Love birds: the day I broke a turkey’s heart

One of my favourite field work stories comes from my very first field season. I’ll be the first to admit that I had no idea what I was doing back then. I couldn’t identify most plants, was slightly scared (ok, terrified) of dragonflies and went to the field wearing outfits I would wear to work at my part-time retail job later in the day…what was I thinking???

Anyways, I remember it being a brisk morning in May. We were looking for target plants of about 30 species in an old-field at the Queen’s University Biological Station to monitor flowering time and plant size. We had no idea what species we were targeting as plants were too small that early in the season. Instead we were simply looking for morphological differences and naming them something we would remember. For example, Danthonia spicata, or poverty oat grass, is a low-growing grass with soft and fuzzy leaves. Grasses are difficult to identify without flowers so in the earliest parts of the season we referred to poverty oat grass as “fuzzy grass”.

That morning I was working in a low-lying area of the field right next to some bushes at the tree line. I was uncomfortably crouching down wearing dark jeans that had little movement in them and my dressy brown blouse was catching in the wind and blowing up to meet my brown baseball cap. I had my back to the bushes and was busily searching the ground looking for “looks like marijuana plant” aka Potentilla Recta. I heard a rustle behind me, and before I could even turn around, I glanced up at another field crew member who was standing about 20 feet in front of me. “Oh my God, turn around,” she exclaimed. I briskly turned my head and just a few feet behind me was a huge Tom (an adult male wild turkey). He had emerged from the bushes and was fanning his beautiful and bright tail feathers and dragging his strong wings along the ground beside him.

I was frozen and had no idea what to do. I had seen plenty of wild turkeys in my life but generally they had avoided me, like they do most humans. What on earth was this turkey doing? Why was he …. *holy *&#%*… it came to me. He thought I was a TURKEY TOO. My wavy brown blouse, brown hat and crouched down position probably made the poor guy think “WOW, now that is a BIG turkey…and she WILL be mine”. So out he came with his best face on and tried to impress me.

Suddenly, in a panic, I stood up. The turkey paused for a moment, let out a weird yelp and then a cluck. He jumped two feet in the air, spun around and crashed back into the bushes. I’m sure he was just as shocked about the whole situation as I was. The love of his life, the most beautiful hen he had ever set eyes on, was not actually a hen, but an awkward field biologist lurking in the grass. After that incident, I started wearing bright colours in the field, and now I never stay in the same spot for too long. I wouldn’t want to break another turkey’s heart.

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Bringing the Field Back to the Community

We are very excited to welcome a fellow #scicomm fanatic to the blog today! Tianna Burke tells us all about bringing fieldwork back to the community. For more about Tianna, see the end of this post.

This year I have been lucky enough to put two of my favourite things together in my current position with the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve (GBBR) – field work and outreach education.

As a UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve, one of our missions at GBBR is to support the conservation of biodiversity through education and public outreach to foster a sense of shared responsibility to protect this special place.  In 2017, GBBR has helped support conservation efforts through the work we have done thanks to funding from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Canadian Wildlife Service grant programs. Part of this effort was the monitoring of massasauga rattlesnake gestation sites and foxsnake hibernation sites.

This field work made me feel so lucky to live here! It allowed me to see amazing tracts of forest, fantastic rock outcrops, and some of the incredible islands out on Georgian Bay.  The geology around here is something else!

Geology Example

When you are in the field so often, you are also more likely to see species other people rarely get to see.  On one of our site visits we spotted this amazing Eastern hog-nosed snake, which put on quite the dramatic performance. This species is known for the dramatic hissing and cobra-like displays it employs before resorting to its plan B – playing dead. It looks terrifying, but is actually harmless!

So, why is it important for us to monitor gestation and hibernation sites?  Well, because these areas are essential to the life cycle of these two species at risk. During July and August, we surveyed a variety of rock outcrops for gestating massasauga rattlesnakes. Massasaugas gestate alone, however they can be within proximity to other snakes.  Shorter summers in Parry Sound mean that most of our massasaugas give birth every 2-3 years, whereas in more southern areas they are known to have yearly litters.  A litter can consist anywhere from 5-20 neonates (baby rattlesnakes)! Since it’s important to monitor these areas regularly to ensure habitat availability and quality, we were able to partner with other organizations and individuals for future monitoring.

Massasauga Photo

A beautiful massasauga rattlesnake

Foxsnake hibernation site surveys were conducted on properties that had been monitored back in 2004, as part of a University of Guelph master’s thesis. Most of these snakes were known to hibernate on islands and lay their eggs inland. Unlike the massasauga, foxsnakes do not give live birth. We wanted to see if they were still available and active 13 years later (hint: excitingly, they were!!).

Me and Foxsnake

Holding a beautiful foxsnake

Since we are working in an area with venomous snakes there are safety protocols that we obviously need to follow.  These include wearing high-ankle hiking boots, long pants, and carrying, snake hooks. If we got lucky and found a snake, we would capture and process it, which included taking photos and checking for pit-tags. Pit tags are tiny microchip, similar to what a pet dog or cat would get, that are implanted just under the skin.  Although we don’t tag snakes ourselves, many of them may be pit-tagged thanks to a history of snake research in the Parry Sound area, especially at Killbear Provincial Park.

One might assume that the most difficult part of this job was working with a venomous and potentially dangerous snake. However, that wasn’t the case! In fact, the most difficult part is challenging the misconceptions that surround snakes.

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Doing some snake outreach in the community

The massasauga rattlesnake is Ontario’s only venomous snake, and the eastern foxsnake mimics the massasauga by rattling its tail when threatened.  Due to habitat loss and persecution by humans, they have both been listed as species at risk. There are so many misconceptions about snakes by people who live in and visit the Georgian Bay area, but social media has been a fun way to bust some of these myths.

Social media platforms allow us to reach more people than conventional methods of outreach such as booths and presentations.  I’m sure many people reading this blog have heard of Scicomm, or science communication, and this is pretty much what we are aiming to do – bring the field to everyone’s computer.

But how do you grab people’s interest?  By coming up with engaging and unique posts!  One of my personal favourite ways of doing this is using the #TriviaTuesday or #WildlifeWednesday hashtags!  These have made our posts fun and informative and have resulted in higher engagement levels. People love a good game, but they also learn from our trivia, as it revolves around the species biology, identification, or safety.  Here are just a few of the examples!

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One of our biggest hits on Facebook was a post I wrote about rattlesnake neonates. I was a little worried that there would be some negative feedback about “breeding rattlesnakes”; however, it was quite the opposite.  We wanted this post to share the excitement of a successful breeding attempt by a species at risk, so we chose to take the same approach as we would for humans: we made it a birth announcement!  It was positively received by most people on our page and also by the local radio station.

Baby Rattlesnake Announcement

The birth announcement

Georgian Bay is an amazing place because of the beautiful scenery and amazing creatures that live here.  Many times the public only sees the scenery and rarely the species within it.  Even when we, as biologists, go out into the field looking for certain species, we often have to do more than one survey because they are so cryptic and hard to find.

Much of what is known about some species, especially snakes, is what has been portrayed by folklore, popular media, or family/friends, often leading people to be afraid of or dislike these important creatures.  By running trivia games and writing unique social media posts, I hope that we are able to not only change people’s negative opinions of these species but also educate them on how to live alongside wildlife by understanding how animals and plants live, how to ID them, and why they are important. At GBBR, we are slowly but surely seeing a change in public perception, a shift in behaviour, and increasing respect for the natural world…I love it!

Tianna is a conservation biologist currently working for the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve. She obtained her undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo in environmental studies and completed her M.Sc. at Trent University studying Bank Swallow habitat. Working with so many passionate people is what fueled her love for the environmental field, especially her love of birds. She can be found on twitter @Tingo_89, where she co-manages the #BioLitClub and shares her passion for birds, cats, and her strange hobby of taxidermy.

Confessions of a lab biologist

We are excited to welcome Leslie Holmes to the blog today. Leslie is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University, and while she may only be a novice field biologist…she “gets it”. For more about Leslie, see the end of this post. 

While I’m no field biologist, I have had short expeditions in field biology. As a novice ‘field biologist’ I can honestly say “I get it”, that is, I get the appeal. Who wouldn’t want to be outside all day? Imagine it’s a warm, sunny day, and there isn’t a cloud in the sky, your body is flooded with sun induced happy hormones and your mood instantly peaks. But it’s days like this, that it’s just as difficult to get your work done outside as it is inside sitting at a microscope, lab bench, or computer; my usual forte. Because, while inside there are birds constantly flying by your window casting animated shadows across your computer screen or field of view, and the idea of being outside trying out your lab’s recent purchase of a slip and slide is far more appealing than lab work, the work to be done outside is just as daunting. Inside, you’re (hopefully) cool and comfortable, struggling only with your mental capacity of getting your work done, while outside, in addition to mental anguish, you’re often overheating, sweating, and physically drained, and while you know these insects won’t collect themselves, all you want to do is lay down in the shade and read a book or go for a swim.

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Trying out the slip and slide

But I think every field biologist out there would agree, not every day is like this. In the spring and summer, you might have rainy days, where it’s coming down so hard you feel like a tin can and a sponge at the same time, rain drops hitting you like golf balls, not to mention the added 20 lbs of water weight you must now carry with you. As temperatures rise, you literally become a buffet for every biting insect in a 1-kilometer radius. Then there are days you’re so exhausted you don’t think you can take a single step more, even if it’s the first step back to the biology station where a nice meal awaits you. However, this utter exhaustion will almost certainly guarantee you a solid night’s sleep, an anomaly for most of us lab biologists.

As I sat down to write this piece, I thought back to my very first field biology experience and the absolute wonder it brought to my life. It was July 10th 2009 in the McFadden National Wildlife Refuge of Sabine Pass, Texas, and our lab was trying to verify the range expansion of an invasive blowfly species Chrysomya megacephala. The landscape chosen to put some carrion out was less than 500 m from the coastal beach and was still recovering from the destruction of hurricane Ike that had passed through in 2008. In addition, the landscape had fallen victim to a large-scale lightning induced fire less than a week prior to our arrival. It was incredible, the flooding from the previous year’s hurricane, left little in the way of plant and wildlife, and what little that was there, had burned from the fire the week before, but to our amazement, the blowflies arrived within minutes of setting out the carrion. Minutes! It was here that I realized just how little we know about ecology and how it appears that the simplest organisms seem to have it all figured out.

I’ve also done some field work in the winter, and I have to say, if you’re a field biologist and you’re about to embark on a day, you know in advance is not going to be good, take someone like me with you! That is, take a novice, someone who is eager and happy to help and get experience, but has never seen a truly bad day in the field! Trust me, they will make light of what you most certainly believe will be an awful situation. The day was December 23rd, 2013, I was working in the lab over the holidays on my own experiments, so when my friend Amanda needed help in the field so that she could go home for Christmas, I didn’t even hesitate to offer my services, as limited and inexperienced as they may have been. Side bar: December of 2013 in Kingston, Ontario has come to be known as the year we got more snow than we’d seen in 5 years, and ice storm, after snow storm, after ice storm, etc.  Over the course of a week, Kingston, Ontario was blanketed with 30-100 cm of snow (depending on presence or absence of snow drifts), and 20-30mm of freezing rain. Specifically, there were layers of snow and ice throughout the landscape, and on December 23rd, the day after a second ice storm, we were headed to Amanda’s field study site. As we were driving to the Opinicon region, it occurred to us that the ATV typically used to haul us and our equipment to the field site might not be a viable option due to the deep drifts of ice and snow. But given the trek into the field site from the road was long and winding, we gave it the good ol’ college try, getting the ATV stuck in the snow/ice the instant we drove it out of the garage. So with 100+ lbs of equipment, Amanda and I started trudging through the deep snow/ice/snow/ice layers in an open field. And while Amanda would probably tell you, this day is probably one her top 5 worst days in the field, I would tell you, I laughed so much that day, that it was a good thing it was a mild -2˚C day, or my tears of laugher would have frozen to my cheeks!

snow

Amanda crawling across the snow to place boxes containing seeds for overwintering. Distributing our weight across the snowy, icy surface was an effective strategy but drastically delayed our time to completion.

Being a novice field biologist however, is not always ideal. It was late fall (my first time out in the field in any other season but summer), and the lab was bringing the dock in from Round Lake at the Queen’s University Biology Station. I was told that it was going to be a half day job and we were leaving first thing in the morning, so I had my usual late fall hearty breakfast of stone rolled oats and was ready to go, dressed in warm layers with a new waterproof jacket, pants and winter boots. Let’s just say, just like in the lab, things always take longer than your supervisor thinks it will and here we were, 8 hours later, heading back to Kingston after a long, but successful task of taking the dock out of Round Lake. Ignorant to the whole field biology experience, I had not prepared for this task to take longer than half a day, and thus I had not packed a lunch. So, when everyone paused in their tasks for a lunch break, my lack of preparedness was evident for all to see. Too embarrassed to admit my ignorance, I told everyone that I didn’t usually eat lunch, silently willing my many layers of clothing to mask my thunderous hunger rumbles. By the end of the day I was starving, cold, wet and very hangry! Picking up some pizza and a large hot chocolate on my way home, I could not wait to peel my cold wet clothes off and have a scalding hot bath, only to discover my housemate had just used the last drop of hot water!

I’ve learned a lot from my limited experience in field biology, and while I often get envious of all my field biologists friends and the exciting places they get to discover, I certainly don’t regret moving to the dark side and doing most of my research in a lab setting. I think I’ll always gravitate towards laboratory research, where I like to think I’m in control of everything (although my entire PhD thus far would suggest otherwise). However, I do hope to continue to collaborate on field biology research and probably most ideally, pair laboratory studies with field studies.

2016-12-08 11.19.38A bit more about Leslie: “I received my bachelor of forensic science degree from the University of Windsor in 2008. Early in my undergraduate degree, I branched into the field of biology by working in a forensic entomology lab as a work study student. Helping graduate students at the time with their theses, I was engulfed into the world of forensic entomology. From there I was offered a Master’s position in Dr. VanLaerhoven’s lab in Windsor to complete a development study on the black soldier fly for the purposes of maintaining a waste management facility year round in southern Ontario. I enrolled in my Master’s degree in the fall of 2008. Prior to starting my graduate studies, I worked in Dr. VanLaerhoven’s lab in the summer of 2008 on a ‘side’ project. As a result of this project, I travelled with my lab to the North American Forensic Entomology Association conference in Atlantic City to present our findings. It was at this conference that I met Dr. Tomberlin from Texas A&M University, the leading expert on the black soldier fly and landed a visiting research scholar position in his laboratory at Texas A&M. As a result, I spent the last year of my master’s in Dr. Tomberlin’s lab, where I completed 3 out of the 4 experiments of my master’s. An electronic copy of my thesis titled “Role of Abiotic Factors on the Development and LIfe History of the Black Soldier Fly, Hermetia illucens (L.) (Diptera: Stratiomyidae)” can be download here.

I completed my master’s degree in October of 2010 and was able to land a part-time faculty position at Trent University in January 2011. I was employed in their Forensic Science Department and taught their first year introduction to forensic science and crime scene investigation courses. I also developed a new online course in forensic entomology and taught it in the summer of 2012 online. While teaching online at Trent University in 2012, I also worked as an entomological researcher, raising beneficial insects for the purposes of integrated pest management. It was in September 2012, that I decided to return to school to embark on my PhD at Queen’s University.”

Oversized survival suit

At the end of this summer, one of my supervisors said he was coming to town and

Double-crested cormorants on perches on an island.

asked if I wanted to help him collect cormorant eggs on small islands in Lake Ontario. Since the double-crested cormorant is a species that I spend a lot of time studying in the lab, I jumped at the chance to get out in the field again.

Despite it being August, the depth and breadth of Lake Ontario results in the water still being very chilly. So for safety and comfort, the field team donned survival suits. These are essentially bright orange onesies that are meant to keep you both dry and warm, especially if you were immersed in cold water. If you google “survival suit” you will see what I mean. Unfortunately, I do not have any pictures because I could hardly move, let alone take out a camera.

two survival suits

Survival suit hanging to dry after a boat ride in the Pacific Ocean.

I am no stranger to survival suits, having worn them when I was looking for seabirds in Haida Gwaii. Based on my few experiences, I am convinced that survival suits only come in size Large and Extra-Large. I understand they are designed to be large enough to fit over your warm field clothes. However, when I met my supervisor this time, it seemed that all the large survival suits were taken and all that was left was an extra-extra-large one. The boot was so large that I could fit my foot in with hiking shoes, and I still had room to move around! Survival suits normally do not allow you much movement, but this one was bunched so much around my body and neck that I could hardly turn left or right (good thing I wasn’t driving!). I even had to use my arms to pick up my feet to step over field gear on the boat!

Trying to stay in good spirits and not embarrass myself, I volunteered to get off the boat to collect the eggs on the island. You can probably imagine this was not an easy task! Have you ever jumped into a big puddle with rain boots on?

One of the islands we visited.

To me, it feels like how I would imagine walking on the moon feels like – the extra air in the boots prevent you from actually touching the ground making balance very tricky.

 

The boat could only drift in a few meters from shore so after a couple wobbly steps on uneven rocks trying not to fall into the water, I was relieved to make it onto land. For more mobility, I unzipped the top half of my survival suit and attempted to tie the arms around my waste. Carrying the heavy pelican case to hold the eggs in one hand, and holding onto the survival suit with the other, I managed to drag my feet to waddle across the island to the cormorant nests.

juvenile cormorant asking for food

“Who are you?!”

Not a Foreign Field

This week we are thrilled to welcome Pratik Gupte to the blog. Pratik is a research assistant at the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. For more about Pratik, see the end of this post. 

Last autumn, I was on the River Ijssel in the Netherlands looking for something – or someone – pretty specific. White-fronted goose No. 34 was somewhere close by and I was in the process of tracking her down. She didn’t look very pleased when I found her, but I dare you to try travelling a couple thousand kilometres from Russia on your own power while wearing a GPS transmitter and look happy at the end of it.

Though it could have been, this isn’t a story full of exotic locations, harsh conditions, and action-packed days, telling the tale of how this bird got her tag (mostly because National Geographic, which funded the expedition, owns the rights to this Russian part of the story). Instead, the point I want to get across is that the process of collecting data that helps answer important and/or interesting questions doesn’t have to conform to the general public or even other biologists’ idea of fieldwork1.

For my master’s thesis, I joined Andrea Kölzsch at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany and Kees Koffijberg of the Dutch Centre for Field Ornithology, to study the winter distribution of migratory geese in western Europe. Most of my data were from flock censuses done by citizen scientist volunteers, so I set off for Holland and the Rhinelands of Germany to take a look at how these censuses were done. The idea was to identify issues in sampling that could affect analysis, and to log a few flocks myself. This is one of the major ways in which data scientists get to go outdoors (and a popular one).

I was prepared for conditions like I’d encountered in Russia that summer: open tundra and skittish geese – hard to spot, let alone count. But western Europe is human dominated, and geese are accustomed to people. Most of our observations were literally in farmers’ fields. Often, geese were just a few hundred metres from wind turbines or power plants.

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All the dull colours in the world won’t help you hide if your field car is this yellow. Luckily, it
doesn’t always matter.

Dynamic Ecology has a couple of posts on the origin of the idea of fieldwork and how local sites are great.

One of our three datasets included many thousands of records of goose flocks and individually marked birds. But when broken down over 17 winters, the average volunteer (75 were listed in the data) would need to find only a couple of flocks each winter. Most of the volunteers were a bit older, armed with a love for birds, some spare time, and a telescope and notebook. Some, like Kees (who’s also the census coordinator), roll around the countryside on their bicycles.

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A small flock of greylag geese (Anser anser) rests as a farmer works in the Netherlands. Field sites don’t have to be exotic, good data can come from anywhere.

Field data collection stories are often biased towards the exciting, the novel, and the harsh. But this represents only one aspect of the assignments biologists undertake outside the office or lab. A lot of fieldwork happens in everyday settings, with average equipment and transport. It happens in full view of locals. It could easily involve your neighbour, who does it as a hobby, or as a way to contribute to our understanding of the world. For example, it was the collective effort of dedicated citizen scientists like Thijs de Boer and Jan Kramer (who showed me around Friesland) chipping in over many years that provided most of my data.

So if you’re a student considering whether the ‘field’ is for you, or a member of the public wondering how you can contribute, remember: field biologists don’t always drop from helicopters, catch animals, or trudge through the desert (though I’ll admit to having done all three). Instead, we often work pretty close to home, and we need people like you to help out. There’s always a way to get involved, and often more than one way to get data. If you see a team doing something interesting, stop and ask: more likely than not, they’ll be happy to share what they’re doing with you.

 

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Pratik Gupte is a research assistant in Maria Thaker’s Macrophysiology Lab at the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Pratik studies the movement and physiology of elephants in response to water sources in South Africa. This follows his master’s thesis work at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany, on spatial patterns and movements of migratory geese in western Europe. Pratik can be found on Twitter at @pratikr16.

 

How I faced my fears and made a new friend (or a thousand new friends) in the field

I know I have said this before, but I’ve never been fond of spiders. As a Biologist, I can appreciate the way they move, the piercing colours and patterns of their delicate little bodies and their interesting behaviours. These wonderful characteristics are all beautiful and incredibly fascinating, until they’re getting close to me and suddenly that beauty is out the window…literally. Some of you may recall a close encounter I had with a rather large and aggressive spider in an outhouse. Before being viciously attacked (that’s only slightly dramatic) by this potty-dwelling beast, I was indifferent to spiders. They didn’t bother me, but I didn’t love them either. After that, they bothered me, and I disliked them very much.

I live in an approximately 100-year-old house with a totally unfinished stone basement and I’m fairly confident that there’s a spider convention down in the basement every fall. I see them all the time. Most encounters I have with spiders now involve me running in the other direction and someone safely removing the threat from my vicinity. And usually they don’t take me by surprise inside. Spotting these creatures in the house is easy with the white tiled floors or light-coloured walls. However, while doing fieldwork, they are not quite as easy to spot and have startled me on multiple occasions.

In the summer of 2014, I was in the peak of my field season, and engaged in doing what I do best…counting plants. Our regular readers will know that counting wildflowers and grasses has consumed my summers for many years. When I count plants, I get in “the zone”. I usually count individuals of one species at a time, so I have a search image in my head, and I see nothing but that search image. I was trying to count wood sorrel, which is a low-growing, creeping species that is very tiny in comparison to most other old-field species. So often when counting wood sorrel, I would lie on my stomach, on a long foam mat, to get an even better image of the plot.

As I counted aloud and my field assistant recorded, I glanced for a second and at the corner of my mat, about 6 inches from my face, was an extremely large, beast-like spider. I quickly pushed my body back and up onto my knees in a quick attempt to avoid an attack like that in the outhouse. Expecting the spider to lunge at me, and tear off my face, I started to stand but quickly realized, that when I jumped back onto my knees, the spider also jumped backwards, and now seemed panicked about being surrounded by big, scary humans. I bent down gently to get a closer look, and realized that she wasn’t even a big spider at all, her entire body was actually covered in baby spiders!!

For a split second, I became more scared by this realization… a spider…covered in…BABY SPIDERS!!!!! The crazy, irrational size of my brain was chanting FLIGHT, FLIGHT, FLIGHT, leave situation now. But then the curious field biologist side of my brain chimed in and I just sat there and admired how beautiful she was. I watched how the hundreds of babies wiggled around and tried to hold on to her little body. They all managed to stay fastened to her and seemed to be enjoying the ride. I got out of her way and watched as she crossed the mat and then began weaving through the long grass towards the tall oak trees on the field edge.

I wouldn’t go as far to say this experience made me “like” spiders, but I certainly appreciate them a lot more now. The parental care and investment from the mother, and her fearlessness when approaching me, a roadblock in her path, helped me to better understand and appreciate the challenges non-sessile organisms face. I am always complaining about my plants being eaten or stepped on or blown over…but these little spiders, and other mobile organisms have a whole set of other challenges plants don’t necessarily face in the same way including feeding young, transporting young, running from predators, among others. I’ve worked in the field for several years and seen many, many cool things, and this one will always remain right near the top of my list!

spider babies

Here she is! Slightly blurred as this was taken with a very old cell phone!

Two Weeks Out at Sea

We are excited to welcome Ashley Arnold to Dispatches from the Field today! Ashley is a graduate student studying microbial ecology at the University of British Columbia. Today she tells us about two very interesting weeks out at sea. For more about Ashley, see the end of this post. 

Wait, you’re going where?!

Will you have internet connection?

I don’t get it…why are you going again?

Do you get seasick?

These are just a few of the questions I was asked when I told my non-field work going friends and family that I would be spending two weeks on a research trip in out on the Pacific Ocean. To be fair, these are pretty standard questions to ask when someone tells you that they will be travelling 1700 km off shore to the open ocean – but honestly, it didn’t seem too odd to me. Throughout my undergrad and graduate degree at the University of British Columbia, I’ve been lucky enough to do a good amount of field work, partly due to my interest in environmental science and partly because I work in a lab which studies environmental microbial ecology. To me, field work is just another part of the job and I’ve been lucky enough to go on some pretty incredible research trips.

But this trip obviously wasn’t what those closest to me thought their token scientist friend would be doing as part of her research…so I got very practiced at answering those questions.

Wait, you’re going where!?

Out to sea! But more specifically, the northeast subarctic Pacific Ocean along the Line P[https://waterproperties.ca/linep/index.php] transect onboard the Canadian Coast Guard vessel – John P Tully (we call it The Tully for short). Line P is an oceanic transect starting from the southern part of Vancouver Island, British Columbia and ending at Ocean Station Papa located at 50ºN 145ºW. Line P is one of the longest running ocean transects, as Station Papa was a weather station from 1949 until the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans took over running the transect program in 1981. Now, the Line P program involves taking ocean measurements such as salinity, temperature, oxygen concentration and chlorophyll at 26 locations along the transect. This data is important for ocean monitoring, particularly in recent years, when there have been some noticeable temperature anomalies[http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/02/space-map-pacific-blob/].

 

This was probably the most common question I got asked, since people wanted to know if there would be any way to contact me while I was away. (Well, this is the explanation I’m choosing to go with, anyway). You’d think the answer would be no, since we were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean…but this research trip was a bit of an anomaly internet-wise, since we took a satellite sponsored by Ocean Networks Canada[http://www.oceannetworks.ca/] with us.  In the end, there were only a few days when we were completely offline on this trip. (In general, though, we’re out of internet range after 3 – 5 days.)

Photo_1

The Ocean Networks Canada satellite that accompanied us for the cruise.

Photo_2

Our working space while onboard. At each station we collect water and filter it through a filter to collect bacteria, archaea and  plankton. Later, DNA and RNA will be extracted from those filters and sent for sequencing.

I don’t get it…why are you going? 

For science! But also for my lab!

My lab, the Hallam lab[http://hallam.microbiology.ubc.ca/], has been involved with this project for around 10 years now. As a lab, we’re interested in trying to uncover the metabolic abilities of different microorganisms in oceanic, terrestrial and human-impacted environments, primarily through DNA and RNA sequencing. Line P is one of our ocean projects. And since we’ve been collecting data for almost a decade, it’s now a time series, which allows us to look at changes in the oceanic microbial community over time and across different seasons. Pretty cool right?!

Do you get seasick?

Ah, yes, seasickness. Our lab technician likes to say this whenever someone asks about seasickness: “If you haven’t been seasick, you just haven’t been in rough enough waters yet”. At first I thought this was a little dramatic, but I get what she’s saying now.

On this trip, I got seasick for a few days and it was awful. I came prepared with an arsenal of various seasickness medication and was doing pretty well for the first few days. And then I got overconfident and stopped taking any medication. Naively, I thought I had acquired my “sea legs” and was really starting to embrace my new life as a sea-going scientist.

Of course, this new persona emerged just as we hit some rough weather that made the boat sway back and forth and side to side all the time. And I mean all the time. Trying to go to bed? Hard to sleep, because the boat is swaying. Trying to walk down the hallway? Better hold on, because the boat is swaying. Want to enjoy a nice meal with your fellow sea-going scientists? Ha, nope. Your stomach definitely doesn’t want anything because the boat is still swaying.

It’s not a great feeling. I don’t wish it on anyone. I definitely learned my lesson: take your seasickness meds!

Hopefully, my answers to the above questions have given my friends, family and anyone interested in the scientific adventures of a grad student some idea of what my two weeks out at sea were like. It was a lot of work and a big chunk of time to be away from my normal life… but overall I had a great time, and I’m glad I got to experience life at sea!

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Some days the view looked like this.

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But most days it looked like this. It was pretty grey and cloudy for the majority of the trip.

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Land ho! After two weeks at sea it was nice to see land again.

Ashley Arnold is a Masters student at the University of British Columbia studying microbial ecology in contaminated soil environments though her research interests in biogeochemical cycles and microbial ecology more broadly are not constrained to a particular environment. A long-time member of the Hallam lab at UBC, Ashley has been on numerous field adventures to collect samples for different on-going research projects such as biogeochemical cycling in Saanich Inlet, BC, coastal environmental monitoring at the Hakai Research Institute and the Long Term Soil Productivity Project at O’Connor Lake. When she’s not in the lab, you can find her enthusiastically encouraging her lab mates to listen to her most recent podcast obsession or talking about musicals.

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