“In 2006, I wrote a paper called Conservation Physiology, which is where the term was coined. Now the term has been refined and broadened. And we focus more on solutions, rather than just figuring out problems.

Our hope for the journal,” Cooke explains, “is that it will serve as a rallying point for physiologists, and help advance conservation.

“Conservation physiology as a whole is about solutions,” adds Cooke. “We hear a lot of sob stories, but as conservation scientists, we need to be doing more than documenting problems. We need to be coming up with solutions.”

Some projects currently under the microscope are the declining population of Coho salmon in British Columbia’s Fraser River, and the accidental “by-catch” of turtles by commercial fishery activity in Eastern Ontario.
Cooke also speaks to the “easy recruitment” of students to this field. “It’s what students are looking for today. Fundamental science and experimental design, coupled with the fact that the work has real significance in an immediate way. Students can help with the challenges facing our world today.”

The experience these students gain in this kind of applied science is also making them more desirable to potential employers, Cooke points out.

A recent project, provincially funded under the Great Lakes Guardian Community Fund, is allowing student volunteers to participate in hands-on experience towards protecting water quality in the Ottawa River watershed by planting native species and clearing debris from Watts Creek.

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