June 28, 2023

UCalgary student tracks Alberta’s invasive wild boar population

Commitment to global conservation will take veterinary medicine student Devin Fitzpatrick to Antarctica as she widens her knowledge of ecosystem integrity
Devin Fitzpatrick
Devin Fitzpatrick, right, and colleague in the field. Devin Fitzpatrick

Devin Fitzpatrick has always held a fascination for the world around her, forever eager to immerse herself in new environments and new cultures. Her volunteering has taken her from the national parks of East Africa to the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. With every journey, she falls more in love with our planet, and her resolve to protect it grows stronger.

Now, as a Canadian ecologist and PhD student in the UCalgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Fitzpatrick is following her passion for research and providing scientific evidence to inform effective conservation actions. She has grown particularly interested in researching Alberta’s problem of wild boars at large. 

On another front, her interests will soon take her to Antarctica as a volunteer participant in Homeward Bound, a program that aims to heighten the influence of women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine) in environmental policy and decision-making at the global level. 

The global focus of Fitzpatrick’s work flows from a deep commitment to conserving the environment. She has studied the invasive little fire ant in the Congo Basin in Gabon and the invasive eastern grey squirrel in Scotland, both of which pose significant threat to native biodiversity and agricultural production.

The wild boar problem

Wild boars spread zoonotic disease and cause crop and habitat destruction. In Alberta, wild boars are a provincially regulated “invasive pest.” Invasive species — organisms not native to, and adversely impacting a particular region — are one of the top five greatest threats to biodiversity and ecosystems worldwide. Technologies such as GPS telemetry and camera trapping are used to track their movement and behaviour, Fitzpatrick explains.

In Alberta, wild boars are considered an invasive pest but little research has been conducted in the province so far, Devin Fitzpatrick says.

Flickr photo by Michael Eickelmann published under Creative Commons licence

“Wild boar are a highly invasive species threatening both public and ecosystem health in Canada,” Fitzpatrick says. “The species acts as a reservoir for diseases that can affect humans, livestock, and wildlife. Wild boars also cause damage to crops and native plant communities through rooting, prey on livestock, and negatively impact native wildlife communities through predation, habitat destruction, and competition for space and resources.”

Very little research has been conducted on wild boars in Alberta, so there is lots to learn about the population. Fitzpatrick’s project will focus on mapping the current distribution and predicted spread of the species across the province.

Tracking the spread

She will also produce the first density estimates of a wild boar population in Canada and examine the contact structure within and between sounders (social groups) and the consequences of these for disease transmission. Greater understanding of these measures will inform development of effective management strategies to protect public health and ensure ecosystem integrity.

Fitzpatrick is a member of UCalgary’s Women in Science and Engineering student organization and the Wildlife Disease Association student chapter. She has recently been selected as one of 100 women from around the world, and one of just three Canadians, to join Homeward Bound, a groundbreaking global leadership and visibility initiative, set against the backdrop of Antarctica. Homeward Bound’s vision is to create a collaborative network of 10,000 diverse women in STEMM by 2036. 

Fitzpatrick will be a part of Homeward Bound’s eighth cohort and undertake a 12-month program of workshops, masterclasses, and one-on-one coaching designed to build skills in the areas of leadership, visibility, strategy, and science. The program will culminate in an intensive development expedition to Antarctica. 

Rapid pace of change in Antarctica

Why Antarctica? Regions of Antarctica are showing the fastest responses to some of the global sustainability problems we currently face. Its iconic environment has captured the imagination of leaders in the past and the expedition experience of the Antarctic component of Homeward Bound creates strong bonds between participants.

“Being in Antarctica will be an opportunity for deep reflection,” she says. “I will be in the presence of melting glaciers and incredible wildlife species, many of which are endangered. I imagine it will reaffirm my choice to dedicate my life to conserving the planet and perhaps move me to make even greater changes alongside my fellow women in STEMM. I can’t speak too much to the Antarctica experience yet of course, as I have not been on it, but every former participant I’ve spoken with has confirmed that it is profoundly life-changing," says Fitzpatrick.

Due to the seasons in Antarctica, the expedition will likely take place in November 2024. The cost to deliver the program, as well as the costs associated with the Antarctic expedition (travel, equipment, insurance, etc.), total around $25,000 for each participant. As a student, Fitzpatrick is fundraising to meet these costs, and so far, has secured 25 per cent of her goal through crowdfunding and speaking at community events.

You can support Fitzpatrick by visiting her fundraising campaign and following her journey on Twitter or LinkedIn. Contact Fitzpatrick to learn more.

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