From the field

Bridging troubled waters

Partnerships are essential for Nicholas Mandrak’s research on invasive and endangered species

Patchen Barrs

Prof. Nicholas Mandrak holds a longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus).

When Nicholas Mandrak was seven years old, he went fishing with his father.

“The first fish I caught was a white sucker,” he says. “My father thought it was a salmon. He went in to pick it up and it milted all over him. I thought this was the coolest thing ever.”

Where most might think, “ick,” Mandrak thinks, “ichthyology.” By Grade 7, he described himself in the yearbook as a “future ichthyologist.” To this day, he’s an odd duck who is fascinated by rare fish.

Mandrak’s passion for aquatic species is both apparent and contagious, which helps explain why his research career is punctuated by the partnerships and alliances he builds along the way.

“The research I have been working on my whole career concerns the biodiversity, biogeography and conservation of freshwater fishes,” he says. “Collaboration and partnerships are obviously the future for this research. It’s the message you hear at this university, and my colleagues hear it at other universities.”

Mandrak recently left his employer of 12 years, the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), to take a position at UTSC’s Department of Biological Sciences, where he contin- ues his research into endangered and invasive freshwater species.

He maintains ties to the DFO; in fact, he’s working to build a formal research partnership between the department and UTSC. He is also building an academic relationship with the Royal Ontario Museum, where he did graduate studies. Such partnerships provide avenues for research to inform
public policy and public education. One of Mandrak’s most interesting collaborations involves the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiver- sity. At first glance, South Africa and Canada seem to have little in common. South Africa has relatively few species, while Canada has many. South Africa’s waterways are quite clear, while Canada’s tend toward turbidity.

Mandrak was scheduled to speak at a conference on invasive species in the country, and was contacted in advance by Olaf Weyl, a researcher at the institute. The two have become friends and colleagues. Despite the differences their home countries present in terms of habitat and species, both researchers have grown through the ideas they’ve shared.

“One of the big issues in fisheries science is how to capture rare fishes,” Mandrak says. And capturing rare fishes is the basis of his work: endangered species are rare by definition, and invasive species usually begin in low numbers.

Weyl and his South African colleagues had been experimenting with underwater cameras that allow researchers to observe rare fishes without having to capture them. Weyl and Mandrak are also exploring methods such as collecting “environmental DNA” to detect the presence of elusive aquatic species. “If you take a sample of water you should be able to find some of [the fishes’] DNA,” says Mandrak. He is optimistic that these new methods could be faster, less resource-intensive, less disruptive to the fishes, and could even lead to better data.