Notable Courses: Behavioural Ecology

“Notable courses” is a blog series in which we will highlight some of the amazing courses offered at Quest University Canada. We talked to the tutors and students about their classes and gathered some pictures to illustrate what the students were up to during the block. This time we talked to Chris Neufeld about his Behavioural Ecology class.

Here is what he said:

The basic premise of this course is simple: observe just about any creature for a little while, and you’re guaranteed to see something interesting. Whether it’s a hummingbird arriving from half-way around the world fueled only by nectar, a whale singing to its cousin across an immense ocean basin, or  a tiny bee doing an elaborate dance upon arriving back at the hive, animals do some remarkable things.

Photo cred: Chris Neufeld.

To discover how these behaviours evolve, a keen observer must study the interactions between an organism and its environment, but these observations are not always easy. In Behavioural Ecology, students explore some of the stranger and more wonderful examples of animal behaviour, they learn the principles behind how these behaviours arise, and they hone their skills as budding scientists by studying animal behaviour in the wild.

Photo cred: Chris Neufeld.

In the first week of the course, students learn some of the important theories that underpin the study of animal behaviour, and they hone their observational skills by studying some of the more common animals close to home.  Once sufficiently trained, they embark on a trip to a remote island to fully immerse themselves in the world of animal behaviour. During this week-long field trip, students practice their skills as budding naturalists by study some aspect of animal behaviour first-hand, often spending long days in the field sitting, watching carefully, and recording what they see. In the evenings students recount the days’ observations around a fire before retiring to their tents to get some much-needed sleep.

Photo cred: Chris Neufeld.

The best research can be tedious but the payoffs can be huge. Careful students may find themselves endlessly repeating the same tasks and generating reams of data requiring careful analysis. In 2015, students were able to study the behaviour of wolves, sea otters, countless marine invertebrates, and some fascinating coastal birds while exploring the coastal environment by foot, by speedboat, and by kayak.

Photo cred: Chris Neufeld.

During the most recent offering, students were fortunate enough to see indirect evidence of a novel interaction between two top predators: coastal wolves eating sea otters. With the help of their instructor, two students in this class are adapting aspects of this research into their Keystone projects, the Quest equivalent of an undergraduate thesis, with the hope of combining their findings into a scientific publication.

Photo cred: Chris Neufeld.

Not all students in this class will go on the become scientists. For those that do, classes like these will help build the foundation for a career of scientific discovery. For those that don’t, simply experiencing the process of building new knowledge about the natural world may give them a new perspective on the hard-fought scientific knowledge we rely on every day.



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