Photo: Scott Nielsen
The southern Canadian Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada.
About ACE Lab

The Applied Conservation Ecology Laboratory is a research unit at the University of Alberta led by Dr. Scott Nielsen since 2008. We are based out of the Department of Renewable Resources with a focus on species and biodiversity conservation.

During the academic semester, our lab has ~20 active research staff and graduate students. The lab population doubles in summer as undergraduate research assistants join in to help grad students with fieldwork on projects ranging from grizzly bears to butterflies to large-scale biogeography.


We are not necessarily tied to any specific taxa or method, but rather focus on good questions, the application (e.g. conservation), and ultimately the need to truly understand an organism’s natural history, its population, and its trophic interactions. Without such information, we’d be guessing at best in their conservation by relying mostly on coarse-filter methods that protect habitat, but simply ignore species. Although a valued initial step in conservation, this simply isn’t the focus of our lab. We expect students to know their organism and to always have a good question. Broadly speaking, our lab’s goal is to understand the processes affecting the distribution, dynamics, and interactions of species in order to inform their stewardship (i.e. management, conservation, and restoration).


Although we have worked in number of different places and ecosystems, generally our focus is in three areas: (1) rocky mountains; (2) boreal forests, and (3) lake island ecosystems on the Canadian Shield. The Rocky Mountains contain the highest diversity of mega-fauna in North America, but are increasingly threatened by human activities. Here we have working on the ecology and conservation of grizzly bears. Similarly, although much of the boreal forest remains quite pristine, it is being increasingly fragmented by resource extraction activities from forest harvesting and energy developments. It is here that we are studying the effects of forest fragmentation and fire on species diversity. Finally, the lake islands provide an natural experimental system to examine classic questions in ecology and conservation including fragmentation, edge effects, isolation and more generally island biogeography theory.

When & How

Summer is the busiest time for gathering field data. We have field camps in the areas around Hinton and Fort McMurray, Alberta, and NW Ontario. The lab has access to trucks, ATVs, drones (UAVs), and small boats, but generally we expect a lot of “bush work” that relies on students navigating through forests and peatlands.

We take safety seriously, with safety training on everything from wilderness first aid to quad and chainsaw certification. Students must learn how to deal with among other things bears, hypothermia, dehydration, and proper communication (satellite phones etc).

Check out our research pages on Biodiversity, Biogeography, and Wildlife Ecology to learn more about what we do, or scroll down to check out pictures from the field!

Prospective students and field assistants: We attract an eclectic mix of post-doctoral fellows, research assistants, and graduate and undergraduate students. If you think you have what it takes to join us check out our opportunities page for current openings! (Prospective graduate students: Please note we receive a lot of requests, yet few openings; please read this before emailing us.)

Our Fieldwork

We work everywhere, including some really cool places accessible only by boat, plane, helicopter, 4x4 truck, ATV, snowmobile, canoe or unmanned aerial vehicle.

ACE Lab researchers load up a chartered boatplane, boat and quad for lake ecology research work (Photo: Scott Nielsen)A research helicopter comes in to landing at a remote grizzly bear study site in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia (Photo: Clayton Lamb, PhD Student 2014-)
Research Technician Ira navigates among islands at the helm of a boat in the lakes of Ontario (Photo: Scott Nielsen)Scott Nielsen canoes through Wisconsin and Michigan on a solo watershed biodiversity transect expedition (Photo: Scott Nielsen)
One of us wades through boreal forest fens pulling equipment and samples (Photo: Jacqueline Dennett)Research Tech Tobias lands a UAV after a biodiversity plot survey near George Lake, Alberta (Photo: Scott Nielsen)

Our field accomodations range from rustic cabins and campsites to dorm houses with full amenities.

Graduate student Zac chills with some guitar tunes at his campsite in Ontario (Photo: Zac MacDonald)Scott Nielsen's cabin on the shoreline of Rainy Lake Ontario, a new long-term lab field base for future biodiversity and biogeography research (Photo: Scott Nielsen) Our leased field house in Fort MacMurray, a base with full amenities for multiple research teams working further north (Photo: Tobias Tan)Wall tents and cabin at our Kakwa grizzly bear project campsite in the rocky mountains of B.C. (Photo: Scott Nielsen)

A sampling of what we're up to in the field.

Graduate student Zac and field technician Ira take a breather while conducting insect surveys on lake islands in Ontario (Photo: Scott Nielsen)Clayton prepares a grizzly bear for recovery after putting a GPS collar on it (Photo: Clayton Lamb)
Scott marks points on interest on the GPS flying over the Ronald Lake bison study area (Photo: Mark Edwards)Grad student Angelo conducting regeneration transects on a burned seismic line in northern Alberta (Photo: Tobias Tan)