A Nova Scotia biologist is developing a project to assess the impact of big environmental changes on white-tailed deer — by examining tiny components their livers.

Russell Easy, a biology professor at Acadia University, told CBC's Information Morning that by analyzing changing proteins in deer livers, scientists will be better able to understand how environmental change affects deer on a molecular level.

"We look at the DNA and the proteins," he said. "So what I'm interested in is how are those proteins are changing in response to changes in the environment, and that will give us a good indication of the health of the animal."

Help from hunters

Easy isn't working alone in his research. He said Nova Scotia hunters have been "fantastic," contributing both samples and information to the project.

"They've been very helpful."

Participating hunters fill out a "deer diary" describing the size and condition of the deer they kill. Hunters are also asked to collect and freeze a small sample of liver.

Easy said the purpose of the research is not to restrict hunting, adding the Department of Natural Resources estimates the provincial population of white-tailed deer at around 75,000. 

"It's actually quite healthy," he said.


A sample vial for hunters collecting liver samples from white-tailed deer (Submitted by Russell Easy)

Mobile population

But Easy said the population is mobile, and his research hopes to address what environmental factors deer face as they move around the province, as well as how those factors influence the health of the animals. 

Easy said dry conditions over this past summer could be one example of the changing conditions that affect deer at the molecular level.

"So in a drought conditions, deer may have to move to a different location: what does that mean?" he said.

"That means changes in the predator/prey ratios, maybe changes in the diet they're eating, which again, [causes] a chain reaction of events to the effect that they're producing new proteins and different proteins, and we can identify those in the liver."

Research continues

The research initially started as an investigation of the effects of 2015's harsh winter.

Like humans, deer produce certain proteins when they're stressed. 

Easy said right now, his lab is examining samples to determine which proteins can be associated with environmental changes such as the winter of 2015 or summer of 2016.

The research hasn't reached any conclusions yet, but Easy said he hopes it will answer questions about a population on the move.

With files from CBC's Information Morning