Wildlife tracking project receives new Canada Foundation for Innovation funding

Christopher Guglielmo and Yolanda Morbey, researchers leading the Motus on the M
Christopher Guglielmo and Yolanda Morbey, researchers leading the Motus on the Move project to track wildlife. (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications photo)
The animals are on the move, driven further and faster by pollution, wildfires and the shifting of their habitats in response to climate change. But a global tracking system can find them.

Birds and bats in the air. Insects on the ground. Fish in the river.

Motus , a wildlife tracking system, captures them all.

It’s grown from 150 stations in two provinces to a global, open-source platform observing more than 30,000 animals from 300 different species in 30 countries.

A new $3.2 million Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) grant awarded to Western researchers Christopher Guglielmo and Yolanda Morbey and faculty from four other Canadian universities will help expand the Motus system to cover critical gaps in the current network. The funding for their project - called Motus on the Move - will also allow the team to add acoustic and environmental sensors to collect new forms of data.

"W e have huge expanses, particularly out west, where we don’t have enough coverage to detect animals that are moving into Canada from their wintering grounds in the south. A big component is filling in the gaps, so that we can make the entire system better," said Guglielmo, director of Western’s Centre for Animals on the Move principal investigator on the CFI project alongside Christy Morrissey from the University of Saskatchewan.

The latest funding will also allow researchers to boost technology on the Motus towers, which use automated radio receiving stations to "listen" for animals with radio tags.

Equipment used to track animals including bees, birds and fish through the Motus wildlife tracking network. (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications photo) "We could be tracking bird calls, birds’ songs, light levels - such as artificial light at night - weather, particulate matter in the air, smoke - there’s a lot of sensors coming on board," said Morbey, a biology professor and movement ecologist.

"If we can integrate those capabilities into our receivers, we get that local information associated with a receiver at the same time we know a bird is there. Otherwise, we can’t get that precise data, and we have to rely on modeled data."

Those new monitors and sensors, and the data they produce, will better allow researchers like Morbey to understand animal behaviour changes in response to the challenges faced in the sky.

"I have more precise information about what the bird is actually encountering," she said. "It’s about behavioural strategies and are those strategies enough for that species to be able to cope with climate change?"

Acoustic devices can hear the calls migrating birds and bats make as they fly, so species will be surveyed even without being radio-tagged.

Information gathered by the Motus system flows back to the researcher that tagged the animal but can also be used by anyone on the network. Birds Canada , a partner on the CFI project, manages the data. Many of the towers are solar powered.

"It’s this huge grassroots network of cooperating people - a community of researchers, government agencies, non-governmental organizations and individual people - who make it possible to track really small animals with even smaller radio tags: birds, bats, insects, even fish in rivers." - Chris Guglielmo , director of Western’s Centre for Animals on the Move

A previous Western CFI grant, led by Guglielmo, started the Motus system with 150 radio receiving stations in Ontario and Nova Scotia. It’s now grown to over 2,000 across the globe.

The newest investment comes from the CFI’s Innovation Fund , part of $14.7 million granted to five projects at Western. It will enable Guglielmo’s team to study changes to animal movement and migration patterns based not just on climate change, but the impacts of urbanization - think pollution, the threat of windows and widespread lights - and agrochemicals as well.

" When climate changes and habitats shift, we want to understand how that’s going to affect animal movement and timing of movement. There could be big effects," Guglielmo said.

"We need to understand where animals move, why they move, their patterns and the timing. Movement is one of the most flexible things these animals do."


Dr. Kun Ping Lu and Shawn Li, Western Biotherapeutics Centre
Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry

A hockey player sustains a suspected concussion or brain injury on the ice. The player is given a simple blood test that determines the severity of their injury. Treatment is then delivered rink-side to remove or block the toxic neuroprotein detected by the test, ensuring no long-term effects occur.

This is precision medicine in action - and it’s precisely the kind of therapy researchers at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry are striving toward.

"Our goal is to detect disease at an earlier stage and deliver personalized treatment," said Dr. Kun Ping Lu , professor of biochemistry and oncology and Western Research Chair in Biotherapeutics.

Dr. Kun Ping Lu (Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry photo)

Lu and biochemistry professor Shawn Li are leading the creation of the Western Biotherapeutics Centre.

Biotherapeutics harness the body’s natural ability to fight disease. From tailored cancer therapies designed to disarm the most aggressive tumours to genetic therapies that correct inherited disorders like cystic fibrosis, biotherapies are revolutionizing how we diagnose, prevent and treat disease.

Think insulin to treat diabetes, or mRNA vaccines for COVID-19.

"Biotherapeutics are transforming medicine to address some of the most pressing health challenges of our time," said Lu.

Shawn Li (Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry photo)

The Centre will bolster efforts to identify, optimize and produce biotherapeutics, from discovery to clinical trials and beyond, with a major focus on age-related diseases, such as cancer, neurodegeneration and sepsis infection.

"We’ll be developing first-in-class biotherapeutics, and our goal is to build the premier centre for biotherapeutics in Canada and the world," Li said.

Ingrid Johnsrude and Jody Culham , Next-Generation Human Cognitive Neuroscience for Real-World Applications The Brain & Mind @ Western $3.55M

Neuroscientists at The Brain & Mind @ Western - previously the Brain and Mind Institute - will use state-of-the-art neuroimaging tools to study brain function in real-world scenarios.

"We were over the moon. We were so happy because this will enable so many researchers to do new kinds of research they haven’t been able to do before. It allows us to really increase our productivity. It’s quite transformational for research in The Brain & Mind," Ingrid Johnsrude , psychology professor and Western Research Chair in cognitive neuroscience, said of more than $3.5 million in CFI funding.

Ingrid Johnsrude (Western Communications photo) The grant will cover research on multiple conditions and disorders, from chronic pain to hearing loss to psychosis.

"Robust, real-world measurement and treatment" is the thread linking research initiatives under the new grant.

"For a long time, scientists focused on taking a simple simulation of the real world into the lab where they could evaluate it under controlled circumstances. You can only do so much that way,- Johnsrude said.

"You have to keep the complexity if you want to study how people think and behave. This grant allows us to do that. It gives us equipment that allows us to maintain the natural complexity of the environment we evolved to behave in, so that we can study cognition and behaviour in a way that’s closer to what actually happens in the world."

That equipment includes a magnetoencephalography system, the one gap in Western’s impressive imaging roster. That kind of advanced neuroimaging will allow psychologists to study brain function while people are moving, which can skew results in electroencephalography (EEG) procedures.

Lisa Saksida and Ravi Menon, Mouse Translational Research Acceleration Platform
Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry

Western researchers Lisa Saksida Ravi Menon and their team received $3 million in CFI funding for the Mouse Translational Research Accelerator Platform.

The platform supports researchers in better understanding brain function in health and disease, as well as advances in diagnosis and treatment for neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disorders.

(From left) Western President Alan Shepard with Lisa Saksida and Ravi Menon. (Steven Anderson/Western Communications photo)

The Platform tests cognition in the same way for animals and humans, giving a much better indication of how new therapies will likely impact human cognition.

Using iPad touchscreens with prompts and rewards , the research team can map complex cognitive processes like decision-making, attention and planning across species to help them assess drugs in ways that have never been attempted before.

"This combination of technologies and interdisciplinary expertise is not available anywhere else in the world," Saksida said.

"The CFI funding will enable us to do more, faster, and to progress toward effective treatments for diseases of cognition, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s."

The research team includes Tim Bussey, Marco Prado, Vanio Prado and Taylor Schmitz.

The accelerator is available to researchers on a fee-for-service basis. The team recently created an open-access database to share its cognitive data with labs around the world. About 600 researchers - local, national and international - make up the user base.

Cathy Chovaz and Rachel Birnbaum, Research Institute with Children
King’s University College

For the first time, King’s University College has been awarded a CFI Innovation Fund Award. The new Research Institute with Children (RIC) will be one of the first places in Canada specifically for child-centred approaches to research of children’s agency and participation within their families, schools, and communities.

Cathy Chovaz (King’s University College photo) "It will place King’s at the forefront of children’s participatory rights and advance children’s well-being," psychology professor Cathy Chovaz said.

Chovaz and Rachel Birnbaum , a distinguished university professor emerita in social work and childhood and youth studies, will serve as project leaders. They’ll work with an interdisciplinary team of scholars, clinicians, academics and practitioners.

Children and their families will engage with the experts in research to drive improved socio-economic and psychological outcomes for children across Canada.

"This will be a unique opportunity to be engaged with children about their needs," Birnbaum said.

Rachel Birnbaum (King’s University College photo)

The RIC will facilitate two research programs, one at King’s and one with schools and agencies to promote child well-being and mental health.

It will enable researchers to create and test social sciences methodologies and approaches for projects involving children more effectively, authentically and ethically.

This state-of-the-art centre will enable deaf and hard-of-hearing children to participate in accessible research in American Sign Language, while also respecting unique cultural needs. The RIC will also provide a voice for children involved in separation and divorce.

-With files from Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and King’s University College