Looking for cryptic animals…without location information

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome our first guest poster of 2017.  Megan Snetsinger shares some stories from her often frustrating hunt for Butler’s Gartersnakes in the wilds and not-so-wilds of Michigan.  For more about Megan, check out her bio at the end of the post.

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A snake in the hand is worth two in the bush…

I’m working on a research project about the Butler’s Gartersnake. As I’m currently in the writing process, it’s easiest to write ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING ELSE. So let me tell you about planning my last field season.

Studying an at-risk snake in Ontario can be challenging, due to the restrictions placed on even considering touching one. But in some ways, it’s also fairly convenient, because the province has a strong philosophy on maintaining a record of species presence. As my project mainly covers Ontario snakes, most of my field season prep consisted of drowning myself in permit applications. But we (i.e. my supervising committee) decided that it would be useful to include some American snakes from locations adjacent to the Canadian range. And thus began my quest to find Butler’s Gartersnakes in Michigan.

This quest almost immediately hit a roadblock – because there’s no database recording location information for reptiles in Michigan. And the Butler’s Gartersnake isn’t endangered there. It’s considered as much of a ‘throwaway’ species as the much more widespread Eastern Gartersnake, so even the herpetologists don’t put too much effort in recording where they’re found. I was on my own.

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The not-so-wilds of Michigan

My first step was to check maps for potential habitat. Not a good beginning. Check out the stretch of Michigan across from Southwestern Ontario on Google Earth. Half of it is taken up by the sprawl of Detroit and the rest is a patchwork of municipalities and farm fields. Not that I’m unaccustomed to that kind of layout – take away the giant urban centre, and that’s what the Ontario side of the border looks like. As much as I wish this weren’t the case, the Butler’s Gartersnake populations don’t have access to huge swaths of habitat; they eke out their existence in whatever pockets are available to them. I had to go smaller scale.

Zooming in on land features, I tried to pick out any locations that might have potential. While prairie-type habitat adjacent to water is the best, I settled for anything that might have long grass. This had no guarantee of working. It’s tricky to identify long grass. And even when satellite imagery is up to date, mowing can happen at any time. And there was another problem. Many of the most promising sites were on private land, owned by … somebody. Usually a corporation of some sort, which isn’t identified on Google and isn’t apparent in the street view. Trespassing on these sites seemed unwise. I needed to limit my search to locations that had public access, or at the very least had a name and face attached so I could request access.

Using these criteria, I had a working list of definite and possible places to check out. And this is where I learned that you never ever ever escape permits in fieldwork. The sampling permit was a gimme, again because no one there seems to care overly much about the snakes, but everyone I asked required intensive access permits. But I am nothing if not tenacious, and by the time I set out for the field I was wielding a binder full of printouts.

Once in the field, it was Google Earth all over again, with the added joy of trying to look for animals that are evolved to blend into and move quickly in grass, and have a habit of diving under said grass whenever someone walks nearby. We usually get only moments to react to their movement before they’ve vanished. And if they do get under the grass, that’s game over. A lot of grass-stained knees were acquired from diving to catch snakes.

Spot the snake...

Spot the snake: Butler’s Gartersnakes are quite good at hiding in grass!

With less than 2 weeks to work with, we started in St. Clair, Michigan and worked our way south, checking off stops on my (increasingly dubious) list. Some places that seemed like sure bets (e.g. state parks with a lot of open, grassy areas) turned up few to no Butler’s, and some “mayyyyyybes” (e.g. a mostly-mowed municipal park with a little patch of longer grass) were my only successful locations in a given region. That’s not to say that all my questionable locations were winners. We went though a lot of ‘drive in, look around, drive out.’

Some of the larger locations, particularly the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, even had site ecologists who were helped by telling us what they knew about sightings on-site. One of the best location resources was the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. They were happy to help conservation research, and gave us access to many of their locations, also suggesting which of their sites would prove most fruitful to search. Really, everyone was very nice. While checking out one of the Refuge sites, we met a farmer who was interested in what we were doing and offered us access to survey his land if we wanted. It turns out that even though Michigan lacks the ecological infrastructure that Ontario has, cooperation is always what drives successful fieldwork.

And it all worked out. I would have liked to have found more snakes (more data is never a bad thing, and what I got was not enough to study Michigan snakes as a focal population in my thesis), but I got a smattering of samples covering the stretch of land I wanted to cover. So all you really need for successful field work is months of prep, great collaborators, and a fantastic field assisstant (thanks Tori!). It’s simple really…

bio-picMegan Snetsinger is a Master’s student at Queen’s University working in Dr. Stephen Lougheed’s lab. Her research is a population ecology study, using genetic methods to determine how and why Butler’s Gartersnakes are distributed across their range. Like any geneticist, she spends a lot of time in the lab, but the real joy of the process is letting out her inner 8-year-old when running around catching snakes.

Protecting the Canadian Galapagos

“Our culture is born of respect, and intimacy with the land and sea and the air around us. Like the forests, the roots of our people are intertwined such that the greatest troubles cannot overcome us. We owe our existence to Haida Gwaii. The living generation accepts the responsibility to ensure that our heritage is passed on to following generations.”                                       -Council of the Haida Nation

One common theme in posts on this blog is you really get to know a place intimately. This is certainly true – but if you’re lucky, not only do you get to fully explore the outdoor habitats where the fieldwork is taking place, you also get a chance to immerse yourself in a different culture.

When I first started my master’s, I gave a talk about my research titled “Why a pipeline should not be built to the west coast”. I had just come back from my fieldwork in Haida Gwaii and I couldn’t believe that there was a proposal to build a pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to Kitimat, BC. This would inevitably bring oil tankers into the waters surrounding Haida Gwaii. I’ve been there. I’ve walked among the enormous sitka spruce and towering red cedar. I’ve heard the dawn chorus of the songbirds and noted the already declining occupancy of seabird nests. I’ve felt the spray from a humpback whale’s blowhole. I’ve been there and I have felt the magic of Haida Gwaii. I couldn’t believe that if this project was approved, it could lead to devastation of the precious habitats. Luckily, we heard this week that the Canadian government has rejected the Northern Gateway project (you can read more about the approval in this CBC article). A big player influencing the rejection of this project was the Haida Nation themselves. This I can believe. During my time on Haida Gwaii, I also learned a great deal about the Haida culture and their views on conservation.

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The Haida Nation live on the islands that make up Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the coast of northern British Columbia. As is evident from the Haida Proclamation (above), the Haida Nation are intimately linked with their surrounding natural environment and work hard to conserve it.

bc-field-work-254In fact, the Proclamation sounds as if it could have come from a field biologist! Much of their efforts towards preservation of the natural world has been documented through storytelling in art form. For example, the Haida people carve different animals and items into wood totem poles to tell stories and teach lessons. These teachings are passed on from generation to generation – and some even turn into places for new generations to start (check out one of my previous posts about nurse logs). Even today, poles are carved with stories by community members and carried by many hands to the designated spot.

Haida peoples carrying a totem pole

Haida people carrying the 42ft Legacy Pole – unfortunately I couldn’t go to the ceremony as my flight was leaving that afternoon but I did manage to sneak this picture.

Not only do the Haida people share traditional knowledge from past generations, they also care about protecting the environment for future generations. The Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve protects the southern half of the archipelago, which is home to 39 distinct subspecies (7 mammals, 3 birds, and 15 stickleback fish species) endemic to Haida Gwaii. You cannot find these variants anywhere else! It is because of these endemic species that Haida Gwaii is often referred to as the Canadian Galapagos.

If I haven’t managed to convince you that Haida Gwaii is a beautiful place teeming with interesting wildlife and vegetation, I hope that this at least makes you think twice about the consequences of potential habitat destruction. Today I am happy to say that Haida Gwaii itself and the Haida Nation that has fought for its preservation will be thankful for the rejection of the Northern Gateway project. However, with other pipeline proposals being approved, I can only hope that there are stewards of the land willing to stand up for the natural and cultural world.

Cold comfort

Light raindrops pattered against the tarp stretched above my head.  Deep inside my tank top, t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, sweatshirt, and jacket, I shivered.  The damp cold of the day had made its way insidiously through my layers of clothing, freezing me from the inside out – and we had only been sitting here for two hours, meaning we had at least six more to go.  I sighed, resigning myself to a(nother) cold, clammy, uncomfortable day.

Most field biologists have spent at least a few days freezing their butts off in the field.  Unfortunately for me, however, being cold is not something I’m particularly tolerant of.  And in this case, the deep chill seeping into my bones was somewhat unexpected – because most people don’t go to Hawaii to be cold.

As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, field biologists often get a unique perspective of the places where they work.  So while bikini-clad tourists lay tanning on the beach less than 50 km away, I spent most of my time in Hawaii clad in at least three layers of clothing, huddled on the northeastern slopes of the Big Island’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea.

As it happens, Mauna Kea is not just the tallest mountain in Hawaii – it is, in fact, the tallest mountain in the world (depending on how you look at it).  From its base on the sea floor, it rises over 33,000 feet – almost 1,000 feet higher than Mt. Everest.  Of course, only 13,802 of those feet actually rise above the surface of the ocean – but it’s still a lot colder at thirteen thousand feet in the air than it is at sea level.  The top of Mauna Kea is frequently snow-covered in winter, and spending a rainy day hanging out on its slopes can be a chilly experience.

Watching the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea.

Watching the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea.

No one mentioned this aspect of Mauna Kea to me before I took the job – or, indeed, filled me in on the fact that our field accommodations were luxurious in every way except one: they had no heat.  And so I spent a great deal of my time in Hawaii shivering.  (In fact, I was once so cold that I tried warming my hands over the open flame of our gas stove.  This backfired when the sleeve of my sweatshirt caught fire – but for just an instant, before I extinguished the flames in the sink, all I could think was, “Wow! My hands are finally warm!”)

However, while the damp, misty chill of the Hawaiian forest was perhaps not ideal for field biologists (at least, not for me), it turns out that it’s pretty important for the organisms we were there to study: the birds.

I went to Hakalau to work as a field assistant on a long-term study examining population trends of Hawaiian forest birds.  Although just about anyone would be excited to be spending the winter months in Hawaii, I was excited for an entirely different reason than most people: Hawaiian honeycreepers are one of the poster children of adaptive radiation.

An 'akiapola'au shows off his amazing multi-tool bill.

An ‘akiapola’au shows off his amazing, multi-purpose bill.

Arising from a single, unspecialized ancestor species, Hawaiian honeycreeper species have exploded to fill multiple ecological niches on the islands.  There are finch-like honeycreepers and parrot-like honeycreepers and warbler-like honeycreepers.  And then there’s my particular favourite: the ‘akiapola’au – which we nicknamed the ‘Swiss Army knife bird’.  ‘Akis fill the woodpecker niche in the Hawaiian forest.  They use their straight, strong lower bills to drill holes in tree bark, and their long, curved upper bills to probe those holes for insect larvae.

With their striking scarlet and black plumage, i'iwis are hard to miss.

With their striking scarlet and black plumage, ‘i’iwis are hard to miss.

It’s one thing to learn about adaptive radiation in a lecture hall…but quite another to see its results, firsthand, in the field.  Honeycreepers may not be the quintessential example of adaptive radiation – that honour being reserved for Darwin’s Galapagos finches – but they are (with all due respect to Darwin) definitely one of the most dazzling.  My first day at Hakalau, I was constantly distracted by flashes of colour, as the deep scarlet of an ‘i‘iwi or the bright orange of an ‘akepa flitted through the nearby ‘ohi‘a trees.  Seeing their endless, beautiful forms brought evolution to life for me in a way that four years of undergraduate biology textbooks never had.

Unfortunately, however, Hawaiian birds are not just the poster child for adaptive radiation.  They could also be featured on posters for another buzzword concept in biology: multiple stressors.  Hawaiian birds are currently under attack from every side…and, more often than not, they’re losing the fight.

The plight of Hawaii’s forest birds started – as these stories so often do – when humans showed up, changing habitats and trailing with us the usual host of desired and not-so-desired biological companions.  From rats and house cats to feral pigs, non-native bird species, and mosquitoes, humans unleashed (sometimes intentionally, but more often unintentionally) a tidal wave of invasive species that swamped the delicate balance of life on the remote Hawaiian islands.

While each of these invasive species individually has a negative effect on Hawaii’s native birds, it’s in concert with each other that they become especially dangerous.  Some of the introduced bird species on the island arrived there carrying avian malaria, a blood parasite that is relatively common in most places, but foreign to Hawaii.  The introduced mosquitoes acted as vectors to transfer that parasite to the native birds – which had never been exposed to it, and hence were completely lacking any defences.  Even the feral pigs got in on the act, digging up roots in the forest and inadvertently creating hollows which filled with water, providing ideal breeding sites for mosquitoes.  It’s a multi-pronged attack, and one that has resulted in the decimation of many of Hawaii’s native bird species.

But these native birds do have one thing going for them – the cold.  Mosquitoes are largely restricted to low elevation areas of the islands (~5000 feet), as their larvae don’t develop properly at the lower temperatures found further up the slopes.  So high elevation forests, like those found at Hakalau, have for decades acted as refuges for Hawaiian honeycreepers.

And therein lies yet another problem: we all know, as the climate warms, that cold places will not necessarily stay cold.  In Hawaii, climate change is yet another stressor for the birds.  Increasing temperatures will likely mean the end of these high altitude refuges, and even more dramatic declines in honeycreeper populations, as has been documented in recent studies on the island of Kaua’i.  Slowing the rate of climate change may be the only hope for some of these already beleaguered species.

As I’ve already mentioned, I’m not very good at being cold – in fact, it makes me decidedly grumpy.  But while I was in Hawaii, watching an ‘i‘iwi feed on the bright pink flowers of an ‘ohi‘a or an ‘akiapola’au hammering holes in the bark of a koa tree more than made up for the damp chill.  Without the cold, I might never have had the chance to see these spectacular and declining species.  That realization alone was enough to make me almost appreciate the shivering…except perhaps for the day I caught my sleeve on fire.

An endangered Hawaii 'akepa perches on a convenient branch after banding.

An endangered Hawaii ‘akepa perches on a convenient branch after banding.

Dispatch from the jungle

We are very excited to welcome Dr. Alice Boyle back as a guest poster today. In her previous post, Alice shared some of her adventures from her doctoral fieldwork in Central American, and this week she takes us back to the Caribbean slopes of Costa Rica.  For more about Alice, check out her bio at the end of the post.

In 2004, I spent a year doing field work on the wet, Caribbean slope of Costa Rica. It was the 4th and final field season of my dissertation studying altitudinal bird migration. Each month we would work very hard for 23 days, and then my assistants visited beaches and volcanos, while I prepared for the next round of sampling. I also wrote letters to my family during those breaks, and my father urged me to publish them. A while back, I posted excerpts from the April letter. Here, I continue that story with an account of the crazy first week of May as we initiated a nest predation experiment across at 3000 m elevational gradient.

When I last wrote I was just getting ready for the big “nest predation experiment” month. All was going smoothly until the very last minute. Three days before starting to place nests, I went to San Jose to pick up the car*, the last batch of canary eggs, 400 wicker nests, bags of moss, and other weird miscellaneous supplies (for example, tiny decorative ice-cube trays for transport of jelly-bean sized fragile canary eggs). My last stop was to get the baskets that would become “nests”, made to order by a Guatemalan artisan. When I arrived, the store owner started bringing out bundles of NOT the 8-cms diameter cup-shaped baskets I had ordered, but huge pigeon-nest-sized baskets! AGH! Four hundred useless wicker baskets… crisis! The poor owner of the basket store was almost as dismayed as I was.

We tried modifying the baskets, savaging one with an exacto knife. It disintigrated into a sharp mess, and poor Emilia (the store owner… we were on a first-name basis by this point) got badly cut. Eventually, I realized there were three alternatives: 1) somehow find 400 smaller baskets elsewhere, 2) use some other cup-shaped product (…like a cup?), and get really creative with paint and glued-on moss as to make them look as nest-like as possible, or 3) give up. Option 3 wasn’t really an option. I had way too much invested. Aside from hoarding canary eggs for over a month**, I’d found a cheap vehicle to rent, gotten extra permits, and had a friend flying in to fill in a 2-week personnel gap. Option 1 really seemed pretty unlikely too. It had taken 2.5 months to get these baskets, and I had only 3 days left to find replacements. After deciding I had little option but to look for some other cup-shaped object, Emilia appeared with a hopeful look, holding a different style of small basket. Not quite so perfectly nest-shaped as the ones I’d ordered, but small and definitely better than a plastic cup! She only had 149, but the maker lived in the Talamanca mountains in Costa Rica. He had a phone and answered her call. I only heard one side of the conversation: “you know those little baskets you make me? how many can you make by Monday? ………. and how many more by Thursday? ……….. well, how soon could make an extra 250 for me? ……… look, we have an EMERGENCY here! Can’t you HIRE someone to help you!?……” And so we resolved the problem. They cost twice as much and I had to make 2 extra trips to San Jose to pick them up by installments, but it worked. This little glitch meant that our grueling itinerary now included late-night nest preparation before they could placed out in the forest… at 8 sites over a 3000 m elevational gradient. Unfortunately, the nest glitch wasn’t the only set-back.

One of our experimental nests, placed in the forest

One of our experimental nests, placed in the forest

Three days later we started wiring fake nests into trees in the forest, each containing a real canary egg and matching plasticine egg***. As we left the La Selva lab the first morning, it started raining hard, and it didn’t stop for the next 8 days. During that week, so much rain fell that a car was swept off the road and landslides closed the highway between San Jose and the Atlantic lowlands. All rivers were transformed into roiling muddy torrents and there was massive flooding. At La Selva, dorms were evacuated, access to the station was by boat, and the river reached its highest level since 1970. Meanwhile all the rain was falling on us

 

After the two lowland sites, we headed up to Rara Avis**** for the 650 m and 800 m sites, but our reservations at the station had been forgotten and the tractor (only transport option) wasn’t going to leave until late. That meant we got a day behind schedule, and I was starting to panic, until we took on ‘Crazy Mike’ as the 5th member of our team. Mike was a volunteer guide but didn’t get along with his new boss. When he heard about our nest, weather, and tractor-delay woes, he simply quit his guiding gig and came along for the adventure. Mike was a godsend! He rarely stopped joking and never let the rain get him down. True, he did also drink an incredible amount. But he was tireless in machete-ing his way along a compass bearings through treefalls and vine tangles. So we caught up, doing 2 sites in one brutal 13 hour field day.

Jared Wolfe, Mary Burke, and Mike Lord in the backseat of the Bronco

Jared Wolfe, Mary Burke, and Mike Lord in the backseat of the Bronco

Mary Burke, Jared Wolfe, me, and Johnny Brokaw, making fake eggs

Mary Burke, Jared Wolfe, me, and Johnny Brokaw, making fake eggs

Next day we were back down on the tractor, and around to a different side of the park, back up the mountain to higher elevations. We got behind again because the nests weren’t ready, and now were working in cloud forest where the rain was distinctly chilly. Luckily we were able to spend a night in San Jose where we all got hot showers, ate pizza, and drank copious amounts of beer! Had we not had to prepare more nests after dinner it would have been a fun party. But the schedule was relentless. The next day we went to the highest site—2800 m near the peak of Volcan Barva. The drive was awful. With every bump in the road I thought we were going to destroy the suspension. With five of us, nests, spray paint, wet rain gear, half eaten food containers, muddy rubber boots, gross packs, and canary eggs, the Bronco was the definition of sordid. But we made it up, and comforted ourselves with strong liquor purchased in San José.

Mary Burke and me, drenched after a day of high-elevation field work

Mary Burke and me, drenched after a day of high-elevation field work

The next morning there was a slight rain respite. Everyone got to see quetzals and I was feeling optimistic… the end was in sight. Only our last day and our last site remained. Getting there involved looping around Barva volcano on country roads, ending on a red dirt road leading to a little-used park access point. The drive was long, rainy, and very uncomfortable. We were exhausted. The little farmhouses seemed unoccupied near the end of the driveable road, so I continued farther than I should in hopes of finding a safe place to leave the full car.

And then, I drove into a ditch. Yup, right into a deep ditch. The whole right side of the Bronco was SERIOUSLY stuck. I have been stuck enough times to know when it is serious. We had no shovel nor anything other than sticks and rocks to help us. After probably 1.5 hours, many failed strategies, and admirable teamwork, we got the Bronco out! But we had lost a lot of time, and when I made it clear we were still going to try to get into the site and get the last batch of nests placed, there was near mutiny. Obviously, no one wanted to do anything other than shower, do laundry, and collapse into a clean bed. It was now early afternoon and we had to walk over an hour to the forest. Eventually I decided to leave Mike with the car and get as many nests placed at this site as possible. Even if we didn’t get all 50, we wouldn’t lose a whole site. So we did it, and as we hiked out with the last light, the clouds finally parted and rain finally stopped. We had panoramic views of Poas volcano and the whole drenched Atlantic lowlands almost as far as the coast. NOW our woes were over, surely!

Getting the Bronco out of the ditch

Getting the Bronco out of the ditch

The Bronco had one last devilish trick in store, however: loss of power brakes and a mysterious stalling problem. Somehow the strain of getting out of the ditch had caused new problems. Whenever I braked or changed gear, we stalled. For two dark, foggy hours on winding mountain roads, I was constantly stalling and roll starting, terrified of losing brakes entirely and peeling off the cliff into the abyss. The headlights pointed unhelpfully into space instead of illuminating the road. And as a last straw, the driver-side windshield wiper stopped working. We limped into Puerto Viejo, completely drained from stress and exhaustion. Fortunately, the pizza joint was open and had an ample supply of cold beer, despite the floods that cut off both water and sewage service. It wasn’t til 9:30 that we finally found our beds at La Selva.

That week was, without doubt, the most stressful and dangerous week of field work in my life. It was crazy and hectic the whole rest of the month, as part of the crew rechecked all the nests in sequence repeatedly over subsequent weeks, while others continued our monthly bird and plant sampling. But thankfully, fieldwork has never been quite that crazy since. It is good to know what you can tolerate. And it is good to remember the hardship, when, during long days in front of my computer, fieldwork seems to become a romantic memory. Yes, being in the field work is amazingly fun and rewarding, but it also stretches you to the max, testing your ingenuity, tolerance for discomfort, ability to remain cheerful, and to make really hard decisions that often seem to pit personal safety against scientific discovery.

* I had an incredibly tight budget! My entire PhD was completed on funding from small grants, so there was no way to get a commercial car rental. Fortunately, I found an old 4×4 Bronco to rent for cheap from a friend who was thinking of getting rid of it.

** Several months before, I had cultivated a relationship with a canary breeder who set aside all the infertile eggs in the refrigerator for me

*** We used plasticine (modeling clay) eggs to determine the types of predators attacking nests

**** Rara Avis was the mid-elevation field site where I did a lot of my PhD research.

aliceAlice Boyle is now an Assistant Professor in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University. She continues to study the evolutionary ecology of tropical birds, but has also fallen in love with the tall grass prairies surrounding her new home. Consequently, she has been chasing Grasshopper Sparrows for the past few years and learning just how different prairie ecosystems are from tropical wet forests.

The Sea

This week Dispatches from the Field is happy to welcome a guest post from Rebekah Butler, an M.Sc. student in Conservation and Biodiversity at University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation. 

“The Sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” Jacques Cousteau

I have always felt drawn to the ocean and have fond memories of stomping through rock pools come rain or shine (mostly rain) on family holidays as a child growing up in North Wales. As I grew, I became more and more fascinated with the natural world and scrambling along the shoreline just wasn’t enough for me anymore: I had to get in. The solution was to become a mermaid (or as close to one as possible). It quickly transpired that a life within the marine realm was not a totally realistic plan for my future and so I set out to complete my SCUBA diving qualification, enjoying many bewitching dives throughout South East Asia after completing my undergraduate biology degree.
Although every second beneath the waves filled me with wonderment and I was finally able to experience becoming one with the world that had intrigued me for so long, it was rare to experience a dive free from signs of human impact on the marine realm and this distressed me deeply. This experience only confirmed my aspirations to work in marine conservation and so, after completing a research internship with Marine Conservation Cambodia (another story for another day), I embarked on the Conservation and Biodiversity Master of Science (MSc) degree programme at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation in Cornwall, UK.

diving in the Perhentia Islands

One of my favourite dives in the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia.

Studying in Cornwall is amazing! Besides the endless pasties, pints and cream teas, the sea is deeply rooted in Cornish culture and it is not surprising why; the coast is only a short journey away wherever you are and the weather changes with the sea from Cornish ‘mizzle’ (a sort of sea mist/fine rain that doesn’t feel wet but gets your clothes soaked through within seconds) to bright and breezy sunshine within a matter of minutes.

As part of the MSc I am currently carrying out an independent research project investigating the impact of artificial structures on local marine biological diversity. What does this actually mean, though? Basically it means that I am looking at the difference in the number of species found on natural rocky shore areas and non-natural coastal defence structures like the seawalls and harbour walls around the Cornish coast. These structures are now dominant features of our coastlines worldwide and as the seas become stormier and sea levels are predicted to rise with climate change, the construction of sea defences is increasing at a phenomenal rate (some estimates report an increase of 400% in the last 30 years!). The construction of these structures drastically changes natural rocky shore areas that are known to support an incredible diversity of species and it is important to investigate whether artificial structures can support the same species as natural areas.

surveying a seawall at St. Ives

Kristy beautifully demonstrating surveying a seawall at St. Ives

On the ground this means a hell of a lot of fun for me – armed with my quadrat, wellingtons and joined by my awesome project partner Kristy, I’ve visited many locations around Cornwall surveying the species richness of rocky shores and coastal structures. A few teething issues are always to be expected when beginning fieldwork and on our first day, I remember waking up early to prepare our materials and my backpack, excitedly making my way to meet Kristy at the train station while soaking in the Cornish sun…only to realise that I had forgotten our quadrat – DOH! Not to worry, I thought, and ran down to collect it, determined to have a successful day in the field. On arrival we chose our survey location, stunned at the beauty of Falmouth, the town we currently call home. Placing our first quadrat down, we were astounded by the variation in life present before us and aspired to record all species present. Although we had some knowledge of rocky shore plants and animals, it was completely overwhelming! On that first day we managed to record only three quadrats out of the ten that we had planned before the tide moved us on.

surveying a grid on the rock beds

Myself surveying Castle Beach, Falmouth… note the seawall behind and what a wonderful day it is!

However, practice does make perfect and before long we were flying through our surveys. Our increased efficiency definitely helped in the first month, when the weather was still cold and drizzly and hats, gloves, waterproofs and a flask of coffee were a necessity…

Views from sampling at Gyllyngvase beach, Falmouth

Views from sampling at Gyllyngvase beach, Falmouth

OK so the flask of coffee is still essential but we have now swapped the extra layers for lashings of sunscreen and sunglasses instead.

Seawalls, harbour walls and natural rocky shore in the morning sun at St. Ives

Seawalls, harbour walls and natural rocky shore in the morning sun at St. Ives

 

 

 

Now I know that Cornwall isn’t Bali or the Bahamas but sometimes you’d find it difficult to assume otherwise; just check out these pics!

 

 

 

6Not only have we gotten to experience such beautiful conditions, but we have also experienced nature at its finest: witnessing elegant gannets diving metres away from us, kestrels flying overhead, fish hiding from the piercing sun within the nooks and crannies of seawalls, as well as many amazing rock pool finds. Two of my favourite finds throughout our fieldwork are pictured here. The first was a miniature rock pool, no bigger than a bottle cap, providing a refuge for two tiny beadlet anemones, and the second was a small space within a rock face where we saw seven species.

Pictured: this tiny refuge of water provides a home for two beadlet anemones

Pictured: this tiny refuge of water provides a home for two beadlet anemones

This picture shows the great diversity of the rocky shore as common limpets, a common periwinkle, dog whelk, toothed topshell, a beadlet anemone and dog whelk eggs can be seen on a rock face encrusted by pink coralline algae and orange breadcrumb sponge!)

This picture shows the great diversity of the rocky shore as common limpets, a common periwinkle, dog whelk, toothed topshell, a beadlet anemone and dog whelk eggs can be seen on a rock face encrusted by pink coralline algae and orange breadcrumb sponge!)

These finds really drove home the diversity of life that rocky shores support! If this project has taught me anything, it’s to take time to look at the smaller things. Although at first glance a rocky shore may just look like stone covered in seaweed, if you get a bit closer and get down on your hands and knees, it truly comes alive. So what are you waiting for? Get your wellies on and get stuck in!

Rebekah Butler is currently studying for an MSc in Conservation and Biodiversity at University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation. The project is ongoing and if people are interested in seeing how it develops/more findings/general marine conservation news and information you can follow her on twitter at @rebekahbutler. Rebekah is ecstatic to announce that in October she will begin a PhD in mangrove ecology at the University of Hong Kong’s Swire Institute of Marine Science.

Eggs-traodinary Fieldwork

 We are very excited to welcome Michelle Lavery to the blog today. Michelle is currently finishing her MSc thesis at the Canadian Rivers Institute (University of New Brunswick), which examines Atlantic salmon embryo mortality and development in the Miramichi River system. For more about Michelle, see the end of this post. 

Winter is often ignored in ecological studies, for the simple reason that it sucks. It sucks to work in the winter because it’s expensive, difficult, and sometimes dangerous. You need a lot of extra gear like snowmobiles, snowshoes, shovels, augers, and mountains of Thinsulate – not to mention the cost of operating a field camp or finding backwoods accommodation in the snow. The work is often cold and slow, since ropes will freeze into knots, snowmobiles can get stuck, and river ice is often quite thick and temperamental. Frostbite is a genuine concern, as is hypothermia and the risk of falling through river or lake ice. However, when the equipment can be paid for, the workers are willing, and the dangers can be mitigated, winter is the most wonderful and fulfilling season for fieldwork. There aren’t any pesky biting insects, everything is covered in a sparkly white blanket, and you’re never sweaty. Plus, there’s often a lot more going on under the ice than you would expect.

In the spring of 2013, Dr. Rick Cunjak (one of the founders of the Canadian Rivers Institute and a professor at the University of New Brunswick) was on the hunt for a gullible student who would agree to examine how fluctuations in a suite of abiotic factors might be associated with Atlantic salmon embryo mortality and development in the Miramichi River system. Why would they need to be gullible? The project he had in mind required that the student complete two field seasons spanning the fall, winter, and spring – in Northern New Brunswick. Being from Southern Ontario, I had never experienced a Maritime winter. After a brief conversation and a flurry of emails, I began my Masters in September 2013. I had fallen into his well-laid trap and started planning my first field season.

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[My kickass salmon-catching team – I couldn’t have done it without them and the giant beach seine] [Credit: Michelle Lavery]

Atlantic salmon are anadromous fish, meaning that they spend their juvenile years in freshwater streams and move to the ocean as smolts to feed and grow into adult fish. Once mature, the adults return to their natal freshwater streams over the course of the summer and bury their eggs in streambeds in the fall. These embryos incubate over winter and hatch in the spring, when their macroinvertebrate prey are emerging in high abundances. A river can experience a number of drastic changes over the winter; aside from the obvious drop in temperature, they might experience a considerable change in groundwater contribution and dissolved oxygen concentrations, as well as significant scouring and erosion from various ice formations and breakup processes. But before I delved into how these changes might be affecting salmon embryos, I needed to find some salmon embryos.

In 2013, the Miramichi River had the fewest returning adult Atlantic salmon in 43 years and, let me tell you, we noticed. We were desperately searching for “ripe” salmon – adult fish who haven’t yet spawned – so that we could manually spawn the fish and use their fertilized eggs to fill artificial nests that we had dug in our study rivers. After a full month of searching, seining, and snorkelling (in a wetsuit, in October), we finally found a few adults who suited our needs. Back at the hatchery and early in the morning, we spawned the adults and gently measured out the quantity of embryos we needed using exceedingly technical equipment.

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[I firmly believe that a frying pan counts as scientific equipment, even though Kurt seems skeptical.] [Credit: Michelle Charest]

We meticulously filled each cell of over 140 Scotty incubator trays with single fertilized eggs and buried them in our salmon nests. This had to happen in the same day as fertilization, since the embryos are only resilient for a short period of time. Consequently, a lot of incubator burying happened at night, by the light of the moon (and a few headlamps). At one site, I felt something large and very strong slapping me in the kidney while I was burying one of the incubators. I peered into the water to see not one, but five fully grown male Atlantic salmon. I had kicked up lots of sediment while rummaging around for a comfortable spot to kneel and, since I had spawned fish that same morning, I had fluid from female salmon all over my waders. For all intents and purposes, I had become my study species – a ripe female salmon…

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[I know, we look like long lost sisters…] [Credit: Nelson Cloud]

A few months later, I returned to my nests to see how the embryos were doing. To rephrase the previous sentence, I snowmobiled for over 50 km, snowshoed for another 8 km while dragging a chainsaw and a large iron ice chisel, dug several holes through metre-think river ice, and retrieved my incubators using a complicated triangulation method involving ropes, trees, and a long measuring tape. Then, I dragged the incubators back the field camp to count and sample them. The snowmobile got stuck more times than I can count, I was tethered to an oak tree and wore a lifejacket to venture onto some shady-looking river ice, and I came up with incredibly colourful compound curse words. To put salt on the frozen wounds, I returned to my redds just after the spring melt, when trucks inevitably get stuck in muddy back roads and field assistants are always grumpy and soggy.

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[Ice-digging is an activity of extremes; it can be incredibly rewarding or soul-crushingly disheartening. That smile is 8 hours in the making.] [Credit: Michelle Lavery]

Looking back, I wouldn’t trade my field experience for anything. Unlike many of my ecological counterparts, I managed to maintain the majority of my blood volume during fieldwork by avoiding summer mosquitoes. I came away with some fond, frostbitten memories and some killer data. Plus, I have stories that I’ll be able to tell for a lifetime. That’s why we do this crazy stuff in the first place, right?

Michelle became enamoured with Atlantic salmon during a field season in New Brunswick for her Honours project at Queen’s University. Since then, Atlantic salmon embryos have taken over her life. Simultaneously, she’s discovered her passion for science communication. She’s attempting to launch some sort of freelance career while finishing up her Masters thesis. She writes, edits, and consults in exchange for money, favours, or snacks – not in any particular order. You can check out her work at jmichellelavery.com or follow her on twitter (@JMichelleLavery).

My first “field” work

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.

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The extensive drawers on drawers of bird specimens at the behind-the-scenes at the ROM.

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!

Sarah poses with the drawers of hydrobatin storm-petrels

Excitement from being so close to my study species!

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.

Oceanodroma macrodactyla, the extinct Guadalupe storm-petrel.

Oceanodroma macrodactyla, the extinct Guadalupe storm-petrel. Check out the characteristic tube-nose!

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!