WOLF WEEK with Toby Fountain

We’re delighted to welcome  our next curator, Dr Toby Fountain (@toby_fountain), Postdoctoral Researcher, at Uppsala University. Toby hails from the UK but is currently based in Sweden, via Helsinki, Finland. Toby;’s interests lie in population genetics and the way in which genetic  diversity in the populations changes over time. He’s previously studied insects, but now? He’s studying wolves in Sweden. That’s right: WOLVES. Here’s Toby’s story.


I think I was one of the few five year olds that said they wanted to be a geneticist when they grew up. Like most kids, I was obsessed with

Toby Fountain (C)

Toby Fountain (C)

dinosaurs, and after watching Jurassic Park I was convinced that I wanted to become a scientist. While I was obviously disappointed when I learned that it was not possible to clone a 65 million year old extinct animal, and my interests fluctuated as I got older, I still think the seeds of me wanting to become a scientist can be traced back to that.


Despite my very early enthusiasm I actually found genetics to be quite difficult when I was at school and even early on at university. It wasn’t until late in my undergraduate degree that concepts started to cement in my mind, and it was around that same time I discovered the field of population genetics. PopGen (as we trendily call it) feels very much like detective work. We are investigating the history of populations, and uncovering what happened/or what is happening to them. Things that would be difficult, or even impossible to directly observe, like recent adaptations to environmental change, can be seen by looking at changes at the genetic level. It is also a research area that has been benefited tremendously by the genomics revolution, and we now have more tools that ever to investigate evolutionary processes. As I have continued my research I have more and more focused on the conservation/management side of the field, using genetic information to help inform decisions on populations of management concern. It is highly motivating to know that my research is not just pushing the field forward, but will have direct implications for some of the highest profile issues in conservation


I study how human actions influence genetic diversity. My current project is a collaboration between Uppsala University and SKANDULV investigating the Scandinavian wolf population. Wolves actually went extinct in Scandinavia in the 1960s but the peninsula was recolonized by just two wolves in the early 1980s. The population is isolated from the larger Finnish/Russian population by the reindeer husbandry area in Lapland, where wolves are not allowed to breed. That means there have been very few immigrants into the population since it was recolonised, so in other words not much new genetic variation has entered the population. We have sequenced the genomes of nearly 100 wolves collected between 1983 and 2013 and are analyzing how genetic diversity in the population has changed over that time. We are particularly interested in how much inbreeding there is in the population, as this will tell us how vulnerable the population is to another extinction.

The maintenance of genetic diversity is very important for a populations survival. Low levels of diversity can increase extinction risk through both an increase in genetic diseases, and the inability to adapt to changing environments. This is particularly important now with rapid environmental change (e.g. climate change, habitat fragmentation) threatening many populations/species across the globe. Wolves are a very interesting organism to work with as they are so polarizing. There remain many very different views on wolf management in not only Scandinavia but across their range. With wolves of major public interest, it is therefore important to have as much scientific evidence as possible to maintain a constructive dialogue with all involved parties.


Toby with a wolf. We are very jealous.

Toby with a wolf. We are very jealous.

My new year’s resolution was to start a podcast and I have really enjoyed doing that. It is called Slightly Evolved, and every week I talk to a different researcher and ask them about their research, motivations and other interests outside of science (so usually I am the one asking questions and not answering them :-p). It’s been a great way to learn about what other research is going on right now, and get a chance to meet other researchers. I have also recently joined a gender perspectives discussion group run by some researchers in our department, and it’s been very enlightening to discuss some of the biases and challenges faced by researchers right now.


I write music and play guitar, and I am usually a member of one or two rock bands. Despite being English I am also a huge fan of American Football (go Colts!) and every year two of my best friends and I go to watch a game live. Recently I have also got back into running, and I am part of our lab’s running team (“the Genetic Drifters”). I also go to the cinema a lot (but not only to watch dinosaur films…)


Having now gone through four Nordic winters my ideal day off at the moment would be going to a beach and soaking up some sunshine… But typically going to the pub with friends is great fun too!


Please welcome Toby to Real Scientists!







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