Queen's University Queen's University

Nick Cairns

Jeepers, creepers! Where'd you find those peepers?

If you drive north of Kingston on Division Street for about an hour, you will reach a biologist’s paradise.

The 3,200-hectare property lies at the meeting point of distinct southern and northern environments and contains a wide range of habitats and species. The diversity is astounding. There are small freshwater lakes and the large Lake Opinicon, wet swamps and dry shrublands, abandoned farmlands that are recovering from decades of human activity and second-growth forests that have not been touched for many decades.

This hub for research activity is the Queen’s University Biological Station, known affectionately as “QUBS” (pronounced cubes), which has been steadily increasing in size and reputation since it began operations in 1945. The field station now regularly hosts researchers and students from Queen’s as well as institutions across North America and abroad.

Nick Cairns is very familiar with the appeal of research at QUBS. He recently finished his master’s degree at Carleton University based on research on turtles at the field station. In September 2013, he returned to QUBS to begin his PhD at Queen’s. With a focus on understanding the origins of biodiversity, he is researching speciation in spring peepers – a small brown frog that is commonly found in eastern Canadian wetlands in springtime.

Cairns said QUBS is a prime place for collaborative research, and for younger students to meet professionals – and mentors – in their discipline.

“It’s very accessible and has a great community with an open-door feel, where researchers of every academic echelon and local visitors converse with, and question, each other,” Cairns said. “It’s a beautiful place.”

Researchers study everything from birds and fish, to plants and rocks. They live in cabins and cottages that can lodge up to 90 people, sharing group meals in the large, welcoming Raleigh J. Robertson Biodiversity Centre.

While living at QUBS for his master’s degree, Cairns met Dr. Stephen Lougheed, a professor of biology at Queen’s and director of QUBS. Cairns immediately became interested in Lougheed’s research on spring peepers.

“It was the questions you could ask about these little frogs as a model for speciation that most interested me,” Cairns said. “My work focuses on understanding the evolutionary history of spring peepers over the last few million years.”

Previous studies have shown that there are six distinct evolutionary lineages within the geographic distribution of spring peepers. These lineages appear to differ in important aspects of their behaviour, morphology, and development. For example, males of different lineages have distinct mating calls used during the breeding season. Females appear to differentiate among calls and choose their mates accordingly. Such differences in the mating system are usually found between different species, not within one species, and therefore Cairns’ research will focus on understanding the origins and causes of these divergences. He will also examine the genetic differences among these lineages to evaluate whether such differences might ultimately disappear, or if they are on their way to becoming different species.

“I hope to get up to QUBS as much as possible,” Cairns said with a laugh. He said the genomic analysis would be completed on the main Queen’s campus, while the behavioural research and field components of his doctoral work will be conducted at QUBS.

The thing that Cairns is looking forward to most at QUBS is seeing the vernal pools that form after the first spring rainfalls.

“The vernal pools become absolutely filled with salamanders and frogs, and it’s a really neat experience because you just don’t see these animals most of the time,” Cairns said. “When they all gather at one time it’s a spectacular display of diversity … this, along with the comfort and camaraderie of QUBS, is what makes it a great place for biological research.”

Profile by Catherine Owsik
(e)Affect Issue 4, Fall 2013