CRI’s SINLAB leading the way in identifying global patterns in biodiversity interactions

The United Nations has proclaimed May 22 as the International Day for Biological Diversity to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues. It was celebrated first in 1993 to commemorate the coming into force of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).  The CBD represents a dramatic step forward in the conservation of biological diversity worldwide. With the Secretariat in based in Montreal and with over 196 Parties so far, the Convention has near universal participation among UN member states.

Researchers at Canadian Rivers Insitute's (CRI) Stable Isotopes in Nature Laboratory (SINLAB) are using stable isotope analysis to contribute to the global understanding of biological diversity by measuring functional diversity of ecological communities across the globe. Stable isotope ecology applies the idiom “you are what you eat” to biological systems; the carbon, nitrogen or hydrogen stable isotope ratio of a consumer will equate to that of its prey. They identify the isotopic signature of individuals to draw conclusions regarding the energy linkages and interactions at different tropic levels in an ecosystem. Through this method they are able to answer such questions as who is eating whom, and where are they eating, connecting the interdependent links of biological diversity.

Stable Isotope analysis can be used to identify resource use by aquatic consumers and aquatic food web structures; continental-scale aquatic and terrestrial migration patterns; and hydro-geochemical processes such as groundwater influences in rivers and nutrient cycling.  The ability to identify the interactions between different components of an ecosystem makes this technology a valuable tool for understanding, promoting and improving integrated management as an effective vehicle for biodiversity conservation planning.

Brent Nawrocki, the SINLAB’s Isotope Technician, processes tissue samples for isotope analysis

Brent Nawrocki, the SINLAB’s Isotope Technician, processes tissue samples for isotope analysis

The SINLAB is a million-dollar facility located at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in Fredericton. While stable isotope analysis has a long history is the geochemical sciences, the SINLAB was one of the first to apply the technology to ecological research and is currently the largest ecology-focused stable isotopes facility east of Montreal.

“Stable isotope analysis is relatively new to the interdisciplinary nature of ecology,” says Dr. Rick Cunjak, SINLAB Director (1999), one of the CRI’s four founding members, a professor of Biology and Forestry and Environmental Management at UNB, and a former Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in River Ecosystem Science. “We have adapted the technology to answer ecological questions and it is now an essential methodology for ecologists and resource managers.” 

One of the critical uses of the technology today is in understanding the implications of the decline of wild Atlantic salmon populations in our rivers.  Dr. Cunjak and CRI at UNB PhD candidate Kurt Samways, are investigating how marine derived nutrients, transported into rivers by salmon and other fishes, enhance freshwater food web productivity.

Previous researchers in the SINLAB have created isotopic maps, or isoscapes, of the ocean based on temperature and productivity over the last three decades, which they then compare to the isotopic carbon signature of salmon scales. By looking at the growth years of the scales- similar to tree rings- and correlating to the ocean isoscape, they can identify where the fish are likely feeding.  

As ocean temperatures rise due to climate change, the food availability in the ocean shifts, requiring salmon to migrate further north to feed.  With increasing distance to travel so does the exposure to threats to predators, fishing, disease, and fatigue.  This research provides valuable information as to the drivers of salmon decline and returns to freshwater spawning grounds.

The SINLAB team is developing these new and useful technological tools and making them available to the global research community.  “Researchers and decision makers have to have an understanding of the different roles played in the environment– the chemical, physical and biological,” says Dr. Cunjak. “Fish ecologists can now better understand larger questions of interest in larger freshwater systems than the one species or populations that they are experts in,” he says.

While the original focus of the laboratory was to compliment the aquatic research interests of the scientists within the CRI, the lab has grown in research scope and its stable isotope analysis has become a valuable and popular tool worldwide, with a network of collaborators and clients around the word. 

Dr. Brian Hayden, CRI at UNB postdoctoral fellow and SINLAB Science Manager, reviews recent isotope analysis data

Dr. Brian Hayden, CRI at UNB postdoctoral fellow and SINLAB Science Manager, reviews recent isotope analysis data

SINLAB collaborators and clients span 21 countries worldwide, and represent all research sectors, including government agencies, private sector industries and consultancies, and academic scientists from 30 universities.

Dr. Cunjak and his team are collaborating with Dr. Chris Harrod at Universidad de Antofagasta in Chile to examine how marine upwelling offshore is contributing to coastal food webs; with Dr. Bill Beamish, research professor at Burapha University in Thailand, looking at the trophic relationships of fishes in tropical streams; and locally with Dr. Tony Diamond of UNB, understanding how human activities such as fish or mink farming represent a diet subsidy for sea birds. These are a few examples of the globally collaborations the CRI SINLAB team at UNB have been fostering.

Because of its global focus, the SINLAB has developed as a repository for big datasets of valuable long-term data that when put together can provide a picture of the food web interactions across global ecosystems.  Dr. Brian Hayden, a CRI Associate, post-doctoral fellow in the biology department at UNB, and the SINLAB’s Science Manager, is taking this data to the next level by pioneering the application of “big data” to stable isotope ecology. He is facilitating an international collaboration of researchers from Canada, Chile, USA and the UK to develop a data federation resource for stable isotope scientists.  The “IsoBank” is a unique initiative- an archive for geo-referenced stable isotope data, open to researchers across the globe.


With these groundbreaking research initiatives, the demand from clients and interest from new collaborators is growing. The lab is also growing physically- in people, equipment and space.  In late 2016, Brent Nawrocki (Isotope Technician) and Dr. Andrea Prentice (Technical Manager) joined the team and the lab underwent a major renovation with the addition of 2 new elemental analysers and one isotopic ratio mass spectrometer, and renovation of the lab space.  The expansion in people and equipment has increased the lab’s research and analysis capacity.

The SINLAB also has a strong focus on the training and professional development of students and young scientists. The lab and its research has attracted and trained more than 75 students and post-doctoral fellows from around the world including Finland, Ireland, Spain and USA. These highly qualified professionals have subsequently advanced their careers nationally and internationally in positions in Saskatchewan, New Zealand and Belgium.

“Students and young scientists get a chance to learn experimental design, how to work in a highly technical laboratory such as with aseptic techniques to ensure quality control, and get experience with how data are generated and results are analyzed,” says Dr. Cunjak.  “Students also get valuable connections with international researchers and collaborators.“

“In my opinion, our biggest indicator of success is that clients are continually coming back and they are happy with data and their research projects are successful.  Clients and collaborators who visit our facilities at UNB Fredericton are always surprised at what we accomplish. We are punching above our weight, but we’ve cultivated a solid reputation that has built our international scientific creditability,” he says.


The SINLAB is a self-sufficient facility and has employed more than 10 staff. The current team consists of 5 full-time research and technical staff. It’s a close-knit team collaborating closely to ensure high quality data and client relationships


Dr. Rick Cunjak (centre) is a CRI founding member and current Science Director, SINLAB founder and director, former Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in River Ecosystem Science, and professor of Biology and Forestry and Environmental Management at UNB.

Dr. Brian Hayden (far left) is a CRI post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Biology, UNB and SINLAB Science Manager. Dr. Hayden has a PhD (2009) from University College Dublin’s School of Biology and Environmental Science, Ireland. He came to the SINLAB in 2014.

Anne McGeachy (second right) has been SINLAB Lab Manger since 1999. She has an MSc from the University of New Brunswick.

Brent Nawrocki (far right) is the SINLAB’s Isotope Technician. He has an MSc in Environmental Science from the University of Windsor. Brent joined the SINLAB team in late 2016.

Dr. Andrea Prentice (second left) is the SINLAB’s Technical Manager. She has a PhD from Western University. She joined the SINLAB team in late 2016.