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UAF Scientist takes her sled dog research to Alberta


Fairbanks, AK -  A University of Alaska, Fairbanks Professor is on her way to Banff, Albert this weekend, to present her research during the annual meeting of the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association.  Within the science community, it’s well known that sled dogs can offer an excellent model for biomedical research.  Some of that research can provide more information about Native Alaskan subsistence diets and life in the arctic.

Kriya Dunlap was raised in upstate New York with nearly 200 sled dogs.  Her father was a champion sprint musher in the 70‘s and 80’s.  “My dad was having dogs that were ceasing up and at that time the commercial food was high grain and high carbohydrate," she explains.  Her family's kennel was referred to an equine researcher and from there, a new partnership formed.

Growing up at a kennel that was part of a large, long term scientific study, eventually brought her here permanently.  She’s an Assistant Biochemistry Professor at UAF’s Institute of Arctic Biology.  She uses sled dogs as a research model to look at subsistence diets and physical adaptation to the circumpolar north.
“They represent a really large homogenous sample size," she ecxplains. "You can have a kennel of 20 or more dogs in one area and they are all genetically similar from one location to the next because there’s a lot of trading and selling of dogs and another really great benefit model of the sled dog is that you don’t have a lot of the confounding issues of alcohol or smoking which is fairly prevalent in villages.”

Dunlap studies dogs in Alaskan Native villages up and down the Yukon River, from Russian Mission to Fort Yukon.  A simple blood sample can tell her a lot about a dog’s diet, which is often similar to the traditional subsistence diet.  In particular, Dunlap is testing for mercury, which has been found to counteract the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids in salmon.

“A really interesting finding is that the further away from the mouth of the Yukon, the lower the mercury was," she says.  "So, we weren’t really expecting that and it definitely is a remarkable change.  So they’re eating subsistence food, so does that correspond to the human values as well?”

Dunlap is also looking at how sled dogs adapt to extreme temperature changes and seasonal fluctuations in darkness and light in the far north. “[For] a period about ten years ago, there was a lot of diagnosis of hypothyroidism, so low thyroid hormone, which is kind of interesting because an animal that’s a polar animal you would expect to have higher thyroid hormone because they have higher metabolism and things like that.”

Recently, she compared dogs from Salcha with dogs at her family’s kennel in New York.  In general, Dunlap says sled dogs have lower basal thyroid hormone levels than other dogs. “And this may just be an adaptation to the circumpolar north," she says.  "and the fact that these dogs evolved from kind of a feast or famine environment where they either had food or they didn’t have food so why upregulate that metabolism if you don’t have the food to correspond, so it might be just that.”

In the future, Dunlap plans to test mercury levels in the fish village sled dogs are eating.  She’s also supplementing dogs’ diets with Alaskan blueberries to explore the effects of added antioxidants.  Dunlap’s also looking into how sled dogs might be used to shed light on the increasing epidemic of type two diabetes in Alaska Natives.