Rudy Boonstra PhD
Neuroscience Platform
Contact Info
T: (416) 287-7419
F: (416) 287-7442 x416
University of Toronto Scarborough, Centre for the Neurobiology of Stress, and Department of Biological Sciences, 1265 Military Trail
Toronto, ON, M1C 1A4
Primary: Ecology and Evolution
Cross-Appointed to Physiology
Cross-Appoined to Cell and Systems.

Director, Centre for the Neurobiology of Stress
Department of Biological Sciences
Professor of Ecology & Evolution and Physiology


Research Synopsis

Keywords: ecology; natural populations;  neuroendocrinology; aging; stress; Hypothalamo-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis;  demography; population regulation; maternal effects; fetal programming;   epigenetics; climate change; ecosystem processes

Detailed Description: My research program has been based on three platforms, with the first providing the foundation and many of the ideas and hypotheses for the second; the third is an integration of the two. First, much of my research career has been engaged in testing general hypotheses in population and community ecology using primarily northern and temperate mammals throughout Canada, Norway, UK, and Australia. The central question here on population regulation: what are the processes that prevent unlimited growth or decline to extinction Second, the dominant, though not exclusive, focus of my research program now is into one of the key underlying mechanisms - understanding the impact and functioning of the stress axis in natural populations. The stress axis functions within the context of the factors that regulate and limit populations, and thus knowledge of the latter provide the foundation to understand how the former operates and its significance.  The stress axis is one of the key neuroendocrine control mechanisms that mediate the relationship of the organism to its environment, both in terms of short-term responses to environmental changes (e.g. changes in population density, food, predators, weather, etc.) and of long-term evolutionary responses to particular ecological pressures. Thus, the axis is a vital regulator of adaptation in birds and mammals. The understanding of the functioning of the stress axis of wild species within the context of population and community processes is critical to their conservation and in ameliorating the rapid shifts in their habitat and distribution that is occurring because of global climate change. Third, I am examining how maternal effects  casue epigenetic changes in offspring in wild populations of mammals that then affects population processes.   Because of my knowledge of the life history of northern wild mammals, I used the comparative approach on natural animal models to test hypotheses in the natural world.

Current Research Projects - Ongoing research includes:

  • Impact of Chronic Stressors on Population Processes: Individuals in all species must continually balance the conflicting demands of finding food and avoiding their predators. The direct effects of predation are obvious, but the indirect, sublethal effects of predators acting through the stress of fear may be equally severe from a population standpoint (reduced health, inhibition of reproduction, reduced growth). We have demonstrated the critical importance of high predation risk in causing negative demographic and physiological impacts acting through stress in Yukon snowshoe hares, Arctic ground squirrels, and song sparrows. A central thrust of my current research now is to examine the epigenetic effects of predator-induced stress as a key contributor to the demography of 10-year snowshoe hare cycle in the YUKON. .
  • The role of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) on the life history of mammals, particularly with respect to its role in being the basis for spacing behavior such as territoriality during the nonbreeding season.
  • The evolution of the stress axis in mammals and the role of life history
  • The impact of environmental stressors on maternal programming through epigenetic changes and ultimately on population changes.

Reseach Field Sites

  • Arctic Institute Base, Kluane Lake Research Base, Yukon
  • Southern Ontario
  • Kananaskis, Alberta


Hippocampal Cells, Neurons

Procedures: Immunohistochemistry, Microarrays, RIA, RT-PCR, Enzyme Immunoassay System


Analytical Balances, Benchtop Centrifuge, Confocal Microscope, Cryostat, Departmental Beta and Gamma Counters, , Deconvolution Fluorescence Microscope, Dissecting Microscope, Electrophysiology Rig, Fluorescence Microscope, HPLC, Infusion Apparatus, Low- and High Speed Centrifuge, Low and ultralow Freezers, Micropipette Puller, Motorized Micromanipulators, Plate Reader, Real-Time/ Thermocycler, Stirrer/Hot  Plate, Vibratome, Water Baths

Sophia Lavergne (PhD)
Brendan Delehanty (PostDoc)
Phoebe Edards (MSc)

Martin Wojtowicz
Steve Matthews

Outside the Department of Physiology:
Ashley Monks             Psychology, UTM
Patrick McGowan       CSB, Biological Sciences/UofT Scarborough
Charles Krebs               Zoology, UBC
Stan Boutin             Biological Sciences, UBC
Andrew McAdam         Biological Sciences, Guelph
Adrian Bradley           School of Biomedical Sciences, Brisbane, Queensland
Harry Andreassen     Hedmark University College, Evenstad, Norway
Dennis Murray                        Trent University

Committee member/officer of national/international scientific organizations

List: N/A





BIO C58 - Biological Consequences of Global Climate Change, BIO C59 - Advanced Population Ecology

Publications and Awards

View PubMed search of this faculty member's recent publications.

Recent Publications

Boonstra, R. 2013. Reality as the leading cause of stress: Rethinking the impact of chronic stress in nature. Functional Ecology 27:11-23.

Dantzer, B., Q.E. Fletcher, R. Boonstra, and M.J. Sheriff. 2014. Measures of physiological stress: a transparent or opaque window into the status, management, and conservation of a species. Conservation Physiology 2:1-18. doi:10.1093/conphys/cou023

(review: will be the LEAD article in an issue on STRESS and Conservation Physiology)

Lavergne, S., P.O. McGowan, C.J. Krebs, and R. Boonstra. 2014. Impact of high predation risk on genome-wide hippocampal gene expression in snowshoe hares. Oecologia 176:613–624.

Dantzer AG, Newman AEM, Boonstra R, Palme R, Boutin S, Humphries MM, McAdam AG  2013. Density cues triggers maternal stress hormones that increase adaptive offspring growth in a wild mammal.  Science. 2013 340:1215-1217.

Delehanty, B., S. Hossain, C.C. Jen, G.J. Crawshaw, and R. Boonstra. 2015. Measuring free glucocorticoids: Quantifying CBG binding affinity and its variation within and among mammal species. Conservation Physiology in press.