The toads are calling

January 23, 2015

Biology alumna continues research in her master’s degree

Birds chirping. Wind rustling the leaves. The lap of water against the shoreline of northern ponds. This is the soundtrack of Natasha Annich’s master’s degree at the University of Alberta. But those relaxing nature sounds are more than background noise—Natasha is listening for the now-familiar calls of Canadian and western toads to help ensure a future for these amphibians.

IMAGE_STORY_Natasha_AnnichNatasha honed her frog and toad call identification skills as part of an independent research project during her undergraduate degree in biological sciences at MacEwan University. Working with faculty members Dr. Mrinal Das and Dr. David Locky, she used 60 hours of data from autonomous recording units (ARUs) to help figure out how amphibians are using borrow pits—man-made spaces, generally on the side of the road, that fill with water after dirt is removed for construction—and presented her findings during Student Research Week in 2013.

That project led to her current toad research as part of her Master of Science in Ecology.

“I started my Bachelor of Science knowing that I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” says Natasha. “I followed the courses I loved and then jumped at the chance to do research. And I really enjoyed that aspect of my undergrad degree.”

Using helicopters and ATVs to find toads

Today, Natasha is processing and analyzing the seemingly endless hours of recordings she collected last summer in the boreal forests of Northeast Alberta. She spent last year’s field season flying into wetland sites and navigating an all-terrain vehicle to place ARUs in remote locations.

“We flew out of Fort McMurray in helicopters to deploy these ARUs in locations that haven’t been sampled before for this purpose,” says the now-expert at identifying frog calls. “Most of the work is in large open fens—areas that transport large volumes of water and nutrients across the landscape.”

That means getting wet. “When you’re doing boreal wetland work, you just have to accept that you’re going to get soaked. You’re boots get swamped and it can feel like you’re emptying them every second step. Even so, it’s not a bad way to spend the summer. I really love the field work.”

Analyzing data—patience is a virtue

When Natasha’s boots had dried out and she was back in the lab, it was time to put in her earbuds and sort through the data collected by the recorders which were set to turn on for the first 10 minutes of every hour for a week at a time in each location.

“It’s difficult for people to even imagine how much data we have to work through,” says Natasha. “Undergraduate students in the lab are helping listen for frog calls and we have started building acoustic recognizers to identify the calls of individual species.”

She’s hoping to see if Canadian toads are living in these places, what type of habitat they live in and what resources they need, but there are proving to be so few that she will likely include western toads in the study as well.

“There are only about 20 places where we’ve located Canadian toads in the lower Athabasca area, so far,” says Natasha, adding that listening for the right call can take a lot of time. “When we finally do hear a Canadian toad, it’s a party that day.”

Helping shape the future for amphibians

She’s only a year-and-a-half into her research, but the final results could play a role in making sure the toads’ calls continue to be heard in Northern Alberta.

“The analysis could be used to create further adaptive monitoring techniques that can help determine where development can occur, places to steer clear of and how can we make the landscape more attractive to these species,” she explains.

Until then, Natasha will keep working her way through the recordings and prepare to head out into the wetlands again this summer when the snow melts and the first signs of spring appear.

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