ECCC scientists working to save the Mingan Thistle

ECCC’s wildlife biologist Phil Thomas is collaboratively working on restoring the meadow thistle, a species at risk, also known as the Mingan thistle. The thistle is an emblematic plant that has social and historical value to the people living in the area, and the province of Quebec. The plant was named by Brother Marie-Victorin in 1924, a notable Canadian botanist who founded the Montreal Botanic Garden in 1931 and created an inventory for all of Quebec’s plants in 1935. Thomas is working with scientists from Parks Canada and University of Ottawa to study and protect this unique species.

“These research efforts are part of a long-term recovery program led by Nancy Dénommée, Parks Canada’ resource management officer from Havre Saint-Pierre, Quebec. The main objective of this initiative is to understand the various biological drivers that may influence the growth and decline of these plants.” says Thomas.

What did researchers find?

The Mingan Thistle is an at-risk species that many Canadians have not encountered.

In Canada, 99% of the plants are found in Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve in Quebec. The reserve is an island in a remote region of Quebec, about 800 km east of Quebec City. Smaller numbers of the plants are also found in smaller zones in southern Alberta and British Columbia; questions remain on whether or not these two subpopulations differ genetically. The plants only grow in certain climatic conditions and flourish under specific types of soil and substrates, usually under really calciferous conditions. A detailed genetic analysis on the differences between Western and Eastern populations, as well as a closer look at the genetic differences between the many small islands where the thistle grows will help inform the feasibility, and risks of transplantation or germination programs. ECCC scientists including Thomas and David Carpenter (National Wildlife Research Centre) have expertise in analyzing the biophysical properties of the environment and the plant`s genetics that affect growth and survival.

© Parks Canada

© Parks Canada

Conservation Efforts in Mingan

In Mingan National Park, metallic tags are planted in the ground by Parks Canada beside each plant so they are easily identified and counted each year. The thistles are grouped into nine colonies, which are a group of plants that live near one another, dispersed over four islands. While a minimum of 270 plants per colony is required for long-term survival, the number of plants per colony is currently below this critical threshold. Total number of plants in the National Park dropped from 1148 to 445 from 2003 to 2017. Parks Canada recently implemented a recovery program to increase the number of plants in the most vulnerable colonies. Researchers set up nets to catch seeds on plants in flower and then planted under a metallic grid to protect them from predators such as birds and small mammals. The protection provided by the grid increased the germination rates by up to four times.

Other efforts include the germination and cultivation of thistles at the Gosling Research Institute for Plant Preservation (University of Guelph) and Montreal Biodôme greenhouses to obtain seedling in order to transplant these back into colonies. All are actively collaborating on germination and growing methods to help increase the number of plants in the wild.

Monarch butterflies at their wintering home in Mexico

Monarch butterflies at their wintering home in Mexico
Photo credit: ECCC

What can Canadians do?

In a future episode of La Semaine Verte on Radio-Canada, Canadians will be able to learn more about conservation efforts in Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve. A film crew from the popular French language science program will be following Simon Piche-Mongeon, a University of Ottawa M.Sc. student co-supervised by Thomas who is working on obtaining fresh genetic material, terrestrial soil and sediments from each of the colonies.

Should you get the chance to visit the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve, which Thomas calls one the most beautiful national parks in the country, you are encouraged to visit the local Parks Canada Interpretation Center, to learn more about this unique plant and how you can help contribute to its conservation and survival.



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