Quirks and Quarks

Projectile vomiting birds are among the challenges in studying arctic lakes

A scientist was surprised by the results of lake sediment core samples from Cornwallis Island in the high Arctic, but not as surprised as he was to get covered in bird vomit

Arctic lake sediments can tell researchers a lot, as long as they can tolerate the angry wildlife

Jules Blais and graduate student Jenifer Kissinger spent part of the Summer taking lake sediment cores from lakes in the high Arctic. (Jules Blais)

Quirks & Quarks is devoting its first episode of the season to the challenges and adventures of scientists working in the field.

Jules Blais is a biologist who studies environmental contaminants as part of his research at the University of Ottawa. He spent this Summer in Resolute on Cornwallis Island in Nunavut, but also explored lakes on Devon Island and Somerset Island.

Blais and his team are studying lake sediment cores in order to better understand environmental changes in the north.  But the cores can also reveal important information about large scale animal migrations, particularly birds. And perhaps even more fascinating is what they reveal about the various groups of humans who have lived in these area over the last few thousand years. 

An intact Thule structure from as early as 1200 AD on Bathurst Island, Nunavut (Jules Blais)

Thule, Norse and Dorset people

Evidence for human habitation in these areas is preserved in the form of human-specific chemical signatures that can be trapped in lake sediments. One characteristic signature is called steriles. These are products of bile acids only found in human waste.

Just as there is evidence of human occupation at the bottom of lakes, this tent ring is also evidence of people living here long ago. It was made around 800 years ago by either the Thule or Norse people on Devon Island. (Jules Blais)

Blais hopes this work can shed light on the three different groups of people who shared this land many hundreds of years ago: The Norse, who travelled from the East, the Thule who were whalers from the west, and the Dorset people, who are thought to be the first to establish a population in the Arctic.

A curious bear, a tern for the worse and fulmar puke 

But a month at a research station in the high Arctic does not come without a few surprises that have nothing to do with scientific discovery.

One was a very large and curious polar bear who appeared over a small rise one day as a research helicopter was being refuelled. For many of the scientists, seeing a bear so close is both thrilling and scary. Thankfully, once it caught wind of the unpleasant odour of helicopter fuel,  it bolted in the opposite direction.

A curious polar bear approaches. Look carefully over the head and to the right of the scientist in blue. The bear turned away as soon as it got a whiff of aviation fuel. (Jules Blais)

More troublesome were resentful Arctic terns. Terns lay their eggs right on the tundra, where they are exposed and the terns are, sensibly, quite protective of them. For Blais and his colleagues, this meant trying to do research while being aggressively and repeatedly dive bombed as a warning to 'stay away'. 

(Jennifer Kissinger)

But the most memorable wildlife problem came from fulmars, an Arctic seabird. These birds feed on shrimp, squid, fish plankton and carrion. From this diet, fulmars produce a stomach oil  that they regurgitate as an energy rich food for their chicks. However, they can also spray it out of their mouths like spit as a defence against predators, or in this case, research scientists. Blais recalls that it is extremely smelly, and difficult to get out of clothing, especially given the limited laundry capacity in such a research station. 

Franklin graves

While finding evidence of human populations from long ago was part of Blais' summer research, evidence of human activity from a much more recent time proved to be just as compelling.

A flight into Cornwallis Island took him over Beechey Island and the graves of three British sailors from the doomed Franklin expedition of 1845. For Blais, this was an incredibly moving experience, and one that reminded him of the plight of these explorers, the enormity of place in which he was researching, as well as the everyday hardships faced by people who have called this part of the world home for so long.