• Photo: Greg Willis

From sailors’ diaries to ancient weaving, Aaron Shafer’s research into the North American mountain goat has taken him on an unexpected journey. But going the extra mile landed him a top prize for his work.   

Shafer’s PhD research at the University of Alberta won him the 2013 Distinguished Dissertation Award, awarded by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies and University Microfilms International for outstanding work in engineering, medical sciences and natural sciences. Shafer will receive the award in November.

His research involved filling in the mountain goat’s evolutionary gaps, including how they responded to glacier movement centuries ago, which could help with understanding how the species will respond to future climate change.

“When I started my thesis, we knew very little about the evolution of mountain goats,” Shafer says. “Because it’s a hunted animal there’s a bit of information on reproduction, but beyond that we knew very little about the evolutionary history.”

One theory was that mountain goats survived the glaciers’ advance by heading south. But Shafer was surprised to find genetic data suggesting they also survived in the north, likely around Alaska.

On a tip from a colleague, Shafer looked into a story about Russian sailors seeing “white deer” years ago in the Alexander Archipelago, a group of about 1,100 islands off the coast of Alaska. He tracked down old diaries from the sailors, which contained detailed notes on everyday living, including references to seeing “iamem,” a Russian word used in Siberia that means goat or sheep. “The descriptions are clearly that of a mountain goat,” says Shafer, “not a deer.”

Shafer also discovered there was a distinct Alexander Archipelago style of weaving that died out 150 to 200 years ago. Although there are only about 12 of the mountain goat-hair blankets of this style left in the world, Shafer says they could contain DNA, which could provide further clues about the animals.

Not content to sit in a lab, Shafer also spent six to eight weeks observing mountain goats at Caw Ridge, Alta., in the foothills of the Rockies.

Although Shafer is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Sweden’s Uppsala University, where he’s now studying the Galapagos sea lion, he hasn’t given up on his PhD work. “I intend to continue working with mountain goats for the rest of my career.”