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Past Winner
2001 NSERC Howard Alper Postdoctoral Prize

Glenn Tattersall


The University of British Columbia

Margaret Atwood wrote that the Canadian psyche is defined by the idea of survival. And she didn't even know what Glenn Tattersall knows about Canada's frogs. Survival doesn't get much dicier than spending a Canadian winter trapped under ice in a pond with a coterie of hungry predators.

These croaking amphibians are real wilderness survivors, and for helping elucidate how they accomplish this amazing physiological feat Tattersall has won the inaugural Howard Alper Postdoctoral Prize.

"My work has always been motivated by a desire to understand how organisms cope with environmental stress," says Tattersall, who's currently a postdoctoral fellow in the zoology department at the University of British Columbia.

This abiding interest has led Tattersall to explore such quintessentially Canadian topics as hypothermia and hibernation. In the process, he's changing the way scientists think about these physiological states – a change that is having repercussions from the pond to the operating table.

During his PhD research with frogs at Cambridge University, Tattersall metaphorically pulled-back-the-ice to reveal frogs as savvy winter survivors.

"I was able to determine that over-wintering amphibians are capable of making 'decisions' while in an apparent torpid state. This dispelled the popular notion that they simply bury themselves in the mud and wait out the winter," says Tattersall.

His intricate experimentation — it involved building a large animal chamber that allowed him to electronically monitor the frogs along a temperature gradient — earned him the Canadian Society of Zoology's 1996 student prize for the most innovative physiological technique.

The research demonstrated that these near-frozen frogs are capable of a significant amount of exertion, a scientific euphemism for activities such as hard paddling to avoid being eaten.

The key ecological adaptation Tattersall identified is that of hypoxia (low oxygen)-induced behavioural hypothermia: that frogs deliberately enter colder areas in order to slow their metabolism. Tattersall thinks that frogs might use this technique to recover from exertion, and to survive hypoxia itself.

Tattersall is now focusing on understanding the specific chemical and neurological pathways involved in low-oxygen-induced hypothermia, including that in humans and other primates.

"There's a lot of interest in the therapeutic value of hypothermia in surgery, and understanding the control of naturally occurring hypothermia could lead to pharmacological ways to aid its onset," Tattersall notes.

So as frogs head for the ponds to overwinter, their chemical secrets could hold the key to helping humans survive time under a surgeon's knife.