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UMPI receives visits from University of Alberta scholar

The University of Maine at Presque Isle recently received a visit from Bronwyn W. Williams, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, who was in northern Maine to make three presentations on campus and conduct research on crayfish worms with Dr. Stuart Gelder, UMPI Emeritus Professor of Biology.

Williams’ first presentation was made to Dr. Jason Johnston’s upper-level Vertebrate Biology class, Vertebrate Phylogeny: A Synthesis of Comparative Anatomy and Molecular Analyses. In this lecture, she outlined how classical taxonomy and phylogeny have been supported in some cases and challenged in others with the results obtained using molecular sequencing techniques. Both scenarios were illustrated with case studies.

The second presentation was an informal lunch discussion at which students had the opportunity to ask Williams about her experiences as a graduate student. The discussion opened up to include faculty comments in which students were directed to ask some searching questions of themselves and what to look out for when applying and visiting potential graduate laboratories or programs.

Williams’ final presentation, an afternoon seminar, was open to the public and was well attended, with about half the audience coming from the community. Her lecture was titled, A Question of Legality: Application of Genetic Forensics in Wildlife Enforcement. In this presentation, Williams outlined some of the molecular methods used in characterizing wild animals, particularly fur-bearer species such as bobcats and lynx. She gave examples of her research and its forensic applications in Michigan, where she completed her Master’s degree in Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University.

Williams then went on to outline a number of case studies, one of which was the demonstration of endangered whale meat being sold in the Far East under a false name. These examples led into her current research work on the distribution of crayfish in the Prairie Provinces. Although the importance of this work was not immediately apparent, she pointed out that the introductions of crayfish, even if the same species, beyond their natural range can significantly change the ecology of a water body. Williams has been able to show, using molecular methods, that some crayfish populations in Alberta have their origins outside the province and were illegal bait-bucket releases. While there is reason to expect this illegal habit will continue, it is hoped that Williams’ work will cause the authorities to consider future measures before the destructive Rusty crayfish enters the province causing devastating damage to sport fishing habitats and industry.

Williams began working with Gelder three years ago. Since then, they have published a joint paper and presented separate research papers at the 12th International Symposium on Aquatic Oligochaetes in Turkey during October 2009.

Williams’ research time at UMPI consisted of mounting and identifying crayfish worms she had collected from New York State and the Northwest USA in addition to planning a collecting trip to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) with Gelder. This will be the first comprehensive study of crayfish worms in the GSMNP. These and other collections will provide specimens for genetic sequencing from which the first widely-inclusive molecular phylogenetic tree of the group will be reconstructed.