Joanna Wong believes science can help combat the effects of climate change. A Master of Science student at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, Wong is studying the migration strategies of the Arctic Tern. This small bird could have a big impact on a variety of ecosystems through its annual migration, which stretches from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Learning more about this species can help us conserve it.
The Arctic Tern has a lifespan of up to 30 years
The Arctic Tern is the longest migrating species in the animal kingdom, travelling annually from the Arctic to the Antarctic — up to a 90,000-kilometre roundtrip
Fijn et al. 2013
Migratory animals are important to protect because they affect ecosystems along the route of their migration, not just in one area
How does your research relate to climate change?
Scientists are alarmed at the rapid decline of Arctic Tern breeding colonies in the Canadian Arctic. This decline is likely due to habitat loss, human impact and climate-induced changes, such as the loss of sea ice in their breeding and wintering habitats.
My research focuses on understanding the migration strategies of the Arctic Tern. Studying animal movement not only allows us to see where they go but also how they adapt to the environment around them. Knowing the path the Arctic Terns take on their southbound migration, and what influences this choice, can serve as an important baseline for future studies on the impact that climate change has on polar animals.
Why do migratory birds matter?
Migratory birds serve important ecosystem functions. For example, they help disperse nutrients through their excrement, which acts as fertilizer. They provide food for other animals, and they regulate the number of prey in ecosystems.
All of these activities contribute to the healthy functioning and structure of the land and marine ecosystems they pass through. That’s why conserving migratory animals is often more effective than conserving animals that are in one area: migratory animals play a role in every environment they pass through.
However, migratory birds are declining at a significantly faster rate than non-migratory birds, which makes it even more important to manage them. Given the long distance and geopolitical span of the Arctic Tern’s migration, their conservation is particularly challenging. At this point, we don’t know the route these Canadian colonies are taking. So, it’s difficult for us to focus on conservation. However, if we can identify primary routes and key staging sites — where birds stop and rest and feed along the way — then we can prioritize our conservation efforts.
What is your vision for a different future of scientific study?
In natural science, so much of our work is related to conservation or preventing further exploitation and degradation of the environment. Given the current state of the environment and the climate crisis we’re facing, that’s absolutely essential. However, my larger hope is that one day this narrative will change because we won’t have to focus on conservation. We will have figured out how humans can coexist with the natural world, and perhaps the scientific narrative can revert to one of exploration.
What is it like to study science at UBC?
UBC is such a leading university, so it draws a high calibre of scientific researchers. I read the papers of some of these professors and never thought I’d meet them — and then bam! They’re giving your lecture, supervising your work or offering guidance. These are huge scientists in the field and we are so lucky to learn from them.
I came to UBC because I wanted to work with my now supervisor, Marie Auger-Méthé. All of the professors, research associates and grad students here are so passionate about the work they do. Everyone genuinely wants to be there, genuinely loves what they’re doing, and genuinely cares about the environment and believes that their research is going to have an impact. That really inspires me. Everyone is so driven, and that pushes me to do so much more.
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