- Areas of Study
- About A&S
- Faculty & Staff
- Cultural Initiatives
- Research Initiatives
For more information on the Undergraduate Research/Creative Activity Fund contact Brandy Chaffee, Development Director for the College of Arts & Sciences.
'Funding' An Answer
There are currently 16 subspecies of native muskrats in North America… maybe.
Scientists traditionally identified these distinct muskrat types based on observable traits like size, fur color, and different body dimensions. There have been, as yet, few genetic tests to see if all the subspecies are truly distinct, or not.
The project is one of more than a dozen supported by the A&S Undergraduate Research/Creative Activity Fund (URCAF). The fund was created to provide students with the kinds of experiences that enhance their learning. The program, designed to encourage imaginative projects and innovative research in the College of Arts & Sciences, kicked off this spring.
Brian Darby, an Assistant Professor in Biology, will work with a group of three students in the Fisheries & Wildlife program on a project titled: Novel Genotyping Methods for Wildlife Population Genetics. Current genetic identity and relatedness tests of animals use only a drop of blood, or a single hair, but are not always as accurate as researchers often need them to be. In fact, many of the current molecular tests on animal samples are subject to errors and contamination that can frustrate research and confound biologists.
"The traditional method we were going to use was expensive, time consuming, and imprecise. This is a problem because it's also the same method that is used for many other applications in wildlife genetics, as well as human forensics."
Shay Erickson and Samuel Hervey, both juniors in the program, came across a novel way to probe muskrat DNA using a protocol very similar to that used by one of their fellow students, William Beaton, also a junior, who has already spent considerable time developing methods to identify microorganisms from soil samples. By integrating the protocol of Beaton, with a few key modifications called “microsatellite fragment analysis,” Erickson and Hervey, will identify the relatedness of molecular DNA from North American muskrats.
The key difference is that while Beaton uses the sequence of a gene to identify microorganisms, Hervey and Erickson will use the length of a repeating unit (called a "microsatellite" or "short tandem repeat") to identify the relatedness of individuals from the same species. The novelty is that Hervey and Erickson will use the same equipment that is used to sequence human and microbial genomes. "I think this is a great idea, and has the potential to improve the way we approach wildlife genetics for many other species than just muskrats," said Hervey.
Using a gene sequencer at the UND Medical School, Erickson and Hervey will compare hundreds of known samples of muskrat DNA, sent in by volunteers across North America, to DNA found in Beaton’s soil samples. Using this method allows Erickson and Hervey to compare the DNA of muskrat specimens from different parts of the country to determine if there is genetic support to validate the subspecies that were defined morphologically around a hundred years ago.
In addition, that have additional samples from North Dakota, so they will be able to answer questions about gene flow and connectedness between muskrat populations that are more specific to North Dakota interests.
Using the gene sequencer at the UND Medical School is vital to the research program, but does incur significant costs. The URCAF makes testing their samples possible, and will allow their research to move forward. "It's difficult for undergraduates to find funding for this type of untested project, and we're very grateful to the college for this support," said Erickson.
The purpose of the project is to generate more accurate and informative data about muskrat populations, but the methods they develop should be easily transferrable to many other species. The students working on this project have already presented related other aspects of their work at the North Dakota Chapter of The Wildlife Society Conference in February 2015, and they have begun working on drafts of the manuscripts they expect to submit for publication in peer-reviewed journals.
A Culture of Exploration
Funding undergraduate research and creative projects is one way the College of Arts & Sciences intends to develop a supportive teaching environment and be a model of exemplary practices for students. Doing so will not only improve undergraduate education, but can inspire learning and exploration from all corners of the college.
The College of Arts & Sciences asks you to consider supporting programs like the Undergraduate Research/Creative Activity Fund. It is one more way alumni can make a significant impact on student success.
By Craig Garaas-Johnson
Want to Know More?
ABBREVIATION : ONZI
COMMON NAMES: common muskrat, water rat, rat
TAXONOMY: The currently accepted scientific name for common muskrat is Ondatra zibethicus. There are 16 subspecies that differ in population status, distribution, habits, and habitat:
1. O. z. zibethicus - eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada
2. O. z. albus - Manitoba and adjacent central Canada
3. O. z. aquilonius - Labrador and adjacent Ungava and Quebec
4. O. z. bernardi - Colorado River areas of southeastern California, southern Nevada, and western Arizona and Mexico
5. O. z. cinnamominus - Great Plains
6. O. z. goldmani - southwestern Utah, northwestern Arizona, and southeastern Nevada
7. O. z. macrodon - mid-Atlantic Coast
8. O. z. mergens - northern Nevada and parts of adjacent states
9. O. z. obscurus - Newfoundland
10. O. z. occipitalis - coastal Oregon and Washington
11. O. z. osoyoosensis - Rocky Mountains and southwestern Canada
12. O. z. pallidus - southcentral Arizona and west-central New Mexico
13. O. z. ripensis - southwestern Texas and southeastern New Mexico
14. O. z. rivalicius - southern Louisiana, Mississippi coast, western Alabama, and eastern Texas
15. O. z. spatulatus - northwestern North America
16. O. z. zalophus - southern Alaska
AUTHORSHIP AND CITATION : Snyder, S. A. 1993. Ondatra zibethicus. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [2015, May 27].