Field Notes from Alaska and Japan


One of the many competitors for “samples” of Alaskan sockeye salmon!

Shannan May-McNally, a graduate student in the Taylor lab at the Biodiversity Research Centre, spent this summer collecting char, a relative of salmon and trout, in Alaska and Japan as part of her thesis project. Shannan is interested in using char to investigate questions related to the process of speciation in fishes, research that can ultimately help design conservation strategies for these important species.

In southwestern Alaska, she worked with researchers at the University of Washington to collect Arctic char and Dolly Varden char from Lake Aleknagik. Arctic char and Dolly Varden are often thought to be the same species, but we have used genetic techniques to show that they are most likely two, very different fish. Research in Alaska can be quite exciting given that tens of thousands of sockeye salmon migrate back to Lake Aleknagik every year to spawn. The sockeye salmon, however, also bring in multitudes of hungry grizzly bears. This can make for some interesting field days!


Shannan with the mysterious “masu salmon” (Oncorhynchus masou) in Ogawa Stream, about 2 hr north of Sapporo, Japan.

In Japan until the end of November, Shannan is working with a team of Japanese researchers to investigate how human impacts have negatively affected native char species in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan. In Hokkaido, most streams have been modified to better suit the local farmer’s needs while invasive brook trout (a non-native char species) have been periodically released in many streams to facilitate sport fishing. Brook trout can actively hybridize with native white-spotted char.

The white-spotted char, known as ‘ame-masu’ in Japanese or the ‘rain-trout’, is quickly declining in Japan, and hybridization with brook trout is thought to be one of the main reasons behind its decline. Shannan is interested in using genetic techniques to determine how many hybrids are present in these populations (a measure of how impacted these populations currently are). The beautiful mountainous streams of Hokkaido and catching all sorts of native fish are a few of the reasons why Shannan is finding field research in Japan to be an amazing experience.


The white-spotted char (Salvelinus leucomaenis) or “iwana” in Japanese, a close relative of BC’s bull trout (S. confluentus) and Dolly Varden (S. malma), but found only in the western Pacific.