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!

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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.”

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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.

 

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.)

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

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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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A Resupply Gone Wrong…Horribly Wrong.

We are excited to welcome Lisa Buckley to the blog today. Lisa is a palaeontologist based in British Columbia, Canada, and today she tells us an unfortunate but equally amazing fieldwork story! Welcome, Lisa!

 

“I wonder how that would taste?”

I can’t think of one field expedition lacking a humorous story about food-borne desperation. You have to laugh, or it just seems horrid. A quote often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte is “an army marches on its stomach.” The same can be said for your field crew. Field crews march, and they march hard. Double digit kilometer treks. Huge elevation changes, often accompanied by surprise weather changes. Removing meters of rock with a pickaxe.

I’ll take you back to 2006, when our three-person crew conducted dinosaur track research in Kakwa Provincial Park, British Columbia. The Kakwa Dinosaur Track Site is a remote subalpine-alpine site. It is a 45-minute helicopter flight to the site from the nearest inhabited area. Helicopter time is quite expensive, especially for a small research centre such as ours, so we were relying on helicopter time donated by the natural resource industry. This meant that we couldn’t simply call for helicopter support on a whim. Barring emergencies, we worked around the helicopter’s schedule.  We had arranged for three trips: the initial drop-off of crew and gear, the final pick up of crew, gear, and specimens, and an intermediate pick up of our field technician (who needed to leave early) and food resupply at the three-week mark of our four-and-a-half week trip.

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The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful, but once we were there, we were there for the duration.

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Studying dinosaur tracks in British Columbia is difficult because many of the track-bearing rock layers, once horizontal, have been pushed into a vertical position thanks to the building of the Rocky Mountains. This means that we have to use rock climbing gear to access the track surface to collect measurements and make latex replicas to bring back to the lab.

This site was hard, calorie-burning work. Every morning we had to hike from our water-accessible camp site to the top of the mountain, an increase in elevation of almost 1000 meters. We would put in at least six hours on the track surface, and then hike back down to camp. Although we had ensured that our initial food supply was generous (including not only staples, but lots of variety and the occasional morale-boosting snack), we knew a resupply would be necessary at the three-week mark.

A few days before the resupply, I called an in-town contact to ask her to pick up items. But here’s where I initiated the most spectacular #fieldworkfail of my career: I did not specify the amount of food. At the time, I assumed that either the person on the other end could read my mind, or that the person, being the outdoorsy type, would know exactly how much food two hard-working palaeontologists would need for a week and a half.

 

Resupply Day dawned gloriously sunny. The helicopter came in, our field tech loaded her gear, and our food resupply was unloaded. Sitting on the ground were three small shopping bags.

I asked the pilot “Where’s the rest?”

“That’s it!” he replied.

The lead palaeontologist, Dr. Richard McCrea, and I stood staring at the paltry pile of plastic sacks.  We looked at one another, and looked back at the groceries. One of us said some version of “We’re going to die.”

Maybe we were being a little melodramatic…but at this point of the trip, we were pretty eager for a change in diet. What we saw in those bags supplemented our meager remaining rations for three days. After the food from the resupply was gone, we were left with lentils, rice, mustard, raisins, some tins of Louisiana hot sauce, herring, and marshmallows. Every. Dang. Night. For seven nights.

This is where I tell the tale of the Wiliest Ptarmigan. Right up until the day of our resupply, we could not go anywhere in camp or on the mountain summit without seeing White-tailed Ptarmigan. Ptarmigan, like many grouse, use the “if I don’t move, you can’t see me” strategy for avoiding predation…meaning that you can get very close to them. This picture was taken without a zoom.

After the Resupply Gone Wrong, we started making jokes about Ptarmigan Pot Pie and Kentucky-Fried Ptarmigan. And both Rich and I would swear, as soon as the resupply happened, we didn’t see one ptarmigan for the ten days remaining days of the expedition. It’s almost as though they knew we were assessing their culinary virtues. All we found was a solitary feather in the area where they would usually roost. I think the ptarmigan left that feather there on purpose to mock our hunger.

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The Wiliest of Ptarmigan. These White-tailed Ptarmigan have a cunning sense of when humans are hungry.

Joking aside, we knew we were not going to starve or go hungry, but we also knew mealtimes were going to be…strange. Let me answer the “I wonder how that tastes?” question with respect to the different food combinations we tried:

Rice and lentils: Edible but very, very bland.

Rice and lentils and heated tinned fish: It should work, but it didn’t. It was kind of nasty.

Rice and lentils and mustard: It’s edible. That’s as far as I’ll go.

Rice and lentils and fish and mustard: Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Raisins stuffed inside marshmallows: Really, really strange. The two don’t go together.

Marshmallows and mustard: No, YOU ate marshmallows and mustard. Shut up. I don’t want to talk about it.

Needless to say, we survived, but we really couldn’t call it living. When we were flown back into town, the first thing we did was eat a big plate of nachos with lots of salsa.

Ultimately, the Resupply Gone Wrong turned out to be a great learning experience. I now have a field meals list where I not only plan out the number of meals for an expedition, but the quantities of required ingredients.

Dedicated to the Wiliest Ptarmigan: well played, you floofy-footed fowl. Well played.

Dr. Lisa Buckley is a palaeontologist with the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre based in Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia. Lisa’s work with the PRPRC is field- and lab-based research on the tracks and traces of dinosaurs, birds, and other vertebrates from the Cretaceous Period, with a focus on researching Cretaceous-aged bird tracks and trackways. Lisa also manages a comprehensive archive in British Columbia of vertebrate fossils from British Columbia, and is an advocate for responsible fossil stewardship in the province. Lisa can be found on Twitter @Lisavipes, where she manages the track-based game #NameThatTrack, and the sciart project #BirdGlamour, where eye makeup is used to highlight bird diversity.10498226_10202228340212179_8097162662899592582_o

Yes, those boring safety training sessions are important

Dispatches from the field is happy to welcome Katie Grogan, a postdoctoral fellow to share a post this week about a scary field safety lesson! Check out the end of the post for more about Katie.

The second scariest moment of field work I ever experienced happened basically on campus, exactly one mile from our lab and office.

Caught in the mist net. Photo by JRM.

Some people may argue that catching sparrows in downtown Atlanta in the morning, spending a few hours working in the lab in the afternoon, and sleeping in your own bed every night doesn’t qualify as “true” field work – no airplanes, hours in a truck, or having to sleep in tents. But I completely disagree. Any activity that forces you to get out of bed at 3 am in December, and sit staring at a mist-net in a cold field for at least 6 hours, freezing and exhausted, is absolutely field work*.

White-throated sparrow. Photo by JRM.

The reason for this field work is one of the major projects in my postdoctoral lab at Emory University, studying how genetic variation underlies variation in behaviors like aggression or parenting. To do this, we catch wild white-throated sparrows during their fall migration south and bring them into the lab for behavioral testing. The white-throated sparrow, common throughout North America, is an incredibly interesting bird (See this Nature News Feature!) and uniquely suited for this kind of study because of its two behavioral phenotypes: the more aggressive white morph and the less aggressive tan morph.

We catch the birds using mist-nets set up in a field near campus in November and December, an activity that seems fairly low risk apart from some occasional frostbite. However, in order to set up the mist-nets, ‘lanes’ must be cleared through the field so that tree branches and brush don’t snag the nets. We clear these lanes using a machete, and therein lies my story.

The field site.

There are typically no ‘rules’ for doing field work, except to collect your samples without doing anything too dangerous or illegal. But doing local field work a mile from our lab, rather than traveling to Costa Rica or Madagascar, obviously lulled me into complacency, because a safety briefing was the last thing on my mind that sunny afternoon in early November.

For starters, although I have accumulated months of field work in multiple countries, I was relatively new in the lab and I had never caught birds before. Marmots, howler monkeys, and lemurs, yes, but not birds. So who was I to speak up? Like in so many of my previous field experiences, I was the one in training, not the one training other people. Also, this was Atlanta! In the Rocky Mountains, we worried about bears and lightning strikes; in Costa Rica it was heat stroke (or having a monkey fall on you); and in Madagascar it was rocks in the food and stomach problems from ingesting any unfiltered water. But in Atlanta, what was there really to worry about? Basically, I was worried about bugs, twisting an ankle, and being hungry, but not about potential trips to the emergency room. Big mistake.

Grad student with a machete. Photo by KEG.

I realized the severity of this mistake when I looked up from moving freshly cut branches out of the lane to see our machete swinging with wild abandon less than a foot from the head and torso of our newest graduate student, whose back was turned.

I froze in horror, visions of dismemberment flashing before my eyes. Then I sprang into action. Yelling at the machete swinger, I leaped forward to pull the student away from their peril. No one was hurt, nothing happened…but the potential danger of that situation made my heart virtually stop in terror.

I made everyone drop what they were doing for a quick crash course in field safety and awareness. In this instance, the most important lesson was to always be aware of your surroundings, and know where your team members are located and what they are doing. This included keeping at least a 10 foot clearance around anyone doing anything dangerous such as swinging a machete or an ax. I also instituted a personal policy that dangerous tasks should be saved for the postdocs and older grad students – we try not to maim the undergrads or new grad students during their first field experience because it sets a bad precedent for recruiting more help the following year. (I’m absolutely kidding! We don’t maim anyone at all).

This incident was less than 30 seconds long, but was a defining moment in my realization that all field work, whether far away or on campus, should be accompanied by a thorough safety plan, and everyone should be briefed on this plan before work begins. (See here for a good example of how to do this!)

*Just to clarify: I never actually had to endure this hardship for this particular project. By the time I started in this lab, I was a postdoctoral fellow and had already paid my dues years earlier, following marmots in the Rocky Mountains. The graduate students needed the samples and so they got to suffer through this one!

Katie Grogan is interested in the intersection of genetic diversity, fitness, and environmental change, especially for endangered species. She is currently studying the epigenetics of growth and stature in human hunter-gatherers as a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State University. Prior to moving to State College, she worked on gene expression in white-throated sparrows as an IRACDA postdoctoral fellow (a GREAT fellowship for postdocs also interested in teaching). She did her PhD at Duke University, studying the relationship between genetic diversity of the immune system and survival and reproduction in ring-tailed lemurs. When not in the lab or the field, she can be found playing with her dog and reading novels. Photos by KEG (Kathleen Grogan) and JRM (Jennifer R. Merritt, a graduate student in her former lab).

What science literacy means to us

Science rules! And reading rocks! September 18 – 24th 2017 marks the second annual Science Literacy Week in Canada. But what is science literacy?Science literacy week logo

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) defines scientific literacy as “the ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.”

To us here at Dispatches from the Field, promoting scientific literacy means being able to effectively communicate and share the excitement of science with the public. As scientists, we are taught how to write academic papers for publication in specialized journals – journals that not everyone has access to. But what good is it to find a really cool result when you can’t share it with anyone outside your own narrow field?

Sharing the thrill of doing science is one reason we started Dispatches from the Field. Amanda, Sarah and Catherine at the QUBS open house with their poster boardTo those of you who regularly read our posts, we’d like to say THANK YOU! And to any new readers, welcome! To give you a bit of background about this blog, we (the creators and managing editors) are three woman in science who study quite different topics but have at one big thing in common: we love fieldwork. The three of us first started this blog as a way to share those stories from the field that never make it into scientific papers. For example, Catherine recently shared the story of her mayonnaise brownies, Amanda described how she made artificial natural plant communities, and Sarah talked about how hard it is to remember to take selfies in the field.

But since we launched the blog more than three years ago, it has grown into a place for field biologists from all over the world to share their own fieldwork experiences with the public and describe the reasons they love what they do. It has been awesome reading other stories and getting a feel for fieldwork in all types of environments and situations.

And although Dispatches from the Field has published blog posts about working in field sites around the world, many of our stories are about Canadian fieldwork which fit right in with Canada’s Scientific Literacy Week. Our blog features stories from the sand dunes of Sable Island on the east coast, from the remote islands of Haida Gwaii on the west coast, from tundra field stations in the extreme Arctic, and from almost everywhere in between – including close to our home base of Kingston, in the fields and rock ledges of the Frontenac Arch.

Science borealisThere is so much great science being done in Canada – and so many scientists and science communicators eager to share their work with the public. Dispatches from the Field is just one of many great Canadian blogs that showcase the work of Canadian scientists. And if you’re looking for a place to find those blogs, we recommend Science Borealis, a not-for-profit organization that brings together science blogs from across the country, acting as a “one-stop shop” for digital Canadian science information.

Dispatches from the Field is lucky to be one of those Canadian science blogs featured by Science Borealis. And this year, we are super excited to announce we have been nominated by Science Borealis for their People’s Choice Award: Canada’s Favourite Science Online! So whether you’re a Dispatches regular or you’re just finding our blog for the first time, if you enjoy reading our posts, please vote for us in the People’s Choice Award poll!

Nominated for People's choice award

In the top 12!

And for more information on Science Literacy Week and to find events near you, check out:

http://scienceliteracy.ca

Twitter: @scilitweek

#scilit17

 

Squirrel Chatter

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Sarah Westrick, a Ph. D. student at University of Michigan who shares her experiences at Squirrel Camp! For more about Sarah, check out her bio at the end of the post. 

As a biologist, I’m enamored with nature. Learning more about the natural world around us is what drew me to the field, and biological fieldwork provides some amazing opportunities for me to connect with the natural world. I am lucky to be participating in an incredible long-term field biology program as a third-year PhD student in Dr. Ben Dantzer’s lab at the University of Michigan.

tree line with mountains in the background

The view of our study grid from the Alaska Highway, St. Elias Mountain Range in the background. The boreal forest in this area is predominated by white spruce. (photo by: Sarah Westrick)

The Kluane Red Squirrel Project (KRSP) is an active research program focused on understanding the ecology, evolution, behavior, and energetics of the North American red squirrel. Since 1987, when Dr. Stan Boutin at University of Alberta established the project, KRSP has grown into a large collaborative effort between the University of Alberta, McGill University, the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Guelph, and the University of Michigan.

“Squirrel Camp” is our field research site, located in the boreal forest along the Alaska Highway in the Shakwak Trench near Kluane National Park in the Yukon Territory, Canada. The boreal forest in this region has been studied since the 1970s by researchers on the Kluane Ecological Monitoring Project, including Dr. Boutin, and continues to be well studied by ecologists from all across Canada and the US.

Working at Squirrel Camp is an incredible experience for many different reasons. One of my favorite parts of doing fieldwork in this region is the chance to really get to know the land we live on and the ecosystem we work in. When you’re out in the forest every day, you learn about the plants and animals intimately. I believe one reason the boreal forest of the Yukon has been studied for so long is its ability to excite ecologists’ natural curiosity. Questions about the ecosystem can come quickly to an inquisitive mind wandering the area.

At Squirrel Camp, we have multiple active study grids in the forest. Each morning “squirrelers” head out to their respective grids to monitor the red squirrels living in that patch of forest. Although the grids become familiar old friends, each day when you go into the forest you never know exactly what you’re going to see. You may see arctic ground squirrels alarm calling, encounter goshawks hunting, or accidentally flush out a mother spruce grouse and her chicks.

An ear-tagged North American red squirrel rattling, a territorial vocalization. Both male and female red squirrels defend their cache of spruce cones by rattling. (photo by: Juliana Balluffi-Fry)

This past summer was my third field season at Squirrel Camp. One day in July, I went out in the forest expecting to have an easy morning live-trapping my target squirrels. Each squirrel defends its own territory and can typically be trapped there, allowing us to monitor its reproductive status throughout the breeding season. Preoccupied by my thoughts, I moved between two of my trapping locations on autopilot, taking a trail well worn by many squirrelers past. As I neared my destination, I began to hear the familiar barking call of the red squirrel, a common sound in a forest with ~2 squirrels per ha.

lynx in a tree

Canadian lynx in a tree chasing a juvenile red squirrel. Lynx are very cryptic in the boreal forest and can be hard to spot – this lynx is midway up the tree under the witch’s broom. (Photo by: Sarah Westrick)

Not giving it much thought, I continued down the trail. The barks got louder and more frequent. Multiple squirrels joined in the chorus. At this point, I was curious to see who could be causing such a racket and if it meant there was a shift in the red squirrel social neighborhood. My eyes searched the trees for the telltale wiggling branch of a spruce tree or a small furry red tail darting between branches, but I couldn’t find that search image. Instead, I found a much larger furry form in a tree about 10 m away: the long legs, tufted ears, and bob tail of a Canadian lynx. I stopped dead in my tracks, staring, and the lynx looked back at me, panting. We took each other’s measure. After a few seconds, with me fumbling for my camera, the lynx decided to move on and jumped out of the tree, trotting into the forest.

While seeing lynx from a distance is not uncommon in our forest in the winter, we hardly ever get near this cryptic predator in the summer, as they move with stealth and blend into the trees before we can see them. But while the stealthy lynx is difficult for us to see amidst the leaves and spruce needles, to a squirrel it’s critical to spot a lynx before it ambushes them.

baby squirrel in hand with green ear tag

A 25 day old juvenile red squirrel with ear tags. Each squirrel in our study has two unique ear tags to identify individuals throughout their lifetime, as well as colors in each tag to identify individuals from a distance. Colored disks differentiate juveniles from adults. (photo by: Juliana Balluffi-Fry)

After giving the lynx a few seconds to walk away, I approached the tree he was in and found one of our juvenile squirrels frozen atop a witch’s broom in the tree, having narrowly escaped becoming lunch for the lynx. In a nearby tree, his mom was responsible for part of the racket that had attracted my attention in the first place. She was still barking like mad and the neighbors were still in an uproar. It’s not often we squirrel researchers observe a predation event – or a near-miss – and I appreciated being privy to this part of the ecosystem that we rarely get to witness.

To top it off, this wasn’t just any random lynx in the boreal forest; this lynx had a blue tag in his right ear. A group of my colleagues at Squirrel Camp had trapped him the previous winter to tag and take a DNA sample. (Squirrel Camp is in fact a multi-purpose field camp: ss our “squirrel season” comes to a close each year in late fall, the Lynx Crew, as we affectionately refer to them – to differentiate them from the Hare Crew (studying snowshoe hares) – moves into camp to track the abundance and behavior of this elusive predator in the ecosystem.) This particular lynx had been followed through the winter farther west down the Alaska Highway, but had since made his way east to our squirrel study grid.

A vigilant red squirrel ready to run up the tree in case of danger (photo by: Juliana Balluffi-Fry)

To me, this encounter was a reminder to savor the special moments in the forest while doing fieldwork. Even through the stressful, frustrating moments in the field, I can always find some part of the ecosystem to ground me. Not many people are fortunate enough to be in the forest often enough to develop such a connection to the land and the ecosystem. Now I walk the forest with open ears, listening closely to my squirrels, and open eyes, scanning the trees for surprises.

 

Sarah Westrick

Sarah Westrick is a PhD student at University of Michigan in the biopsychology program. Her research focuses on maternal behavior and physiology in red squirrels. She received a BS in Zoology and Biology from Colorado State University, where she worked on the behavior and neural mechanisms of Trinidadian guppies. You can learn more about her work at her website: sewestrick.strikingly.com or follow her on Twitter @sewestrick. If you’re interested in working with KRSP, the Dantzer Lab is currently seeking graduate students to start in Fall 2018 – check out Dr. Ben Dantzer on Twitter @ben_dantzer. For more information on the Kluane Red Squirrel Project, check out our website: redsquirrel.biology.ualberta.ca and on Twitter: @KluaneSquirrels