Getting caught with your pants down at 4500m

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we are happy to welcome Alex Denton, a PhD candidate in Environmental Science, studying at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU), Suzhou to explain the story behind this intriguing title! For more abut Alex, check out his bio at the end of the post.

Fieldwork comes with a plethora of challenges: some which can be foreseen and planned for, some which one learns about from experience, and others… others which one never imagines encountering. This is a story about the latter. 

Let me set the scene. 

It was the summer of 2019, and I had just started the first year of my PhD program. I arrived at my campus in Suzhou, unpacked my belongings, completed orientation, and one month later was heading off to do fieldwork in one of the most awe-inspiring locations on Earth: the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (QTP). Sitting at an average elevation of 4500m above sea level, and covering an area of 2.5 million km2, the region is truly deserving of its moniker: “the roof of the world”. Within the alpine grasslands of the southeastern plateau, my research focuses on herbivore community ecology: how various species interact with one another and their unique environment. With grazers such as pika, zokor, marmots, yak, invertebrates, and more present, I am an ecologist truly spoilt for choice! 

Endless trail – view from our drive up onto the plateau.

I was the first student in my supervisor’s lab to undertake work in this area, so we were both unsure what to expect regarding living arrangements for me and the handful of MSc students also carrying out research on the QTP. Not that that bothered me! I was looking forward to a proper rustic experience, wrapping up in fleece and blankets as the cold nights drew in, and perhaps relying on some whiskey for additional warmth.

Our accommodation – my shack is to the right behind the car.

The on-site accommodation turned out to be a rather basic farmhouse and adjoining shack. I took the shack myself so as to give the MSc students their own space. I quickly made it homey, setting up a bed – complete with an electric blanket – and work area. We collected fresh well water every day for washing and cooking, and the nearest town was an hour or so away, should we need supplies or transportation down from the plateau’s heady heights.

Room with a view – daily yak herd passing by my window.

The first morning in the field comprised beautiful sunshine, some of the biggest skies I had ever seen, and a rumbling stomach… it was time for breakfast. Following this, and without wishing to get too graphic, I needed to pop to the bathroom. I had assumed it would be a case of finding a spot and digging a hole. I wasn’t particularly bothered by this – it would only add to the rustic experience I was geared up for! 

What hadn’t been made clear to me, however, was exactly where to find such a “spot”. I couldn’t ask the MSc students: I had only just met them, and what kind of first impression would that be?! I decided to locate a bathroom myself, observing the commonsense rule of keeping a reasonable distance from the accommodation and the place where we were setting up our field experiments. 

So off I went, kitted out in pajamas and slippers, and after a little trekking found a seemingly suitable spot with some tall vegetation. “Brilliant!” I thought. “Here I’ve got privacy, and a 360° field of view.” 

But no sooner had I started than I noticed a rather loud whiny buzzing. It was the height of summer, in a place with a monsoonal climate, where rain had recently fallen… the perfect breeding grounds for BUGS!

I was insect repellent-less, so I began frantically swatting what I can only imagine must have been China’s entire population of mosquitoes and biting flies away from my bare legs. Eventually I admitted defeat, hastily pulled up my trousers and ran off, losing a slipper along the way, just as the MSc students emerged from the farmhouse to start the day. And I was worried about creating a bad first impression?!

Subsequent “morning activities”, were much less problematic, as my morning ritual developed to include liberally dousing myself with insect repellent following breakfast. I spent the next month getting familiar with the spectacular area where I would spend the following 2 summers. 

A plateau frog – did not expect to find amphibians up here!
Watch your step! An absence of trees in this region means ground-nesting birds.

Covid-19 has sadly put a halt to my field work for now, and whilst this means a much less “rustic” summer spent in the UK, I am very much looking forward to (hopefully) returning to the QTP in 2021. When I do, I will be making use of ALL I have learnt to become a more proficient (and prepared) field scientist.  

Alex Denton is a British PhD candidate studying in Suzhou, China. His research is conducted through a partnership between Xi’an Jiaotong University and the University of Liverpool and seeks to provide a comprehensive picture of the interactions between the herbivores of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Ultimately, he hopes to inform conservation policy on issues such as grazing management, pest control, and traditional Chinese medicine practices. Check out his Twitter @alexmdenton

3 thoughts on “Getting caught with your pants down at 4500m

  1. Pingback: Be a lady (in field biology) they said | Dispatches from the Field

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