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

The Applied Conservation Ecology Laboratory, or ACE Lab, is a research unit at the University of Alberta founded and directed by Dr. Scott Nielsen since 2008. We are based out of the Department of Renewable Resources in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences.

During the academic semester, we are home to approximately 20 active research staff and graduate students, and that number swells to over 40 in the summer as we engage additional research assistants and field crews to perform fieldwork for projects ranging from grizzly bear and invertebrate research to large-scale forest biogeography studies and drone operations. Although we are in Renewable Resources, we work very closely with our colleagues in the Faculty of Science's Department of Biological Sciences, and collaborate on many projects large and small at all levels.


Research conducted by us extends across multiple taxa, disciplines and fields of research, centering on the lab’s titular core focus of ecology and conservation. We study the natural world at scales ranging from insect species to regional ecosystems with the goal of understanding the processes affecting their distribution, dynamics and interactions.

This theoretical knowledge in turn becomes a foundation for land use planning and stewardship, including such topics as conservation prioritization of species diversity and landscapes, the sustainable management of our natural capital, and the recovery of threatened and endangered biological resources.

We also have a keen interest in studying the effects of mankind on Alberta's boreal forests and the species living within, with a view to contributing insights and best practices to minimizing anthropogenic impacts and promoting restoration and recovery.

Industry, government and research organizations: We are always looking to collaborate and contribute on joint projects, creating synergies for greater progress and results than those from carrying out alone. If you have an environmental, ecological or conservation challenge that could benefit from a meeting of minds and sharing of expertise, please don't hesitate to get in touch with us!


We are headquartered at the University of Alberta’s North Campus in Edmonton, Alberta, and have active research operations extending throughout the province and Canada. Some of our lab members have taught ecology and studied species and ecosystems in as far-flung places as South America, Africa, and China!

Three ecosystems many of our projects focus on are the rocky mountains and boreal forests, the two largest groups of undeveloped habitats in Alberta, and, increasingly, lake island ecosystems across Canada, which provide incredible tableaus of natural experiments on more fundamental ecological forces like fire, dispersal, and the development of diversity and complexity.

When & How

Our research lab operates year-round. Spring and fall are particularly important times for the phenology of vegetation and the animals which depend on them, while wildlife tracking/trapping and data analysis intensifies in the winter. But undeniably, the season our research operations crank up to eleven are the prime summer months of June thru August, when almost the entire lab migrates into the field in droves to gather that sweet, vital summer field data!

When the time comes, we roll out in a fleet of 4x4 trucks and trailers to field camps and bases, and then head farther afield off the beaten track on quads and boats. We put on our hip waders, sunscreen, bug dope, shades, vests, sometimes steel-toe boots and helmets, and go hiking, wading, bushwhacking, climbing. We clamber into helicopters with cases of research gear and fly out yonder, punctuated by toilet breaks at deserted airfields to refuel en route. And then when we get there, maybe we'll pull out a drone and do a good survey of the area, or set up remote monitoring stations, cameras and dataloggers to collect the data for us.

We take safety seriously, with many days of training on everything from wilderness first aid to quad and chainsaw certification. We learn how to deal with bears, with hypothermia, with dehydration. We clip on H2S sensors, emergency beacons, bear spray holsters. We pack GPS units, walkie talkies, satellite phones and sometimes even aviation radios. And we bring bag lunches, our actual field survey equipment, and a truly Canadian can-do attitude.

Given how much time is sunk into getting to our field sites, many of us pull 10-day-on, 4-days-off rotations, while others still bring tents big and small and set up shop right in their study area for however long they desire to enjoy the untramelled wilderness. There are many camping, outdoor enthusiasts among us.

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 research assistants, graduate and undergraduate students to our lab, ranging from post-doctoral fellows and skilled technicians with many years of experience under their belts to bright-eyed, bushy-tailed junior undergraduates. If you think you have what it takes to join us, be sure to mention it to your ecology instructors, and check out our opportunities page for position openings! (Prospective graduate students: 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)