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Canadian Museum of Nature Leads Arctic Expedition to Study Seaweed Biodiversity

Some rarely-studied yet colourful marine life from the coastal waters of Canada’s Western Arctic is the focus of a new research program led by the Canadian Museum of Nature. And SCUBA gear is a must for studying it up close!

The project is led by Dr. Amanda Savoie, a museum research scientist who studies marine macroalgae—what most know of as seaweed, and for which there are three main groups: red, brown and green algae.

The multi-year program kicked off this August, with the first field season extending over five weeks, on the ground and in the water, until Sept. 20. The seaweed research is centred around Cambridge Bay (Iqaluktuuttiaq) on Victoria Island, Nunavut. The community of 1,800 is home to the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, run by Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR), which is collaborating with the museum on the research project.

The on-site research support includes divers to assist with underwater collecting, access to lab space, and the provision of boats and other gear needed to access coastal and offshore study areas.

“Seaweeds are marine superstars. They’re an important part of coastal ecosystems, providing habitat for other ocean life and energy as part of the food chain, but like many marine organisms they are vulnerable to the warming effects of climate change,” says Savoie, who is also the Director of the museum’s Centre for Arctic Knowledge and Exploration. “Getting scientific information about their diversity and their distribution in Canada’s Arctic will offer new knowledge that can help track the impacts of climate change over time.”

To date, there an estimated 175 species of seaweed known in the Canadian Arctic. Savoie says the project will most certainly discover new records for seaweed in the Western Arctic, given that the most recent taxonomic survey dates back more than four decades to the work of museum researcher R.K.S. Lee. His Arctic specimens from the 1960s and 70s, numbering in the hundreds, are now curated in the museum’s National Herbarium of Canada in Gatineau, Quebec.

Savoie and her collaborators will not only be collecting and identifying seaweed species—updating and adding to Lee’s efforts, as well as adding DNA data—but they also hope to map and study the ecology of Arctic kelp forests.

“Finding kelp forests would be really exciting,” says Savoie. She notes that there is evidence of kelp in the area from the Nunavut Coastal Resource Inventory and dredging of the seafloor, but no scientists have yet dived to observe an actual kelp forest.

Joining her as part of the research program is a team of scientists affiliated with the ArcticNet-funded project “ArcticKelp”, as well as others with Laval University and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. To date, the ArcticKelp project has studied and mapped kelp forests in the Eastern Arctic and this partnership will extend the knowledge to the Western Arctic.

Savoie plans to use their expertise, and their experience with Arctic diving, to search for kelp forests around Cambridge Bay. These habitats are like tropical rainforests in that they are hotspots for biodiversity, hosting other seaweeds as well as providing food and shelter for fish and invertebrates.

Savoie’s plan for the inaugural 2022 field season is to establish her field program so she and others can return in the coming years to build on their findings. It’s also notable that this new Arctic research program is launching during the United Nations Ocean Decade for Sustainable Development (2021-30).

Savoie visited Cambridge Bay this spring to meet with community members and the local Hunters and Trappers Organization, where she learned that some in the community are interested in seaweeds as a food source. She is also keen to spend time learning from locals about the marine resources in the area and to incorporate Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (Inuit traditional knowledge) into the research project.

Getting close to these marine superstars means SCUBA diving. And while Savoie is an experienced diver, with experience along Canada’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts, it will be her first time in the colder waters of Canada’s Arctic. It’s a challenge the phycologist is willing to take on as part of the scientific adventure.

Read more about Amanda Savoie and her research projects at https://nature.ca/

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