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STEM SIGHTS: The Concordia prof who studies mating systems among reindeer and caribou

Field ecologist Robert Weladji monitors the impact of climate change on breeding and calving phenology
April 11, 2017
By Andrew Jeyaraj

Do you dream of being the next David Attenborough? Do you enjoy being outdoors and one with nature? Are you curious about large animals?

You may have something in common with Robert Weladji, associate professor of biology in the Faculty of Arts and Science. Weladji works in field ecology, studying the effects of climate change on the population dynamics of reindeer and caribou.

‘We can actually observe the animals in their habitat’

How does this specific image (above) relate to your research at Concordia?

Robert Weladji: This photo displays an important aspect of my research on the reproductive ecology of large mammals. My current work is looking into aspects of mating systems and sexual selection in reindeer and caribou. The picture shows a duel between two males for the opportunity to monopolize access to females. Competition among males can be extremely fierce.

What is the hoped-for result of your project?

RW: With field ecology, my students, myself and my colleagues can actually observe the animals in their habitat. And by collecting information on their behaviour and movement, we can answer some of our research questions. For example, which males control the females, or how females choose which male to mate with.

I am currently interested in understanding sexual strategies (mating strategies, mate choice, costs of sexual reproduction), testing mating systems theories, and the influence of the male composition (age structure, sex ratio) on the population ecology of cervids.

What are some of the major challenges you face in your research?

RW: The major challenge of my research is to integrate all this knowledge so as to promote sustainable conservation and management of the biodiversity (fauna and flora). 

I am privileged in that I have access to an experimental herd which allows us to get close to the animal to do our behavioural observations. More than that, we can also manipulate our herd, giving us a unique possibility to do experimental work. That’s what we have been doing for the past 20 years.

What person, experience or moment in time first inspired you to study this subject and get involved in the field?

RW: As an undergraduate student in wildlife and forest ecology, I was given the chance to do my honours research on elephants in a national park in northern Cameroon. Since then, I have been working with large animals and their ecology.

How can interested STEM students get involved in this line of research? What advice would you give them?

RW: It has to be something you really want to work on. It can be demanding and risky, but very exciting. Starting as an assistant or volunteering in an ecology lab can help you decide whether that is a good path or not. 

Students interested in my research can find out more by contacting my lab.

What do you like best about being at Concordia?

Concordia has a welcoming and multicultural environment and I have had no problems attracting graduate students. My department is just the kind of place one wants to be. It's an adequate size and provides a stimulating working environment.

Robert Weladji's research in Finland is supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

Find out more about Concordia’s Department of Biology.

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