Creating artificial natural communities

I have always been interested in understanding how plant communities are structured and assembled. That’s why I’ve spent the last half decade tromping around in old-fields, shrublands and woodlands, collecting, counting and measuring plants. While most of my research has involved surveys of different types of natural plant communities, in 2013 I was trying to understand the structure of communities when all plants were the same age. This meant that the established habitats I was used to studying were no longer suitable. I had to start my own communities from scratch.

One of my beautiful old-field sites.

The easy option would have been to collect seeds from an already existing herbaceous plant community and create a new community in a controlled greenhouse setting. But I didn’t want to do that. When you start moving experiments to a “controlled” greenhouse setting, things can often end up more complicated than you ever imagined. Greenhouse disasters I have witnessed in my time in graduate school include aphid/spider/mite outbreaks, extended water outages/contamination, issues with heat/lighting control, sabotage by angry colleagues and even, I kid you not, the panes of glass on the roof smashing. (Incidentally, those panes of glass are 1.5 inches thick…and the offending object was never found… can anyone say UFO???) In addition to having little control in these supposed controlled experiments, when you use a greenhouse setting, you are also introducing other sources of variation that you wouldn’t see naturally. For example, the water/ fertilizer you apply is different from a plant’s natural environment, as is access to sunlight, and often plants end up root-bound and limited by their pot size.

So, for me, the obvious solution was to take the hard route, and attempt to set up my own communities in the field.  To create these communities, I installed aluminum cylinders into the ground (about 9 inches deep) to ensure neighbouring roots couldn’t access them. I then applied a herbicide to the resident plants in those plots, and after they died, I cleared the dead vegetation out. At one site I installed 100 cylinders and just left them as they were after clearing the dead vegetation. This allowed seeds from the natural seed bank to germinate and grow and eventually reproduce. The issue with this site though, was that I had no idea how many seeds of each species were present in each plot. So for the second site, I spent the entire summer of 2013 collecting seeds. I chose species that didn’t overlap with those already at the field site, but had been found growing in similar habitats and had a wide range in body size, flowering time and life history strategy (annual, biennial, perennial). I ended up collecting seeds of 46 species, and putting 200 seeds of each of the 46 species into each of the 100 plots. I followed these communities over the next three growing seasons, and the results were amazing.

Early growing season plot (early May) versus mid-June

In the site without introduced species (just from the seedbank), the first year plots were filled with species I didn’t recognize. This site is normally dominated by perennial wildflower and grass species, but suddenly all sorts of annuals were popping up again. In the site with introduced species, I saw tonnes of beautiful annuals flowering in year one. In year two, the plots were exploding with biennials and in year 3 finally a perennial dominance was seen. The interesting part is that now this experiment is in year 4, and although we aren’t monitoring or collecting any data, we see the resident species starting to slowly make their way back into these plots. So even though we planted tens of thousands of seeds from introduced species at the site, the resident species seeds from the seed bank and plants surrounding the plots are slowly starting to take over again. This is the perfect example of how plant community dynamics are always changing.

So taking the hard route really did pay off in the end. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t a whole slew of hideous disasters that could have affected my natural plant communities. But I could definitely sleep better at night knowing that these experimental plant communities were experiencing as close to natural conditions as possible!

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On Murphy’s Law and quick fixes in the field

Over the past 8-10 years, I have done a lot of fieldwork. This means that I have designed a lot of field experiments, and as such I have also dealt with a lot of planning, anticipating and building/purchasing of fieldwork-related equipment. This also means I have done a lot of tweaking, troubleshooting and repairing in the field. I am a firm believer that fieldwork operates under Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. Murphy’s Law, of course, just doesn’t apply to fieldwork, I am most certain it applies to all work, or perhaps even life in general, but for many reasons fieldwork is more sensitive to things going wrong, and for a couple of key reasons.

1) Most fieldwork is done far enough away from civilization that running to the hardware store just simply is not an option. This means that creativity and resourcefulness are two of the top qualities needed in field biologists.

I remember when the latch on the driver’s door of the field van just mysteriously stopped working. The door would simply not stay closed. We still had over an hour to drive home, and we were not letting this silly door stop us. One of the girls working in the field, Sarah, took her belt right off her pants, and looped it around the handle on the inside of the door. I sat behind her and held on for dear life as we flew down the windy country roads hoping that the belt would not slip and cause the door to fly off… or Sarah to fly out… or any other hideous disasters. We survived and made it back in one piece. It ended up being that the lock was just jammed and it was an easy fix…oh, life’s lessons!

 

 

Another time, I was building cages out of fencing for a herbivory treatment and had arrived very prepared with rabbit clips, and the special pliers to clamp them on. Quickly, I realized that this plan was not going to work. The pliers were too big to fit through the holes in the fencing. Luckily, between tape from the First Aid kit, Zip ties from the floor of the van, and a package of twist ties, we made it work! FIVE years later, those cages are still holding strong! Originality in the field is key!

2) Most fieldwork experiments are put in place with very little control over what happens. You can plan and anticipate until you are blue in the face, but there is always something you miss, and for years after you might think, “what if I had just…”

During my Master’s I was working on an experiment where I isolated target plants to obtain their maximum potential body size, in the absence of competition. We carefully chose plants, tagged them, cleared all the neighbouring plants, placed straw on the ground as mulch, and caged them with cages 1 metre in height to prevent deer grazing. We had thought of it all! Nothing could go wrong…WRONG! Not only did the entire field flood (that’s for another story) but we realized that it’s harder than we thought to outsmart a deer. While we had caged only 5 buttercups in an entire field filled with hundreds of thousands of buttercups, the deer wanted the ones in the cage. And they did anything they could to get the ones in the cage. They would pull cages up using…I don’t quite know, maybe their faces, or their front limbs…there was lots of hair stuck to the fencing to suggest they used some body part to lift them up. They also tried lying down on the cages or pushing them over just enough so that they could grab hold of and tug my precious sample right out of the ground. As frustrating as this experience was, I can only look back on it and laugh at the persistence of those pesky deer.

A “deer proof cage”

These are only a couple of examples of how Murphy’s Law is very applicable to fieldwork and field biology. If you have some stories about Murphy’s Law and your fieldwork, shoot us an email at fieldworkblog@gmail.com!

Let’s Talk Field Biology

The reason we write about our funny, challenging and triumphant fieldwork stories each week is because field biology is something only the luckiest of people get to experience. Most people probably don’t even realize what fieldwork is –  what questions are being asked and answered, the toll it can take on a person, both physically and emotionally, or the many interesting and unique places fieldwork can take you. In fact, I never knew any of these things, until I was hired as a field assistant in a plant ecology lab.

While our blog attracts mostly adult readers, children are often fascinated and excited by our stories. So, when Catherine and I (unbeknownst to each other) were both hired as Coordinators of Let’s Talk Science at Queen’s, we were on the same page almost immediately. Let’s Talk Science is a national organization that plans and delivers science outreach activities to elementary and high school students. Catherine and I knew we had to host an event related to field biology, with a focus on children and families. We had originally chatted about this in April 2016, and now here we are in April 2017, just a mere two weeks away from the day of the event.

Let’s Talk Field Biology is a free event, spanning the afternoon and evening of Earth Day, April 22, 2017. The goal of this event is to highlight some of the important ecological, evolutionary and behavioural questions that field researchers ask, and the methods we use to answer them. To achieve this, we will offer a series of hands-on activities including plant, frog, bird and limnology modules, with expert data collection, species identification, and field sampling techniques. Additional programming will give people the opportunity to explore even more areas of science. For example, the opportunity to experience dendrology and practice aging some tree sections, or the opportunity to examine leaves under a microscope made from their very own smart phone!

As the evening sets in, the activities will continue with a “family fieldwork storytime” where Dispatches from the Field (Catherine, Sarah, and I) will tell of some hilarious, freaky, and awe-inspiring fieldwork stories around the campfire. The day will end with an exciting night hike around the property, with hopes of finding a few owls while we are at it. It promises to be a great time for everyone and if you’re reading this and close to Kingston, stop by and check it out! It is taking place at the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre, a campus of the Queen’s University Biological Station, from 2:00 PM to 8:30 PM on Saturday April 22, 2017!

A beautiful shot of Elbow Lake

Fieldwork is what made me fall in love with biology. It made me appreciate the natural world around me, has helped me develop critical thinking skills, has bolstered my creativity and above all else, has kept me sane over the course of my PhD. Organizing an event this size is no small feat and to make it possible we have needed to bring together a big team of people. What I loved about this collaborative nature was that we have people from all different backgrounds and experiences coming together to plan this event.

We wanted to give a shout out to one of the students who stepped up for us and has helped us every step of the way so far. Shannon Cotter joined the Let’s Talk Science Executive Team at Queen’s as the Let’s Talk Field Biology Liaison. Shannon is a 4th year student studying Biology. She took a mandatory third year Ecology course where she was first introduced to field biology and says that this has been extremely helpful in the planning of the event. She notes that, “This class [the Ecology one] required a day of field work at the Queen’s University Biological Station and involved bird, fish and insect modules, and we used this experience as a model for our event”. Having been so involved in the planning of the event, Shannon says she is looking forward to interacting with students from the Kingston community and sharing her experiences in field biology with them. She hopes that the experience will be “eye-opening” for young people in terms of promoting and developing an interest in STEM, but also showcasing the great work that field biologists do, and the many possible career paths that involve some sort of field work.

 

Shannon is originally from Mississauga, Ontario but has been living in Kingston attending Queen’s since 2013. Her major is Biology but she is also enrolled in the Certificate of Business and the International Studies Certificate. This is her first year volunteering with Let’s Talk Science and has thoroughly enjoyed the outreach visits and organizing Let’s Talk Field Biology.

Stranger things have happened in Wire Fence field

Seven years. I have spent seven years doing fieldwork in Wire Fence field, and just last weekend, I collected my final data from that site. Next year the field is set to be bush-hogged and that will mark the end of my time at the site. I wanted to take a moment today to write a bit about the wonderfully beautiful and endlessly frustrating Wire Fence field.

Wire fence field is a beautiful field site, and over the seven years I have worked there, I have developed a very strong love-hate relationship with this place. Wire fence field is a small old-field that is entirely surrounded by closed canopy forest. It is located about 500 m off Opinicon Road on route to the Queen’s University Biological Station. To access it, there is a laneway through the forest. The laneway is accessible enough to travel by vehicle or it can be easily hiked in about five minutes. Friends and colleagues that know me well have certainly heard me complain about this field site. Statements like “I’d rather stare at a wall all day than ever have to spend another moment in that       field” or “This field is ruining my life” are not uncommon in the peak of a field season. It is a rewarding but challenging place to work for many reasons.

The beautiful walk into Wire Fence field (October 2016)

The beautiful walk into Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Getting there – yes, a short five-minute walk doesn’t seem that bad. And it isn’t. Except in the summer months, when mosquitoes swarm like the monster from Stranger Things would if you cut off your finger. Then that five-minute walk quickly seems endless. The path to the field is well-maintained, generally flat and easy to walk or drive on. Except that it dips down into a very low-lying area right before you hit the field site. This summer wasn’t so bad because we were hit with a really bad drought but in previous field seasons this has made for many boots getting stuck in the muck, and well, with a 2 wheel, rear wheel drive Astro van- It wasn’t just boots getting stuck in there. Getting to Wire Fence field isn’t always easy.

You always get stuck in Wire Fence field

You always get stuck in Wire Fence field (November 2015)

Surviving there – There is no cell phone service in this field, so if something bad happens, let’s hope it’s before dark and you’re well enough to walk out on your own. Evidence of black bears have been found at this site on more than one (hundred) occasions so being aware of that is important. The field has more and more thistles in it every year. Also, there is one spot where an old Wire Fence (coincidence??) has fallen over and grown into the ground, and in one spot it sticks up and I kid you not SOMEONE trips over that fence EVERY single time we work there. And it’s usually me, who has been to the field site probably over 500 times. I’ve also never seen deer flies like I have seen them at this site. In the peak of deer fly season, you have to be fully clothed from head to toe and with layers. At one point I was wearing gloves and still got more than 10 bites on my hands alone. Surviving in Wire Fence field is a challenge.

 

Staying there – Things disappear – it’s almost as if there is some ‘Upside down’ Wire Fence field somewhere and the monster comes to the field in the night, and steals stuff and takes it back to the Upside down. Stranger Things fans, you’ll know what I mean. Shovels, cages, individual tagged plants, you name it! If we have brought it there we have also lost it there. Of course, on the other side of the main road there is a camp ground and patrons often venture across the road for hikes, so it might not be too surprising that we have lost some items here and there. The more troubling part is that I have installed cylinders into the ground at this site (100 of them in fact). That are only about 1 inch above the ground and cannot be removed with ease. With grass that reaches well over one metre at its peak they definitely aren’t easy to spot. Even some of those have gone missing. Including plot 11 (Eleven)..I am not even kidding….OK perhaps it is time to call in Hopp, Mrs. Byers and the whole crew to investigate.

 

Even though getting there, surviving there and staying there all present their own set of unique challenges, I love the place. And I miss it already.

 

Wire fence field is surrounded by closed canopy forest with lots of very large oak, basswood, ironwood and blue beech trees towering over it. In the spring months, sides of the laneway and all of the ground surrounding the field edges is sprinkled with white and red trilliums, trout lilies and wild ginger. For about one week in early May, the entire laneway is covered in spring beauties. Tens of thousands of them peak out from the decaying autumn leaves and brighten up the forest. As the season progresses along buttercups burst open and give the field vibrant pops of yellow among the tall green grass. I haven’t seen buttercups in such numbers as I do at Wire Fence field. And then there are the deer. Deer love buttercups and thus, deer love Wire Fence field. Many mornings we would walk up to the field site and see anywhere from one to a dozen deer happily grazing on all of our experimental plots and lots of pressed down areas of grass each morning suggested that it was a common place for them to spend their nights. Sometimes we would stand there and just watch them for a few minutes, before they noticed us and re-located for the day.

Even in early spring, with nothing growing, this field is a beautiful place (April 2014)

Even in early spring, with nothing growing, this field is a beautiful place (April 2014)

Last day of fieldwork in Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Last day of fieldwork in Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Even though working in Wire Fence field has many challenges, it was a beautiful, peaceful and quirky place to spend the last seven years.

I am slowly going crazy… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… switch

Crazy going slowly am I… 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

For the past 30 days I’ve been finishing the data collection for a major experiment that spanned three field seasons. I’ve spent the vast majority of the month sitting next to experimental plant communities that contain anywhere from 8-40 species. I counted each individual of each species, pulled them all out of the ground, and then sorted them into paper bags by species, and by whether or not the plant is reproductive. Each community took up to one hour to completely harvest and with 200 communities in total… well…yep…it’s been a long summer.

As much fun as data collection can be, it’s also a tedious, sometimes painful task – especially when you need very detailed data to answer a given question. This got me thinking about all the ways I have tried to not lose my mind doing tedious field tasks over the years.

Sing

Singing is an excellent way to pass the time, and it’s easy to sing and still concentrate on the task at hand. Over the years, campfire type songs have always been a favourite, or other songs from childhood. The whole field crew will likely know the song, they’re catchy, and they’re fun. One thing I’ll warn you about though…don’t sing songs like “99 bottles of beer on the wall” or other tunes that count you down. By the time you get to 4 bottles of beer on the wall and realize you still have 194 plots left it could have the wrong effect on your motivation.

Learn a new language

I took French growing up and loved it. I lost touch with it as I entered post-secondary and really regret that. In my early years in the field, I would try to speak French, which we lovingly called “field French” because it was mostly just English words spoken in a French Canadian accent. Years later I would look up new French words each night, and then try to use them in the field the next day. And a couple years ago, I was lucky to have a field assistant who was fluent in French, and she would quiz me with various French translations. It’s a great way to pass the time and it’s a useful skill to have!

The “favourites” game

One of my favourite things to do with my field assistants is play the “favourite game” (no pun intended). We each take turns asking one another about our favourite hobbies, foods, colours…anything really. It’s entertaining and it really helps with team bonding.

Reward system

New to this field season, I started a fieldwork rewards program: one mini-Reese’s peanut butter cup for every plot we successfully count and harvest. It might encourage poor eating habits, and it might rot our teeth, but let me tell you, it is surely the most motivating way to make it through the day.

I best be off to bed now, as another long field day awaits me.

Crazy going slowly am I… 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

It might be hot, but things are about to get even hotter

I love field work. It’s made my decade of post-secondary education so worth it. And just this last week, I started sampling my PhD field experiment for the last time. I’ve sampled this project in the month of August for 3 straight years now and this year it’s tougher than ever. I think there are at least a couple of reasons for the struggle this year. It’s my last field season and I don’t really know where I’m headed after this. I’ve been comfortable here for years, hanging out in my plots and counting my plants. Beyond the fear of the unknown and the comfort of the familiar, it’s also just stinking HOT. Our readers from Southern Ontario will know well that it’s been a brutal summer here with temperatures averaging the mid to high 30’s with the humidity for well over a month now. That, combined with the lack of rain (wait…what’s rain? It still rains nowadays???), has made sitting in these old abandoned fields slightly less enjoyable, by no means miserable, but certainly not wonderful.

Even though the struggle is real, I’ve persisted. Yesterday the sun was beating down so intensely on the back of my neck that I could have melted. On top of that, the humidity is so high that every piece of clothing no matter how loose clings to your body and of course there’s the deer flies. I sat there, on a bright orange milk crate, in the middle of an old farmer’s field and I thought to myself – why am I still here? I could have given up long ago. How am I persisting?

There’s a few reasons. First, I want to know the answers. I know I can’t answer my questions until I sit my butt down, and count my plants. And I do really, really want to know the answer, so I keep going. Second, I remind myself that it isn’t always like this. I’m not always going to be melting and drenched in sweat. There are lots of ups and downs in fieldwork and although, the heat might be a big downer, there’s still lots of neat things to see and experience that desk life just simply doesn’t permit. Finally, I love sharing the fieldwork experience with others. I love blogging about my experiences and I love giving our readers a true picture of what fieldwork is like. This is part of the experience, an experience most people do not get but would love to have. As field biologists we truly are the lucky ones.

Here at the blog we are even luckier because we get to share our stories with all of you, and because sharing those stories has resulted in so many new and interesting opportunities, collaborations and outreach experiences. Despite the heat Dispatches from the field has been keeping very busy this summer and have been sharing our fieldwork experiences with all kinds of people in all kinds of places. Back in May we went out to the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre and did a presentation for Youth. We told some fieldwork stories while also incorporating information about what field biology actually is and the various career opportunities that involve field research.

In June, Sarah took our display up to the QUBS Open House and promoted our blog to those in attendance. This is always such a fun opportunity to showcase the neat research and other endeavors associated with the station and also marked our 2 year anniversary!

In July we gave a talk at the QUBS weekly seminar series that was in collaboration with the Kingston Frontenac Public Library called “The Truth About Stories” where we told the many tales, trials and tribulations of fieldwork in an intimate cottage-esque environment at QUBS.

This week we just completed an interview with GradChat, a weekly radio show with CFRC about our blog. It was a great opportunity to showcase our own research and the blog! We will post a link to that when it’s available next week.

In the fall we are giving the inaugural Kingston Field Naturalists talk for the 2016-17 season and also will be involved with some events with Science Literacy Week so stay tuned and check back for more details about that!

As always thanks for reading and if you’re out in this heat doing fieldwork, stay cool and send us your stories!

Dirt

I just returned to Kingston, Ontario from a whirlwind three weeks of travelling. I spent awhile in Colorado, mostly Colorado Springs and Denver, and then went on to present my research at the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution’s annual conference in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It was a mix of scorching heat and nipping cold, desert-like brush and lush green rolling hills, Rocky Mountains and coastal cliffs. It was amazing.

It wasn’t all just fun and games though. At the conference in St. John’s I presented one of the projects that I’ve been collecting data for 2 years for. I was interested in the role that body size played in predicting the abundance of seeds in the seed bank.  So to answer this question, I went out and collected soil cores, which is a fancy way of saying I collected dirt.

I hadn’t put much thought into dirt before. I played with it as a kid, my brother used to eat it, it is brown, and plants grow in it. Even as a plant biologist I really hadn’t thought too much about it. After I started this experiment, I quickly realized that dirt was more than ‘just dirt’.

Early in April 2014 I collected my first set of soil cores. It was surprisingly laborious work with lots of bending and pulling to get 4 samples from each of 200 plots. Keep in mind that it was still teetering around 0 degrees C and doing things like opening Ziploc bags with mittens on is next to impossible. Timing here was critical because as soon as the first seeds germinated in that field, we would be too late. At each plot, 4 samples were taken and placed in the same plastic bag. They were then stored temporarily in a fridge at 4 degrees C until they could be processed.

cllecting soil core

Collecting soil cores

Processing these soil cores was such a neat experience and it made me realize just how neat (and also cute and sometimes terrifying) dirt really is. The cores were all so different. Some had soft, loamy soil that fell apart and crumbled in between your fingers. Others were like taking a piece of freshly made fudge and squeezing it between your fingers. We would sort through the dirt and pull out rhizomes and pieces of roots, gently brush the dirt off and throw them away. We pulled out hundreds if not thousands of worms from the cores, as well as larva, dead insects and even sometimes bones of what appeared to be voles or other small mammals. On more than one occasion, the bag housed an army of ants, which then proceeded to attack everyone and everything at the table. Those bags were the ones I let the minions take care of…*gross*.

soil core

Soil core – Note: the worm trying to escape

bagging cores

Bagging more soil cores

My favourite discovery was a small grey tree frog. I opened a Ziploc bag, took out a core, and as the dirt fell out onto the tray, a small tree frog hopped onto the table. As it came to it was just as confused as I was and attempted to hop away and right off the table (of course we released him somewhere a bit more suitable than the halls of the Biology building).

frog

Our new friend who lived to tell a pretty cool story

After the cores were all sorted we emptied each bag into a small plastic tray, and put it up in the Phytotron at Queen’s. We watered them and monitored them regularly, and what happened was pretty cool. Seeds from close to 60 species germinated and grew into tiny seedlings in those trays. Sometimes you would even see hundreds of individuals of different species coming up in one 4 x 6 inch tray.

phytotron plants

All the seedlings that grew in the Phytotron from seeds in the seed bank

This project, fieldwork, greenhouse work, and all, has remained one of my favourites I’ve done to date. Not for its simplicity, or low maintenance nature, but because it made me think about dirt, and dirt deserves a lot more credit than it gets because damn, it’s pretty neat.