U of S researcher tracks impact of Saskatoon’s growth on wildlife

Young Innovators: “We are currently in a global biodiversity crisis as more and more species become extinct every year.”

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A city’s growth inevitably means changing the natural environment to meet human needs, but urbanization comes at the expense of the species that inhabit those landscapes, says Katie Harris, a graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan.

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Urban sprawl, the outward growth of a city as new roads, housing developments, subdivisions, and business districts are built, happens rapidly and represents near-permanent environmental changes.

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“One important ecological consequence of urban growth is biodiversity loss,” said Harris, who is working on a doctorate in animal and poultry sciences at the U of S College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

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Biodiversity and biodiversity areas are extremely important for many reasons, including general human health and well-being, as well as environmental health and sustainability, she said.

“However, biodiversity loss is now happening at a faster rate than at any time since the last historic extinction event millions of years ago, and we currently find ourselves in a global biodiversity crisis as more and more species become extinct every year.”

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Her research focus is to uncover what species call Saskatoon home and how they use the city amid urban development and near-constant change.

Harris placed motion-activated cameras at various locations in Saskatoon and captured 21,000 photos of approximately 10,000 wildlife sightings from September through December 2021.

The study is the first of its kind in Saskatoon to provide a large-scale, year-round platform for monitoring urban wildlife. The data collected will be used to build a Saskatoon city wildlife database, which can serve as a basis for studying trends and patterns in wildlife occurrences over time.

The first set of photos identified 18 species, including black bears, porcupines, long-tailed weasels, elk and beavers. Harris said the most common species found within Saskatoon city limits are white-tailed rabbits, red foxes, mule deer and coyotes.

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“My preliminary analyzes show how important connectivity of urban habitats and wildlife corridors — land areas that allow an animal to move from one unconnected patch to another — are to wildlife biodiversity, with the least connected sites accounting for very little.” level of biodiversity,” Harris said.

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“In addition, most wildlife species have shifted to behave primarily nocturnally as a coexistence adaptation for life in densely populated urban areas.”

Harris said another interesting adaptation she’s observed in urban settings is “human shielding” — a phenomenon that refers to prey staying in areas of human activity because there’s less risk of encountering a predator species is.

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Her project will continue collecting data through the end of 2023, but Harris hopes the monitoring platform will continue to monitor Saskatoon’s urban wildlife for decades to come. Her project is led by U of S Associate Professor Dr. Ryan Brook (PhD) supervised.

“I come from a small northern community, The Pas, Manitoba, where I was raised to appreciate and protect our natural resources and what they offer us,” Harris said.

“Most people – myself included before I started this project – are really unaware of the number of species we share the city with. It was incredibly enlightening and at times humbling to not only be able to discover this other world, but also to be able to share it with others.”

The study was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and numerous partner organizations including the U of S, City of Saskatoon, Meewasin Valley Authority, Wild About Saskatoon, Saskatoon Forestry Farm Park and Zoo, Wanuskewin Heritage Park, and the Saskatoon Nature Society.

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This content is powered by a partnership between the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the University of Saskatchewan.

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