Michael Whitlock


Research Classification

Evolutionary Genetics
Population Genetics

Relevant Degree Programs



Master's students
Doctoral students
Postdoctoral Fellows
Any time / year round

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Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision (Jan 2008 - Nov 2020)
Untangling urban rat-associated health risks in disadvantaged neighbourhoods - from movement to mental health (2020)

Urban Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) carry a number of pathogens transmissible to people, and the prevalence of these pathogens can vary across fine spatial scales. While pathogen prevalence is an important determinant of human health risk, the transmission of these pathogens to people is closely linked to how rats and humans interact in cities. In this thesis, I investigated how interactions between urban rats, their environment, and people could influence human health risks. To do this, I explored whether rat movement could explain heterogeneous patterns of pathogen prevalence. First, in Chapter 2, I synthesized the published literature and found that rat movement is largely restricted by resource availability and landscape barriers such as roadways. Then, in Chapters 3 – 5, I combined ecological and genomics-based approaches to describe rat movement in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, an area where pathogen clustering has been previously documented. In Chapter 3, I demonstrated that movement estimates derived from capture-mark-recapture methods are prone to bias due to smaller individuals more frequently re-entering traps than larger individuals. Given issues of unequal trappability, in Chapter 4, I evaluated the utility of using Global Positioning System tags to track urban rats and found that these tools are currently ineffective due to tag loss and signal obstruction. In Chapter 5, I used rat genetics to identify related individuals and the distances between them. I demonstrated that 99% of highly related rat pairs (i.e., parent-offspring and full-sibling pairs) were trapped in the same city block, revealing infrequent dispersal among blocks, which aligned with patterns of pathogen clustering in this population. Finally, in Chapter 6, I interviewed residents of this neighbourhood about their experiences living with rats and illustrated that frequent and close contact with rats negatively impacted the mental health of residents. Overall, my research suggests that minimal movement of rats may lead to a clustering of rat-associated pathogens. Further, my work reveals that even in the absence of disease, interactions with rats may negatively impact the mental health of those living with them. Together, this information can be used to more effectively manage rat-associated health risks in cities.

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Understanding local adaptation and effective population size in the face of complex demographic history (2016)

Evolution is driven by four major processes that create, maintain, or eliminate genetic diversity within and among populations: mutation, gene flow, genetic drift, and natural selection. My thesis examines the role of demographic history and its interactions with each of these processes in impacting the evolution of populations. Demographic history can cause various states of non-equilibria in populations creating the potential to mis-inform important evolutionary inferences. Such inferences may be key for making conservation decisions in applied biology. Chapter 2 investigates methods for estimating effective population sizes under the assumption-violating scenario of migration among populations. Effective population size is proportional to the amount of genetic drift a population experiences, yet gene flow can affect measures of drift and thus estimates of population size. Using simulated data to understand the impact of migration on estimation accuracy, I find that two existing estimation methods function best. I next present two studies on species range expansions and the roles of migration, mutation, selection, and drift on expansion dynamics. Range expansion is a common demographic history in many species and can lead to non-equilibrium genetic scenarios. The first of these studies shows the interaction of deleterious mutation accumulation and local adaptation to environmental gradients during range expansions (Chapter 3). The interplay of expansion load, mutation load, and migration load lead to different levels of local adaptation in expanding populations. Chapter 4 examines the ability of species to expand over patches of environmental optima under different genetic architecture regimes. Expansion is enhanced by certain genetic architectures, and each of these interacts with the size of patches on the landscape as well as how strongly selection varies across patches. My final study assesses the reproducibility of analyses using the common stochastic algorithm structure (Chapter 5). This research finds 30% failure of reproducibility for results from structure using published datasets and elucidates the reasons for failure of reproducibility. In sum, my thesis contributes to our understanding of how gene flow, population size, heterogeneous selection, and mutation interact to impact the genetics of populations and thus the fate of evolving biodiversity.

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Local adaptation and maintenance of variation in heterogeneous environments (2010)

No abstract available.

Compensatory and Deleterious Mutations (2009)

No abstract available.


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