Megan Dudenhoeffer has been asking questions about nature and wildlife all her life. Now, her curiosity has taken her to the University of Manitoba’s Department of Biological Sciences, where she is studying Arctic and red fox diet and population dynamics in Churchill, Manitoba.
While growing up in Idaho, Megan Dudenhoeffer spent most weekends in the Rocky Mountains camping and hiking and in the winter, skiing and snowshoeing. She was constantly asking her parents questions like “What animal made this track? What do animals do in the winter? Why are there trees at the bottom of the mountain but not at the top?”
Megan always had a passion for asking questions and for wildlife in general, but she discovered her love for research during her undergraduate degree at University of Wyoming while completing an honours project on an invasive cactus in Central Kenya.
Her master’s research will help determine if Arctic fox populations are declining in the Churchill area, and if Arctic and red foxes are competing for limited prey. Every April, Megan travels to Churchill and Wapusk National Park to collect fox fecal samples from fox dens along the coast of the Hudson Bay.
No easy journey, this trip involves snowmobiling hundreds of kilometers in frigid temperatures to remote research camps. (Click here to learn more about Megan’s lab and their winter field work.). Megan then extracts DNA from the fecal samples at the Conservation and Research Department at the Assiniboine Park Zoo.
There, she uses genetic methods to identify what the foxes have been eating and to identify the individual fox the sample came from. This allows Megan to reconstruct fox diet and estimate population size. Many people may find it strange that Megan studies animal poop, but as she explains, “poop can tell you a lot and it’s easy to find!”
Arctic regions are warming at more than twice the global rate, which makes Megan’s research more important than ever. Warming is causing declines in the Arctic fox’s main prey and may increase competition with the larger red fox.
In the winter, Arctic foxes normally hunt lemmings, but lemming populations are dwindling due to snow quality declines. Typically, when lemmings are scarce, Arctic foxes venture out onto the sea ice and scavenge polar bears kills. However, this food source is also declining due to the decline of ice on Hudson Bay.
We don’t know how Arctic foxes are compensating for prey abundance declines, or what alternative prey they could be eating. By reconstructing the Arctic fox diet, Megan hopes to be able to identify alternative prey.
Warmer winters also allow red foxes to move out onto the tundra, and the large red fox may be competing with Arctic foxes for prey and dens. Research shows that prey resources are declining, but we don’t yet know if Arctic and red foxes compete for prey during the winter. Once Megan identifies what each species is eating, she will compare their diets and estimate the overlap and degree of possible competition.
Arctic foxes are facing declines in both their major winter prey resources. With possible increased competition with red foxes, populations may be affected, impacting not only Arctic foxes, but northern human communities that rely on harvested foxes to subsidize their income.
Megan will also use DNA from fecal samples to estimate population trends of Arctic foxes in the Churchill area. Information about Arctic fox diet, increased competition, and population trends may also help inform policy and management decisions.
As the Arctic continues to warm, Megan believes that it is important to figure out how (or if) Arctic species are coping with landscape changes such as receding sea ice, prey declines, and possible increased competition. After she finishes at the University of Manitoba, Megan plans on continuing her education with a PhD so she can continue asking—and hopefully answering—questions about nature.