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Hybridization and adaptation in sticklebacks

Mackenzie Kennie, a PhD candidate in the Schluter Lab at UBC's Biodiversity Research Centre, explains her research on hybrid species of stickleback fish, and how well they adapt to new environments compared to their parent species.

My name is Mackenzie Kinney and I am a PhD candidate in the Schluter Lab here at the Biodiversity Research Centre. My research is looking at hybridization of species as a means to adapt to rapidly changing environments. Essentially hybrids are often regarded as being less fit than their parent species and so they have lower survival and this is because these new trait combinations that come from the hybridization event are likely to be ill-suited for either of the environments that the parents are in, and so they can't actually compete against the parents. But whenever we have these changing environments it's now a new environment that the parents aren't necessarily adapted to either and so I'm trying to see if these new combinations are actually better at allowing them to adapt to these new environments.

The way that I do this is with a fish called the three-spined stickleback. It is found  worldwide, but I specifically work on a species pair that lives only here in Four Lakes on the British Columbia coast. They are the benthic and limnetic species pair and then I make hybrids of the two. And I run experiments looking at whether or not the hybrids are better fit than the parents in both the control environment and a new environment for all three of these types of fish.

How did you choose to study biologyi?

I got into biology very serendipitously. I actually started my undergrad in biochemistry and then whenever I was in my second year I did this program where I actually went to Honduras and spent a month doing conservation research in the jungle where we lived in hammocks and lived on a mountaintop. It was a totally new experience to me - really my first time being outside for that long and I just absolutely fell in love with it. I changed my course selections and started going in a direction of ecology and evolution.

What is your favourite research memory?

My favourite research memory is also from this trip to Honduras. I remember one of the first nights being there it was just myself and the head herpetologist and we were walking through the riverbeds and the trails in the dark of night using our headlamps to look for frogs. It was just so serene and everything around was just quiet. I really felt embraced by the ecosystem and a part of it.

What is your favourite organism?

I have to say that my favourite organism is the Algonquin wolf. My affection for it really grew when I had an experience with it not too long ago. I was on a canoe trip through Algonquin Park and we were paddling down this little stream. We came around a corner only to see a pack of these Algonquin wolves mid-hunt taking down a moose. It was just amazing to see these small but mighty wolves doing what they do best working as a pack, and that really boosted my affection for them.

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