12 January 2017

Science has spoken on New Brunswick's great cougar debate

Test results are in on a first round of DNA samples, some of which languished for years in a Montreal lab

By Shane Fowler, CBC News

After months of testing samples of hair and scat gathered in New Brunswick for potential cougar DNA the first batch of results are in — and they are definitive.

Bobcat.

"Not cougar at all," said Scott Pavey, head of the Canadian Rivers Institute genomics lab. "I'm 100 per cent on that."

Bobcat, while elusive, are native to New Brunswick and thought to have a healthy population.  

There are still more samples undergoing testing which could reveal the presence of cougars in the province.

The two samples that have been tested are the two that were most recently collected.  

One sample was hair and blood collected from the grill of a car after a woman claimed she struck a cougar near Sussex in September 2016.

The other was scat obtained by provincial wildlife officers after man called in a report of a large cat eating a deer carcass in December 2014.

Pavey said a third sample is too small for testing, leaving four more prospects yet to be checked.

While all of the samples originate from New Brunswick, either collected by residents or wildlife officers, many of them have spent years outside the province. The New Brunswick Museum originally sent hair and scat samples to a Montreal lab for analysis, but a backlog of work there kept them from ever being tested.

A partnership between the museum and the lab located at the University of New Brunswick Saint John Campus brought the samples back to their province of origin for analysis.

"I would have been shocked had either one of these samples been from cougar," said Donald McAlpine, the Research Curator and head of zoology at the New Brunswick Museum. "But there are still more samples to look at so it will be very exciting to see where further testing goes."

"It's exciting," said Faith Penny, the PhD student and lab technician who has been putting hours into the cougar "side-project."

Penny has been working to extract the DNA, replicating enough of the target genes to analyze, and then comparing them to those of known species such as bobcat and lynx.

"When I got the results I dropped everything to check them right after lunch," she said.

Penny has been researching striped bass on the genetic level, but said getting to investigate this "hometown legend" has been a thrill.

"I guess I'm still a believer that there are cougars out there," she said. "But I definitely believe these results, and I'm not saying that I'm surprised by them. It's hard to tell what things are, especially in the heat of the moment."

Penny has family members who also swear they've seen cougars in New Brunswick and said she well understands the sometimes fervent belief that drives the debate over whether or not the cats live in the province.

"We all want to see one," she said.  "I believe the science, but we'll see what the other samples say as well."
 
However, the remaining samples are proving difficult to extract pure DNA from.

"It's particularly challenging with old samples," said Pavey. "And it's also challenging with scat because DNA...can be quite degraded because it's gone through an intestinal tract."

If any of the samples do test positive for cougar DNA, it will not be the first time traces of the animal have shown up in the province.

Two hair samples proved to contain DNA when collected from Fundy National Park in 2003. By tracing the genes from that sample back to its origin population, it was determined that animal came from South America.