Shannon Gavin is a wildlife ecologist specializing in Conservation Biology and Behavioural Ecology with MSES since 2006. Her interests include large mammal ecology, amphibian ecology, road ecology and science communication. After working as a zoo keeper for several years, she earned her Master’s degree in Conservation Ecology from the University of Calgary where her research focused on the effects of roads on pronghorn antelope habitat use and behaviour. Since then, she has worked as a science advisor, project manager and wildlife expert on the behalf of Indigenous communities, provincial governments, non-profit organizations and industry proponents. She also volunteers on a City of Calgary Biodiversity Advisory Committee where she provides strategic advice on matters related to urban biodiversity.
What initially interested you about the field of ecology, or got you into it?
Watching the movie, Dr. Doolittle – who wouldn’t want to be able to communicate with animals! That interest in wanting to understand how animals see the world led me to studying science. After my undergraduate degree, I worked directly with animals in several accredited zoo facilities. Some of my favorite memories are from a monkey sanctuary in Texas. I loved watching the different dynamics between all the individuals – it was like a soap opera.
Who inspired you in the field of ecology, or mentored you along the way? How did they shape your path?
Jane Goodall inspired me as a little girl, watching her go after her dream even when people told her she couldn’t do it. Others who inspired me on the way had to be my fellow graduate students and friends whose eagerness and nerdiness for all things science inspired me to keep going with my own research.
What is an example of an interesting project that you have worked on? What made it interesting?
I loved doing field work because you often would be the only ones out in the woods surrounded by croaking frogs and singing birds. It was very peaceful. More recently, I have been involved in the design and implementation of community-based monitoring programs and really enjoy interacting with people who have the same perspective on wildlife and the land. I also really like sharing my knowledge with younger people in hopes of inspiring them to see how amazing science and nature can be.
What is something rewarding about the work you do?
Policy change is a slow process and can be a difficult to change peoples minds. I feel that the work MSES does with reviewing environmental impact assessments is one step that can lead to policy changes that may increase the scientific rigour of the assessment process.
In your opinion, what is an ecological issue that more people should know about? What should we be doing about it?
I am interested in how environmental noise from the expansion of human populations, transportation networks and resource extraction affect wildlife behaviour and habitat use. I feel that it is a concern that has been around for a long time but only recently getting more research interest. There is such a wide range of noise sources, different exposure levels that occur which result in a diverse range of species responses. Some impacts of environmental noise can include masking auditory signals (e.g. frog breeding calls) to eliciting higher stress hormones that could alter an individual’s fitness. I would like to see more research in this topic with a wider taxonomic scope, exploring interaction or confounding stressors, and establishing thresholds and mitigations to minimize these impacts.
What has been a highlight for you while working at MSES?
Meeting so many different people is a highlight for me, from Indigenous community members to researchers.
What is your wildest experience while out in nature?
I was doing a field survey and was staring up at an owl nest (with owlets to boot). When I looked back down, 2 feet away from me was a moose. Just staring at me chewing on some leaves. It was quite surreal.
What does your optimal weekend in the Rockies look like?
The mountains are beautiful but after spending a few summers researching pronghorn antelope in southern Alberta, I find the grassland region fascinating with its diverse wildlife. I love going for a drive along those back roads watching the herds of pronghorn. The young pronghorn males displaying (showing off their cheek patches) to the intrigue of the females. Watching them with the window down, listening to the unmistakable sounds of the sprague pipet in the distance.
Do you have a favorite species of animal or a special connection to one? If so, why?
There are so many interesting animals but I do find the pronghorn antelope fascinating, one of the reasons it was my study species for my Master’s degree. Fun facts about the pronghorn:
~ Second fastest animal on land (after the cheetah) and can reach 70-90 km/hr
~ Not actually in the antelope family and is the only surviving member of the family Antilocapridae
~ Prefer not to jump over fences but crawl under them, biologists and ranchers are working on establishing wildlife friendly fences across the grasslands to facilitate pronghorn movement
~ Pronghorn horns are not true horns or antlers. The sheath is made of keratin and are shed annually. Males and females both have horns although the female does have much smaller horns.
What animal or plant species is under appreciated and deserves more love?
The dung beetle. I find their determination admirable when tackling these large balls of dung as they push and roll them. Dung beetles can roll up to 10 times their weight. Dung beetles are even thought to navigate using the Milky Way or clusters of bright stars.
What are your favorite things to do outside of work?
I’m an avid reader and am like a kid in a candy store when I go to a bookstore. I also love grabbing my binoculars when I go out for walks to see how many bird species I can find.
I am also a hardcore Star Trek fan! I was ecstatic when the Star Trek convention came to Calgary during their 25th anniversary celebration of TNG (the Next Generation). I also got to try out being a crew member during the Star Trek Experience at Telus Spark where Geordi La Forge and Will Riker (aka LeVar Burton and Jonathan Frakes) gave a talk after. It was so much fun!
What is the most interesting place you have visited and why was it interesting?
I love to travel and explore different places and cultures, but one of my favorite places was Morocco, where I took a camel ride into the Sahara dessert and spent the night in a Berber tent sleeping on a blanket on the sand. The night sky was amazing with no light pollution distorting the view.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.“
– The Lorax