Lenore Fahrig, Glebe Resident, has won the Gerhart Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering, Canada’s top science award, which comes with $1 million in research funding, in recognition of her lifetime of research into habitat fragmentation. Photo: Luis Tejido.
By Leslie Cole
Lenore Fahrig is modest about her work as a scientist. However, her research on natural habitats is widely used and has been referred to in more than 55,000 scientific articles. And it has just won her a million-dollar prize.
The National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) awarded Fahrig the $1-million research prize in October to recognize her lifetime of research into habitat fragmentation. The funds from the Gerhart Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering – Canada’s top science award – will be used over five years to support her and a team of post-doctoral researchers who work in areas connected to Fahrig’s.
Now the Chancellor’s Professor of Biology at Carleton University, Fahrig says she has “always been interested in nature, even as a kid.” Growing up in Manotick, she had a Grade 7 science teacher who taught her about the greenhouse effect and the ozone layer which sharpened her interest in how humans affect their environment. At Merivale High School in Ottawa in the 1970s, science teachers introduced her to the issue of overpopulation and the relationship between human land use and the health of the planet.
She studied biology at Queen’s University and became fascinated by the complexity of ecology. In third year, she learned that computer simulation modelling was starting to be applied to biological studies to predict effects of different factors on animal and plant populations. She did her undergraduate thesis on the interactions between species “in space” which set her on a path to studying landscape ecology in her MSc at Carleton University, then doing a PhD at the University of Toronto on how species move in their environment and how changes in habitat affect animal, insect and plant species survival.
In 1991, she was hired as a biology professor at Carleton and moved to the Glebe. As a young professor, she spent her first research grant to purchase a computer to analyze the potential effect of habitat fragmentation and habitat loss on survival of wildlife. Habitat loss, she explains, is the destruction of natural habitats; habitat fragmentation is the number of pieces of natural habitat, large and small, that remain.
It was commonly thought at the time that having only small patches of natural habitat was not enough for wildlife and birds and that larger areas were needed to protect species. However, the computer simulations didn’t find that fragmentation made a difference, if there was enough habitat in total. She and her students followed up with field work, much of it around Ottawa, and found the models were accurate – although loss of habitat resulted in fewer species, fragmentation of habitat did not.
In another study, one of Fahrig’s students found that bird diversity was just as high in the accumulated patches of backyards as in larger parks. Another student looked at the social side of habitat – how people feel about their neighbourhoods in different parts of Ottawa. The student surveyed 1,000 people and analyzed the relationship between positive feelings about their neighbourhoods and bird diversity. The student found people were more positive about neighbourhood – including the Glebe – where there was higher bird diversity.
Fahrig has also studied the impact of roads on wildlife and the need to protect smaller species like frogs, snakes and turtles from being killed on them. Her road studies have been used many times by government policy makers and by NGOs.
Fahrig’s decades of research have confirmed that it is important to save small fragments of natural habitat, not just bigger natural areas. “The big impact on wildlife is the loss of habitat,” she says. “It is really the amount of habitat you have, not so much the fragmentation.” Because so much land in southern Canada is already taken up by farming or housing, saving as many small pieces of habitat as possible is important. And wetlands are particularly crucial.
Fahrig is concerned that Bill 23, a new piece of legislation in Ontario called More Homes Built Faster, will take away the power of conservation authorities to protect wetlands. “We have already lost 75 per cent of wetlands area in southern Ontario,” she says.
At 63, she is not ready to retire and is looking forward to the next five years of research. Fahrig says it is “really great to have this (award), especially at this stage”. She has already hired one postdoctoral researcher and has several more she thinks might fit in her team.
Leslie Cole is a writer and editor who lives in the Glebe.