What is the meaning of “field” work? Does it have to be outside? Do you have to be running around chasing after your study species? Does it have to include getting wet or dirty or sun burnt? According to Wikipedia, fieldwork is the “collection of information outside a laboratory, library or workplace setting”. Maybe the “field” part is a lot more versatile than what you (or I) originally thought.
My first “field” work experience was collecting samples for my undergraduate thesis project. In such a short time frame to complete a research project, I was excited to actually be collecting my own samples! However, collecting samples for my project didn’t end up meaning what I thought it meant when I read the project description. We did not have to snoop around in the mud looking for seabird burrows. Instead, we were snooping around behind the scenes at the Royal Ontario Museum looking for seabird specimens. It may not be the tropical island that many seabird biologists get to visit to collect samples, but I was still excited to get out of the lab for a day.
The behind-the-scenes archives in museums are quite astonishing. In the bird archives of the ROM, there were rows upon rows of shelves stacked up to the ceiling with drawers full of bird specimens.
Besides being awestruck by the number of bird specimens squeezed into these drawers, I was interested in finding specimens from the tube-nosed seabird subfamily Hydrobatinae, the northern hemisphere storm-petrels.
In my biology classes, professors always stressed that museum specimens are very valuable. I never truly understood just how valuable until I used them in my own project. For one, museum specimens offer a glimpse into a timeline where you can see changes in traits over time. These traits can also be compared among species very easily when they are laid out side by side. You may recognize differences that you otherwise would not have noticed if you were catching species in the wild at different times. In addition, museum specimens also offer an opportunity to see species that you might otherwise not be able to see in the wild (i.e. if they are hard to catch). This was the important point for my project!
There are 14 species in the Hydrobatinae subfamily. They are distributed across the globe, making it difficult to collect samples from every species. Therefore, we relied on a lot of museum samples for our study. In addition, besides some minor plumage differences, they look very similar (as you can see above). Because of this, I used genetics as a conservation tool to investigate how the different species arose. I was able to collect a toepad (carefully of course so that we did not damage the specimen) to extract DNA from once I was back in the lab.
Not only do museums allow you to study birds that may be hard to catch in the wild, they also let you study species that you can no longer catch in the wild. The ROM had specimens of extinct birds, including a passenger pigeon, a labrador duck, and a great auk. I also got to collect a toepad from Oceanodroma macrodactyla, an extinct storm-petrel species from Guadalupe Island. I felt like I was on CSI extracting DNA from a species that longer exists in the wild!
Next time you are at a museum, remember to think about all of the value you can get out of observing these specimens and thank a museum curator!