Natalie Rideout: The floodplain wetland puzzle

In this new post, Natalie Rideout, a new ecological researcher working at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, discusses her paper: Environmental filtering of macroinvertebrate traits influences ecosystem functioning in a large river floodplain—recently shortlisted for the 2022 Haldane Prize for Early Career Researchers.

Natalie has already provided a blogpost which discusses the particulars of her paper and research experience. Check it out HERE!

About the research

Stuck in the mud in the Peace-Athabasca Delta (credit: Kristie Heard)

If you’ve ever walked into a wetland, and I mean truly into, hip deep in water, not just peering in from the edge, you will know that they are often much softer bottomed than they may appear. In sheltered coves and backwater areas, it isn’t uncommon for wader boots to completely sink into the mud and sediment, while the rest of your body is tangled in underwater plants. You may even get stuck. I’ve gotten stuck myself, thigh deep in mud, and had to be coaxed out while my colleague laughed and filmed it. Let’s just say that during this research, someone else got stuck, and meanwhile I was helpfully occupied with taking pictures of dragonflies—too occupied, in fact, to take it seriously as we had to reorient the boat and help pull the person out of the muck. Moral of the story is to invest in good waders with separate boots as those cheap rubber ones will suction one’s feet inside and make for story-worthy experiences!

The thing I enjoyed most about conducting this research was doing field work with cool people in a beautiful place, but it was also gratifying to be able to use structural equation modelling to take a broader ecosystem approach and examine multiple hypotheses without setting up complicated field experiments. The ability to evaluate causal ecosystem linkages is particularly powerful in biomonitoring—usually (and unfortunately) time is of the essence. The fact that it elucidated new knowledge in a comparatively understudied ecosystem—floodplain wetlands—was all the better. In the end, I also loved being able to turn this final structural equation model into a graphical abstract, bridging the divide between my scientific and artistic passions.

Even accounting for the numerous biting insects, floodplain wetlands are an incredible place to conduct research (credits: Natalie Rideout & Kristie Heard)

In terms of where my research is headed next, I swung course after my MSc and moved from researching floodplain wetlands to agricultural ditches in my PhD. While not quite as glamourous or beautiful, the research in this area is hugely important, especially as agriculture continues to both intensify and expand. The ditches often form the only open water habitats in otherwise agriculturally-dominated landscapes. The insects that emerge from this water as they transition from larvae to adults are filled with energy-rich nutrients, particularly essential fatty acids that are vital to aerial insectivores—birds that capture insects on the wing—like the tree swallows that zip up and down these riparian corridors. As part of a much broader research project, which includes dozens of other Canadian federal research scientists and their teams (Environmental Change Onehealth Observatory [ECO2]), I’m studying habitat provisioning in terms of insect production in the agro-landscapes south of Ottawa, Ontario (the capital of Canada) and its relation to One Health principles. Our ultimate aim is to find a balance between needs of humans, animals, and the environment. I’m also co-leading a project on rewilding and nature-based restoration for rivers where we explore an alternative to traditional restoration. This alternative involves taking a step back and letting nature take the wheel to heal itself from the near-constant anthropogenic heavy-handedness that has resulted in rivers and their watersheds being modified beyond recognition globally. Right now we’re in the process of applying the framework we created to a case study in the Wolastoq | Saint John River—the river that runs through the city of Fredericton where the University of New Brunswick is located, and the river whose floodplain includes the Grand Lake Meadows & Portobello Creek wetland complex, focused on in this publication.

About the author

Natalie in her natural habitat, complete with muddy chest waders and her trusty binoculars (credit: Sam Allanach)

I grew up outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia with a backyard of garden, forest, brook and marsh, and was actively encouraged to be curious about nature and its beauty, from pressing the flowers my mom grew in her garden, to digging up worms and trudging through waist high grasses in wet meadows following my dad to nearby trout pools. I remember watching great blue herons fly through the yard and land atop the trees where they nested by the marsh, and once a beaver dammed the brook so we could hop from rock to rock downstream for entire afternoons. It was only later, when I started my undergrad at Mount Allison (Mt A), in Sackville, Canada, that I thought to look under the rocks for aquatic macroinvertebrates, and learned about birds and wetlands. The local waterfowl park, threaded with boardwalks, was our outdoor laboratory. Perhaps it should have been obvious from the time in fourth grade where I wrote a story book for class about saving the rainforest, but surrounded by scholars and naturalists at Mt A, I quickly discovered that I wanted to protect this beautiful, diverse world, and, to me, the first step to doing that was to learn how our actions as humans impacted biodiversity and the environment. I studied this in rocky intertidal zones for my honours with Dr. Ron Aiken, and then came to the University of New Brunswick to work with Dr. Donald Baird for my Masters and current PhD.

If you ask most ecologists what the best thing about being an ecologist is, the answer is field work because that’s why so many of us got into ecology: to be in nature, to be curious about nature, and to protect nature. I’ve been lucky enough to have some incredible field experiences, from gliding slowly past bitterns trying to blend into the reeds with their striped necks held high, to being dive bombed by black terns so insistent I leave the cove with their nests that I had my hat perched several inches above my actual head. I’ve watched bobolinks and migrating upland sandpipers weave through fields gone fallow and overgrown with incredible flower diversity in otherwise homogenous, alien agro-landscapes, and I’ve flushed entire colonies of ducks as a helicopter kept us hovering a few feet above the water in remote northern wetlands, then watched as our only touch point with humanity ascended rapidly, leaving us with nothing but chest waders and bear spray. I’ve spent entire field days in kayaks, eating lunch on sandy river beaches scattered with the most perfect skipping stones that glide perfectly across the water surface with a flick of the wrist. Being in nature, experiencing its wonder and beauty—especially in areas with little impact from human societies—I feel is critical to becoming a compassionate and impactful ecologist because one then can truly feel the weight of importance in what we do.

As if I don’t spend enough time outside, in my spare time, I do whatever activity gets me out and immersed in nature. In summer that looks like reading in my hammock, climbing and hiking—usually with my binoculars slung over my shoulder so that I can birdwatch at the same time—paddleboarding up tributaries and to beaches on sandy islands on the large main stem of the Wolastoq | Saint John River, and sitting with friends and loved ones in the afternoon sun or around a camp fire. I recently moved out of the city and am excitedly planning this summer’s garden that will hopefully be full of crisp vegetables, fragrant herbs, buzzing bees, and a myriad of birds. I also love to paint and make art, particularly with watercolours, often of flowers and birds and other beautiful parts of nature.

If I had to give some advice to other ECRs, I would tell them to slow down and look at the little things in the amazing world around you. We’re all so busy, rushing—from processing samples in the lab to data analysis to writing papers, zoom meetings and conferences and planning the next field season—that sometimes we get disconnected from the very thing we’re studying and trying to understand and protect. Being a curious, creative person goes a long way toward being a good ecologist in my view, and, additionally, it’s fun to stop and look for insects under the multicoloured rocks of streams when out for a hike, or to lay atop a paddleboard in the sun looking over the edge to see fish swimming amongst the freshwater forests of macrophyte beds.

Enjoyed the blogpost? Read the research here!

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