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Animal personality and conservation

Science student group publishes article in leading journal


By Kelly Foss

An article led and written entirely by students and post-doctoral fellows in the Faculty of Science was published in a leading scientific journal recently.

Bibliometric Investigation of the Integration of Animal Personality in Conservation Contexts was released on Oct. 26 in Conservation Biology.

A person is leaning on a wooden rail.
Jack Hendrix is one of the student authors.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Journal club engagement

The authors are primarily from the Cognitive and Behavioural Ecology (CABE) interdisciplinary graduate program, and included others from the departments of Biology and Ocean Sciences.

They include Sydney Collins, Jack Hendrix, Dr. Quinn Webber, Robert Blackmore, Kyle d’Entremont, Juan P. Ibáñez, Joanie Kennah, Jessika Lamarre, Katrina Schwedak and Chirathi Wijekulathilake, CABE; Sean Boyle, Katrien Kingdon, Jennifer Hogg, Miguel Mejías, Levi Newediuk, and Dr. Julie Turner, Biology; and Cerren Richards, Ocean Sciences.

The idea was the brainchild of Dr. Webber, who was a PhD candidate at the time and was trying to come up with ways to keep fellow students involved with CABE’s journal club.

“In journal clubs, someone proposes a paper they think is interesting and we get together to discuss it,” said Mx. Hendrix. “It’s a fun way to build community and it brings up new ideas and connections you hadn’t thought of before.”

Dr. Julie Turner holds a large sculpture of an animal in an area with trees, grass and dirt.
Dr. Julie Turner

“We decided to investigate whether animal personality can be used to improve conservation,” said Dr. Turner. “That grew into the journal club reading articles on that topic for the whole semester and collecting data on animal personality questions.”

During the literature review, the journal club found more than 650 papers on the subject that they divided into conservation concepts such as climate change, invasive species and resource exploitation.

“Each student read between 30 and 50 papers,” said Ms. Collins. “It was a massive undertaking. While many already had an interest in animal behaviour, they hadn’t necessarily heard of the concept of animal personality before, and most had never read that many papers that quickly before.”

Professional development opportunity

That led to teachable moments, such as how to read a scientific article for a meta-analysis.

A woman with long red hair stands in front of a lake.
Sydney Collins
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“Everyone involved was a master’s or a PhD student, so they had some level of knowledge,” said Dr. Turner. “But people who had been at it longer knew how to read papers quickly, so we had chats about reading for content versus thoroughly reading an article.”

The group also put a lot of thought into ways of making the process a professional development opportunity for everyone.

“No one really teaches you the process of writing a paper,” said Dr. Turner. “Because it was the first many in the group had ever written, it also gave us the opportunity to discuss authorship, order of authorship and other things you learn on the fly as a graduate student. Hopefully, these conversations will help them as they work through their own master’s and PhD programs.”

The groups submitted information about their findings. Ms. Collins analyzed the data and wrote the article, with input from Dr. Turner and Mx. Hendrix.

Challenging exercise

“It was an interesting exercise because it started out with the voices of 17 people,” said Ms. Collins. “Other than the actual analysis and cleaning up the data, I think trying to get everything to sound coherent was probably the biggest challenge.”

An adult sea bird tends to its young in a box with straw and a clear pane. There is a green ball to the right, as well as a round hole in the side of the box. The ocean is visible in the far distance.
The paper focuses on whether or not animal personality can be used to improve conservation.
Photo: Submitted

Although they knew the paper was a valuable piece of science, they were still thrilled to have it accepted by a leading journal.

“When you submit a paper, the typical strategy is to pick a journal that’s far outside of the realm of what you think is possible,” said Ms. Collins. “Then, when you are turned down, you work your way down the list. None of us thought we would actually get into Conservation Biology, but the reviewers and editors were really excited about the paper and the revision process was smooth.”

‘Interesting and cool science’

As the paper is targeted primarily at non-academics, the students wanted to make it an open access document, but did not have funding to cover the fees.

“This paper is primarily for managers, and people outside of academia are often unable to access scientific articles because it’s so expensive,” said Ms. Collins. “That’s why it’s so wonderful the university agreed to pay the cost and we’re extremely grateful to the School of Graduate Studies and to the Faculty of Science for that.”

Although the process was a lengthy and difficult one, they encourage other graduate students to reflect on their example and consider branching into areas outside of their thesis work.

“Journal clubs are an excellent opportunity to create interesting and cool science because there are so many intelligent people in one room collaborating,” said Mx. Hendrix. “The logistics of organizing a large group of people to work on a paper together is challenging, and I can see why it doesn’t happen often, but it was neat to see a discussion group make use of the time and mental energy put into this kind of work and see it through to the end.”

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