Arctic BIOSCAN: Tracking biodiversity in Canada’s Middle Arctic using DNA

Arctic BIOSCAN: Tracking biodiversity in Canada’s Middle Arctic using DNA

Arctic BIOSCAN: Tracking biodiversity in Canada’s Middle Arctic using DNA

Danielle ‘Dani’ Nowosad wildflower hunting for the regional herbarium

Written by


The University of Guelph, Department of Integrative Biology

All photos credited to Dani unless specified otherwise

DNA barcoding is a molecular technique used globally to discover new species and assess biodiversity quickly and inexpensively. As it is based on standardized fragments of DNA, it can also be used to trace colonization patterns on Turtle Island (North America). My work is using DNA barcode data to quantify biodiversity and document colonization patterns in the Canadian Middle Arctic which would establish critical baseline data for future studies and enable us to monitor biological changes in response to climate change.

Cabin featuring the Nunavut flag on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

DNA-based research in the Canadian Arctic

Seasonal camp in the Intensive Monitoring Area of Kilinoyak.

My research in the Iqaluktuttiaq (Cambridge Bay) region of Kilinoyak (Victoria Island), Nunavut, is in conjunction with the Arctic BIOSCAN (ARCBIO) project. ARCBIO, spearheaded by the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG) at the University of Guelph, aims to document all Arctic life using DNA barcodesshort pieces of DNA that are specific to each species. Funded by Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR), ARCBIO is in its third year with at least four more years to go.

ARCBIO’s research base in Nunavut is in Iqaluktuttiaq (Ekaluktutiak or Ikaluktutiak, depending on who you’re talking with), a community of 1,600, located in Inuit Nunangat (the Inuit homeland). Iqaluktuttiaq also happens to be the site of the state-of-the-art Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) which opened its doors in August 2019.

Dani setting up a Malaise trap in front of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS).

Located above the treeline on Kilinoyak’s southern edge, Iqaluktuttiaq is a polar desert with 24-hour daylight in the summertime. This region features stunning landscapes and prolific freshwater bodies of all sizes that are culturally, spiritually, and economically important to Inuit in this region. Many locals spend summer seasons fishing for Arctic char and trout, which use freshwater to spawn. Iqaluktuttiaq in the Inuinnaqtun dialect means “a good fishing place”. Arctic char has been harvested for generations for sustenance and now supports a local export industry.

Ice melting on the Arctic Ocean.

My research examines these water bodies and contributes an important resource to ARCBIO’s goals by establishing a DNA sequence catalogue of freshwater invertebrates for southern Kilinoyak. This will support future studies on biodiversity and allow us to monitor changes in freshwater ecosystems.

There is not enough local baseline data on biodiversity and abiotic variables such as water chemistry to track how climate change is altering the region. It is crucial to understand and mitigate changes to Arctic environments as these changes will have severe consequences globally including sea-level rise and unpredictable fluctuations in methane and carbon cycling1-3.

Dani collecting aquatic invertebrate samples on a helicopter trip near Wellington Bay.

Species found on Kilinoyak likely arrived within the last 7,500 years as the Laurentide ice sheet receded4. Some species might have managed to survive the last ice age in glacial refugia5, that is, regions largely in an ice-free state during the last ice age.

By analyzing the percentage of genetic divergence from local source populations, we can get closer to determining if this is the case. Taxa found in Iqaluktuttiaq that show a low percentage of genetic variance from taxa found elsewhere on Turtle Island could reveal interesting colonization patterns. For example, studies on small crustacean (Branchiopoda) in Churchill, Manitoba have shown multiple sources of origin from high Arctic regions in the north to Mexico in the south6. Apart from uncovering historical patterns, these data can inform models predicting the risk associated with invasive species to the region.

Dani assisting with a plant phenology/insect pollinator research project near CHARS.

The freshwater invertebrate catalogue currently consists of approximately 2,500 records from two summer sample collecting seasons. Most of these records include insects and crustacean (Arthropoda), of which many are flies (Diptera) and tiny water fleas (Anomopoda). Of these, just under 900 are of sufficient quality to obtain a standard DNA barcode. It is becoming clear with this early work that more sampling is needed to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of freshwater invertebrates in the Canadian Middle Arctic. Nevertheless, once sequences have been quality checked, researchers will release these data to the public via the standardized online DNA barcode library called BOLD.

BOLDthe Barcode of Life Data Systemsis an online, openly accessible repository for DNA sequence data and metadata. It allows users to create biogeographic maps, species accumulation curves, geo-distance correlations, biodiversity measures, and phylogenetic trees, among various other functions.



Polyartemiella hazeni



My experience with BOLD and the DNA barcode pipeline began in the CBG’s Collections laba well-oiled machine where staff take gathered specimens, sort them, and input all their metadata (location, collection method, team members, etc.) into BOLD. Then, specimens are photographed, sent through automated DNA sequencing machinery, and finally, each sequence obtained is run through algorithms resulting in a BIN (Barcode Index Number) which is a proxy for species.

Fishing on the Arctic Ocean

With millions of records now accessible online, there is no question that DNA barcoding has contributed an incredible amount of knowledge and information to global biodiversity.

An important aspect and often interesting challenge in generating these data are sharing it in meaningful ways with local communities and the public.

Connecting the local community to DNA-based tools and technologies

View of the coast from Long Point

Committing resources and time to monitor environmental change in the Arctic is critical, but responsible research must prioritize integrating different voices from the community. As First Nations and Inuit communities in northern Canada7 are directly impacted, it is of the utmost importance to conduct this research in collaboration with local communities. This means listening to, including, and supporting Indigenous voices. Stitching together local Inuit’s experiences and traditional knowledge (otherwise known as IQ – Inuit qaujimajatuqangit) with climate change and scientific data in the region will only strengthen our understanding of these shared challenges and better position us to garner support for environmental protections.

ARCBIO offers several opportunities to fundamentally engage with local communities in ways that are not possible with one-off, short-term studies.  As part of early sampling efforts, CBG hired two full-time Junior Science Rangers from the local community for the summer field season in 2019. This created summer jobs for local high school students who were paid for their expert knowledge of the land. Through working with CBG collections staff, they learned scientific methods for sampling invertebrates such as pitfall trapping, Malaise traps, plankton tows, and D-net sampling.

The CBG is also preparing a community report that will be released to locals this spring, just ahead of the 2021 field season. The community report will provide an overview of the ARCBIO project, its goals, and a description of DNA barcoding and methods used to assess biodiversity. It will be made available online through the ARCBIO website and social media.

Beyond these efforts, I have been exploring other ways to connect with the community. The pandemic has complicated in-person plans which had included a workshop held in conjunction with POLAR and the local high school, a knowledge-sharing wetland walk, and a freshwater-themed photo contest funded by POLAR. 

Inukshuk with a view of town behind

Alternative outreach methods are being explored, taking into consideration the slower internet connectivity issues experienced by many Northerners. One possible method includes connecting with the local radio station that many locals tune into regularly to discuss research and generate conversations about science, increase awareness about projects, and put calls out for collaboration. The radio station communication strategy has been identified by locals in many northern communities as an excellent way to reach out8. Recently, a group of Inuit youth from various regions in Nunavut developed a concept they dubbed ScIQ (science + Inuit qaujimajatuqangit) in an effort to close the gap between attempts from external researchers to engage communities, and respectful inclusion8.

Monitoring equipment set up in the Intensive Monitoring Area, with Uvayuk (glacial esker) behind

One of the significant challenges ARCBIO will face is in finding ways to share barcode data with communities that are meaningful and useful. While data will be publicly available on BOLD, it is very likely that few, if any, locals will use the platform.

Sharing ARCBIO results with the local community in Cambridge Bay and other Northerners could be facilitated by a relatively new digital app called SIKU: the Indigenous Knowledge Sharing Network. This app was specifically designed by the Arctic Eider Society for Northerners. One might compare SIKU to iNaturalist, but specifically tailored for Northern hunters.  It allows users to log ice and land conditions, animal sightings, hunting experiences, among other things in a privacy-protected space. App users can also submit plant and animal observations, including arthropod orders that are prolific across Northern Canada, such as caddisflies, mayflies, copepods, and beetles.

The SIKU mobile app and web platform by and for Inuit provides tools and services for ice safety, language preservation and weather. IMAGE CREDIT:

Part of the network is a “Projects” section, which lists various research initiatives such as government projects like Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish surveys, climate change studies, and other weather, climate, and wildlife-related studies. Principal Investigators can list a description of the project under this section as well as contact information and URLs. I believe this is a huge opportunity to communicate with the people who are most impacted and stand the most to gain by data that ARCBIO generates.

Unlike Facebook or any other mainstream social media platform, SIKU users can be assured that any information they share on the app remains their own. Due to these properties, SIKU may be a perfect avenue to share the ARCBIO project outcomes with local people who could benefit directly from the project’s data. I was first made aware of SIKU during the ArcticNet 2019 Annual Scientific Meeting, where the Arctic Eider Society did a public launch of the platform in a plenary session. Since the launch, Siku has gained popularity across Arctic Canada.

So far, our meetings with SIKU’s developers have explored the types of information that Northerners might find useful. Discussions have revolved around biogeographical figures, time series, and other such accumulations of data. Although this pipeline will require significant computational and technological power, I believe in years to come, it will result in user-generated research questions in which Southern researchers can assist locals in answering.

Moving Forward

Once the DNA barcode data is established, we as researchers must ask ourselves which information is relevant and important to locals. The public requires more than access to ARCBIO’s raw data. While ARCBIO is increasing barcode coverage for Arctic species, I believe that by developing a direct pipeline from BOLD to SIKUwith community consultationARCBIO can disseminate meaningful data for local benefit.  Inuit have been explicit in their expectations for external researchers to approach science in the North with compassion, understanding of Northern cultures and lifestyles, respect, and inclusion. This doesn’t simply mean sending an academic publication of the results from a study to the communityit means developing relationships with community members, behaving in ways that are respectful to local culture, creating research questions with input from locals, and continuous communication throughout the study.

View of the last few pieces of ice before summer on the Arctic Ocean

Long-tailed jaeger


1. Anisimov OA, Vaughan DG, Callaghan TV, Furgal C, Marchant H, Prowse TD, Vilhjálmsson H & Walsh JE (2007) Polar regions (Arctic and Antarctic). Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 653-685.

2. Prowse T, Bring A, Mård J & Carmack, E. (2015). Arctic freshwater synthesis: Introduction. Journal of Geophysical Research G: Biogeosciences, 120(11): 2121–2131.

3. Hammar J (1989) Freshwater ecosystems of polar regions: vulnerable resources. Ambio, 18(1): 6–22.

4. Arthur D (2004) An outline of North American deglaciation with emphasis on central and northern Canada. Developments in Quaternary Sciences. 2. 10.1016/S1571-0866(04)80209-4.

5. Shafer AB, Cullingham CI, Cote SD & Coltman DW (2010) Of glaciers and refugia: a decade of study sheds new light on the phylogeography of northwestern North America. Molecular Ecology19(21): 4589-4621.

6. Jeffery NW, Elías-Gutiérrez M & Adamowicz SJ (2011) Species diversity and phylogeographical affinities of the Branchiopoda (crustacea) of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. PLoS ONE, 6(5).

7. Government of Canada; Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada; Communications Branch. “Climate Change in Indigenous and Northern Communities.” Government of Canada; Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada; Communications Branch, 19 Jan. 2021,

8. Pedersen C, Otokiak M, Koonoo I, Milton J, Maktar E, Anaviapik A, Milton M et al. (2020) ScIQ: an invitation and recommendations to combine science and Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit for meaningful engagement of Inuit communities in research. Arctic Science6(3): 326-339.

Reflections on conducting fieldwork in Nunavut, Canada

Reflections on conducting fieldwork in Nunavut, Canada

Reflections on conducting fieldwork in Nunavut, Canada

The opportunities and challenges of working in the Arctic as part of the Arctic BIOSCAN project

By Crystal Sobel

Carter Lear and Jaiden Maksagak (left to right) venturing across the tundra in search of insects

PHOTO CREDIT: Andrea Dobrescu

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Arctic’? Do you picture snow and ice, freezing temperatures, vibrant communities, and animals like the polar bear and Arctic fox?

Ice breaking apart on Ferguson Lake, Northwest of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
Polar Bear walking around Churchill, Manitoba during the Arctic summer
Photo credit: Thanushi Eagalle

Not everyone is able to experience first-hand the vast tundra or see people fishing for Arctic char as they travel down the river to the ocean. I hope to share my impressions as a visitor to the Arctic, through my fieldwork as a research technician for the Arctic BIOSCAN (ARCBIO) project.

Beautiful sky views and summer flowers at Long Point, Victoria Island, Nunavut
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

ARCBIO is a partnership between the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG) at the University of Guelph and Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR) that aims to carry out biodiversity assessments in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut. Teams of researchers and technicians have been sent from the CBG to Nunavut for eight weeks spanning July and August in the summer to collect and catalogue plants and animals.

I play a major role in the planning and logistics for ARCBIO’s field expedition which includes working out how to transport and assemble the equipment required to collect and catalog insects, plants, and small mammals for an entire field season involving more than 14 researchers.  Careful planning is crucial to order and organize the more than 70 different pieces of equipment — Malaise traps, sifters, nets, forceps, camera gear, labels, collecting bottles, etc. — as it all needs to be in place at our research sites in time for our arrival at the start of field season.

Flying to Nunavut from Ontario involves three flights over two days. But once you arrive, the land is truly a sight to behold. It is like no other place on Earth; its beauty magnified by the midnight sun and the countless tundra flowers covering the landscape.

Tundra landscape in full bloom in July. Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

In 2018 and 2019, my Arctic travels were focused in Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut whose location on Victoria Island along the Northwest Passage has made it a key port for passengers and research vessels. The Inuit have been residing in this region for over 4,000 years, naming the area Iqaluktuuttiaq meaning ‘good fishing place’ in Inuinnaqtun, the traditional language of the area, for its abundance in Arctic char.

My colleagues and I worked at the magnificent new Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS). Run by POLAR staff, the station has several research and teaching spaces including a very impressive necropsy lab that has enough space to dissect whales. Dorm style lodgings are available for visiting researchers, with a facility building full of fieldwork equipment from ATVs to scuba gear to snowmobile suits.

After arriving at a sampling site North of Long Point, Nunavut, we took in the incredibly vast view of the tundra
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
ATV transport is the best way to get around on the rugged tundra terrain. Ovayok Territorial Park, Nunavut
Photo credit:Alex Borisenko
Mikko Pentinsaari and Alex Borisenko (left to right) are searching for insects in the leaf litter sample collected from the tundra back at the CHARS facility
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
In addition, the CHARS staff are incredibly friendly and an indispensable resource for a successful field season providing logistical support to advice on field site selection. The POLAR staff were particularly instrumental in helping us collect aquatic samples.
Researchers surveying the land for sampling sites on the Northside of Grenier Lake, Nunavut

Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

There are no docks to park your boat out on Grenier Lake, Nunavut
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
Everyone is having a great time travelling along Grenier Lake in their survival suit gear
Photo credit: POLAR staff
Coming from Southern Ontario, I dressed in many layers of clothing including quick-dry field pants, gloves, short-sleeve shirt, long-sleeve shirt, sweater, windbreaker jacket and, when needed, a rain jacket and pants. And don’t forget a toque (I did!). A cozy hat is key to keeping your head and ears warm against the unrelenting wind coming off the Arctic Ocean. But perhaps the most important article of clothing is the very stylish bug net hat.
Keeping the mosquitoes away with a stylish bug net hat!
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

We were also very fortunate to have hired two youth in Cambridge Bay for our 2019 field season. Jaiden Maksagak and Carter Lear helped with insect monitoring by setting up traps, collecting samples, and recording data. Having a keen interest in the sciences, they were eager to gain experience by working with us.

Carter Lear and Jaiden Maksagak (left to right) venturing across the tundra in search of insects
Photo credit: Andrea Dobrescu
Jaiden Maksagak attaches a collecting bottle to the Malaise trap, which passively collects flying insects
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
Jaiden Maksagak (left), Andrea Dobrescu (bottom right) and Alana Tallman (top right) work together to set up an insect trap transect line with pitfall traps and samples of soil to be sifted through
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

Our team also conducted field work in Kugluktuk for the 2019 summer field season. Kugluktuk, meaning ‘place of moving water’, is situated on the northern edge of the mainland of Canada and is the westernmost community in Nunavut. Here, we worked with two wildlife guides, Thomas Bolt and Dettrick Hokanak whom helped with monitoring for bear activity and site set up as well as with servicing of the insect traps.

Thomas Bolt and Dettrick Hokanak (left to right) were our incredibly helpful guides in Kugluktuk, Nunavut
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

In both Iqaluktuuttiaq and Kugluktuk, we sought guidance from Nunavut’s Hunters and Trappers Organization (HTO) who provided us with local wildlife guides, bear monitoring services, and recommended great science-minded youth from the community who worked with us as science rangers. We were grateful for the knowledge they shared with us and for the opportunity to share aspects of our research work with their communities on Nunavut Day.

A Malaise trap, used to collect flying insects, contrasts with the beautiful tundra sky and landscape
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
During the Nunavut Day celebrations, we were able to share the wonderful world of insects with children and adults. We set up displays in both communities that showcased the many shapes and sizes of insects, their life cycles as well as highlight which ones are beneficial to humans, and which ones are pests. I always enjoy seeing kids get wide-eyed with excitement when they see our insect displays.
Local community members demonstrate the making of bannock, a traditional food from the region during Nunavut Day 2018, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

The kids enjoyed our giveaways which included informational pamphlets, bookmarks, postcards, buttons and other fun items about animals and how DNA barcoding works. I enjoyed learning a few words in Inuktitut from them, such as nuna for land, tuluaq for crow, and hikhik for ground squirrels. I believe that it’s very important to democratize science, involve local communities in research projects, and make data available to the public including the people making decisions that could impact ecosystems and their biodiversity. We need sensitive tools to understand how Arctic environments are changing and give us insights into what we can do to solve problems. DNA barcoding arctic diversity, this is what ARCBIO is all about.

Written by

Crystal Sobel

Crystal Sobel

Research Technician, Collections Unit, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics

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