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.

garter-snake-1

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.

map

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.

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.

The Secret Life of Team Honey Bee

With 7 species of bees being listed as endangered species this week, it is good timing to welcome a guest post by Rachael E. Bonoan, a  Ph. D. candidate from Tufts University about her research with honey bees. 

“Anyone have to pee?” I ask loudly so that Joanna, one of my interns, will wake up. It has been a long week of long drives, made longer by the fact that the air conditioning in my 1996 Honda Accord is broken. We have finally reached the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine (Tufts Vet) in Grafton, MA for the third and final time this week, and the campus center is our last chance to use the bathroom before going out to the field.

Joanna stirs enough to mutter “No.” James, another one of my interns, and I head into the air-conditioned campus center for a moment of relief. Minutes later, we take Wildlife Drive, turn right onto Cornfield Lane, and then left onto Discovery Drive. Further ahead, Discovery Drive turns into a dirt road which leads us to our field site. (I like to think that the fact that our field site is off Discovery Drive is good karma.)

My Honda rocks up and down as we take the dirt road. In no time, we are at the edge of a sprawling field. Our field. I pull my Honda up to the edge of the grass and put it in park. Earlier in the week, I learned that driving across the field of tall grass is not the best idea if I want my car’s low suspension to last the summer.

We step out of the car, stretch, and take in the sights and smells of Tufts Vet. Yes, smells. Our field is near one of Tufts Vet’s swine barns; we are sometimes welcomed by the smell of pigsty. It’s not a pleasant smell but it always brings me back to my childhood, when my grandparents lived near a pig farm. More pleasant though, is the smell of the dewy grass that has made early morning fieldwork worth the drive from the city.

I look out into the field as we unload my car. The six beehives we have already set up are neatly tucked away along a row of trees. From the dirt road, you would never know they were there. Scattered throughout the green field are large rolls of grass ready to be fed to the cows under the blue, cloud-speckled sky.

Our field site at Tufts Vet in Grafton, MA.

Our field site at Tufts Vet in Grafton, MA.

James, Joanna, and I carry our supplies to the appropriate spot among the trees and begin setting up our final three hives, making a total of nine hives ready to be filled with bees. Our week’s work complete, we return to the car for our drive back to the city. Although our hives are ready for bees, our bees will not be ready for pick up until next week.

3 bee hives

Three of our nine hives at the shady edge of the field with James and Joanna comparing notes (and my car) in the background.

When the day to pick up the bees finally arrives, we excitedly return to Tufts Vet with nine small boxes of bees strategically packed into my Honda. These small boxes of bees are called nucleus colonies, or nucs. A nuc is a small colony of bees that is then installed into a larger hive. On this happy day, we traipse through the now-taller grass and place one nuc outside each hive. We let the nucs rest after the stressful drive while we head to the campus center to relieve our bladders and refuel before our work begins.

Refreshed, we begin the installation. As we install the bees into their new homes, we examine each nuc to make sure there is a queen and that the colony is healthy. After each frame of bees is carefully inspected, we move it from the red nuc into our freshly painted yellow hive. This is James and Joanna’s first real beekeeping experience, and my first experience installing bees. We are all excited.

James and Joanna inspecting a frame of bees as they install the bees into their new home.

James and Joanna inspecting a frame of bees as they install the bees into their new home.

With the bees installed, we are ready to begin our experiment. For this summer’s study, we are measuring foraging effort of our hives. To do this, we sit outside each hive and count the number of bees leaving the hive in 10-minute intervals. To aid with the counting, we enlist a couple more helping hands. Adam, a beekeeper, budding biologist, and high school student from Lexington, MA joins us, as does Luke, a Tufts undergraduate who has been working with Team Honey Bee for over a year. I appreciate the extra help but I especially enjoy giving more young scientists a chance to experience fieldwork firsthand.

Adam counting bees leaving the hive.

Adam counting bees leaving the hive.

As a kid, I loved catching and observing insects. It wasn’t until the summer before my senior year of college that I realized I could catch and observe insects as my job. That summer, I worked with butterflies and fell in love with fieldwork. For my study, I caught butterflies in the field and raised their caterpillars in the lab.

Working with the butterflies, I learned how to tell the difference between a male and female simply based on how the butterfly was flying. I learned how to gently handle the insects in order to stress them out as little as possible. I learned that fieldwork takes a tremendous amount of creativity and troubleshooting, and a lot of trips to the hardware store. But in the end, I learned that it’s all worth it.

Watching my bees, I again feel this intimate connection with my study system. I can hear (and even smell!) when my bees are angry; I can identify how honey bees fly compared to other bees; I can point out which bees in the hive are the youngest just by looking at them.

Although it sounds (and sometimes is) tedious, I feel true joy in our fieldwork while sitting quietly and counting bees. After all the driving and preparation, we are finally collecting data! And outside in a beautiful place no less! Sitting there in our field, watching our bees, I hear only their collective buzz and chirping birds. No cars, no sirens, no indications of the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. Tufts Vet is truly a rural oasis for both humans and bees, and sitting there in the open field always manages to put me at peace.

VIDEO: https://vimeo.com/178503484

CAPTION: Foraging honey bees, slowed down to ¼ speed. For the play-by-play of this video, check out my blog post, Organized Chaos, at http://www.rachaelebonoan.com/blog.

Twitter: @RachaelEBee

Pushing the limits

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome guest blogger Laura Hancock, a Master’s student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who tells us why she loves fieldwork.  For more about Laura, see her bio at the end of the post.

Field work can be great. Sometimes field work means being outside in the warm sun, or camping under the stars. I love field work. In fact, as a second year Master’s student, I feel like I’m not doing nearly enough field work. I don’t miss field work because I love being outside (which I do), but I miss pushing myself, discovering how much I can do, and what I’m made of. As cliché as this sounds, I felt like I discovered myself when I had my first field experience during my freshman year in college. A graduate TA of mine invited me out to help him and some other graduate students measuring tree growth in a created wetland. This was the opportunity I had wanted for a year and couldn’t wait to get out there! I even skipped studying for a quiz because I was so excited about the opportunity (as someone who at the time was a perfectionist and had a 4.0 GPA, this meant a lot). As soon as I was out in the field, knee deep in mud and dirt, I knew I was in the right place and had made the right choice of activities at the time and overall in my life. I loved the work, the fresh air, talking with people who loved ecology, and like me, loved being out there. But what I found was the most invigorating was how real and raw everything was. This might seem like a complete “duh” (you’re outside for gosh sakes, how much “realer” does it get than trees, dirt, sun, and bugs?), but everything just clicked for me. I was able to let go of being a perfectionist or thinking about getting everything done. I felt like what I was doing made a tangible difference to someone and the environment.

I continued to do various field work projects through my senior year in undergrad – and then I got the opportunity of a lifetime. One of my favourite professors works with bats (possibly the most interesting group of animals on the planet). He offered me a position after I graduated where I would help monitor and track an endangered species of bat out in California, New Mexico, and Arizona. Of course I said yes, and patiently waited until I could finally graduate, not because I hated school (which I don’t), but because I wanted to be outside in one of the coolest places on Earth – Death Valley National Park.

Not a bad office: the view from one of the monitoring sites in Death Valley National Park.

Not a bad office: the view from one of the monitoring sites in Death Valley National Park.

In June of 2013, two graduate students, a Death Valley park ranger, and I were tasked with the job of going out to monitor a maternal roost site in an abandoned mine. (Bats really love roosting in abandoned mines, especially in areas where humans have destroyed natural caves.) The best part? The mine was a 7 mile hike each way, off any paths accessible to regular park goers. Even better? It was June IN DEATH VALLEY. Hellooo, heat stroke!

Right now some of you might be thinking I’m being sarcastic, I’m 100% serious. I was SO excited for this. I grew up as not the healthiest kid. I was constantly tired and got sick a lot, on top of other issues. However, as I got older most of that stuff went away. As that happened, I realized how important it was to me to have a healthy body. I liked pushing my limits and seeing what I was capable of; when you put yourself in extreme conditions you have to be hyper aware of you, your body, your surroundings, and how you’re feeling. It’s like yoga, but for thrill seekers.

Now back to Death Valley in June. I was really excited to push my limits and hike 14 miles in one of the hottest places on Earth, in the middle of the summer. Turns out there was a “cold wave” the week the crew and I were there, so it was only 112 °F . Just kidding! That’s still PRETTY hot! The crew and I made the trek to the mine early on in the day, hiked to another mine a mile away over sand dunes and headed back. By the time all the work was done, it had been 10 hours and over 16 miles of hiking. I was by far the happiest and most energetic person on the field crew that night. We just hiked 16 miles in 112 °F heat – what couldn’t we do!?

Now that I spend most of my day e-mailing and reading papers as a graduate student, I long for those days when I got to be out in the field. I love the feeling of accomplishment and mental growth, but air conditioning isn’t bad either.

Laura HancockLaura graduated from Christopher Newport University with a B.Sc. in Biology in 2013.  Now she is a second year Master’s student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, researching metapopulation and source-sink dynamics of garlic mustard.  Her background is in plants and plant-insect ecology, but a few years ago, she took a nine month break from plant and insect work to study bats and has missed the work every day since!

 

Don’t just take our word for it – A short teaser for Unspotted

Because we wrote a book review last week, we thought we would give you a little teaser into the book itself, especially since he touches on so many stories that we can relate to on this blog. Don’t just take our word for it, read this short excerpt from “Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard” by Justin Fox to see for yourself. Like what you’ve read so far? Read until the end of the post to find out how you could win a free copy of the book!

“We walked a little way up the slope following the spoor. Quinton pointed at the ground again. It was animal droppings, known as ‘scat’. It’s difficult for lay people to fathom the excitement scat induces in zoologists. Quinton fell to his knees like a worshipper and studied the specimen closely. He explained that usually only half the scat is taken for analysis, as it serves as a territory marker for leopards. Samples are soaked in formalin, washed, and the hair separated from other remains before the sample is oven dried at 140°F.

Then the analysis can begin. To identify prey, the hair length and color is noted, as well as cuticular hair-scale patterns. The presence of bone fragments and hooves also aids identification. Small rodents are more difficult to identify, although teeth found in the scat can help. Quinton explained that through scat research he’d recorded 23 species in the diet of these opportunistic feeders, including everything from lizard to cow. I thought of the many hours he had spent soaking scat in formalin and baking it and then the days spent examining it. This kind of dedication needs to be fed by a particular brand of obsession.

We pressed on up the pass, switchbacking on increasingly precipitous bends, creeping along the mountain face on a hairline track that led us into a world of jumbled sandstone and bright green fynbos. Clouds cast giant dapples across the valley. All the while the bleating transmission from Max’s collar grew more intense. At the top of the pass we got out and Quinton aimed his VHF telemetry at a nearby koppie. The signal was strong. He switched to a UHF aerial and got a GPS fix from the collar. Max was roughly 900 yards to the west, just this side of a tall ridge. The four of us spent a few minutes scanning the area with binoculars, but saw nothing. Every bush and boulder looked vaguely feline. Every feature in the landscape seemed ideal camouflage for a leopard.

“Okay, we’re going to have to hike in after him,” said Quinton. “It could be a bit rough.”

The two retirees opted out, saying they’d rather sit and look at the view. Out came folding chairs and a flask of coffee. Knowing a wild goose chase when I saw one, I half wanted to join them. But I’d come to the berg to bag a leopard and this was as good a shot as any. Hats, water bottles, telemetry, binoculars—we were good to go.”

Like what you’ve read so far? Want to know how it finishes? You can purchase the book here, or retweet us @fieldworkblog on Twitter and we will randomly select someone to give a free copy to! 

 

“On the borders of mythology”: a review of Justin Fox’s Unspotted

About a month ago, the resident bloggers here at Dispatches from the field (Catherine, Amanda, and Sarah) were asked to review a recently published book about fieldwork: Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard, by Justin Fox. Naturally, being both field scientists and bloggers, we were all excited to see a copy of Unspotted arrive in the Dispatches inbox, and we thought we would share our thoughts on Fox’s book in this week’s blog post.

Unspotted tells the story of Quinton Martins, a scientist whose doctoral thesis focused on the “near mythical” Cape Mountain Leopard. While most field biologists catch, tag, or collect so many of their target species that they begin seeing them in their sleep, Martins spent the majority of his research time tramping around the Cederberg mountains of South Africa, simply trying to lay eyes on his elusive study subject. When he ran out of funding, he poured his personal funds into his quest – even selling his car and resorting to hitchhiking as his mode of field transportation. As Fox aptly puts it: “Quinton Martins is mad. Not in some superficial, mildly nutty way, but rather with a deep and abiding insanity.” Nor did his obsession end with his doctoral thesis: Martins is currently the project manager of the Cape Leopard Trust, an organization he founded with the goal of understanding and preserving the entire Cape Mountain ecosystem.

From the beginning, Fox effectively and realistically conveys the ups and downs of fieldwork. The story is told in first person; the reader accompanies Fox on his trip to the Cederberg to “meet Quinton…and, hopefully, one of this spotted friends”. By telling the story through his eyes – the eyes of a neophyte, learning about the challenges and triumphs of working with these large cats for the first time – Fox makes the story accessible to all readers, regardless of their own field experience.

Unsurprisingly, seeing things from Fox’s point of view also led to a number of the funnier moments in the book. Anyone who has ever turned up dressed inappropriately for the field will sympathize with his failure to bring a sweater on his first foray into the mountains, and his quiet desperation as he waits in the cold spring evening for Martins to finish setting a trap – eventually bursting out, “Um, I think I m-m-might need to head back to the ve-ve-vehicle before hypothermia sets in.”, only to be completely ignored by the fixated (and more appropriately dressed) Martins.

But perhaps the greatest strength of this book lies in Fox’s extensive descriptions, which illuminate the pages of the book. He eloquently and vividly describes the landscape, the fieldwork, and the people he meets. He effectively uses figurative language to paint pictures in the reader’s mind, describing a local fish as “a cross between a leopard and a daisy”, and repeatedly comparing Martins himself to the leopards he tracks with such dedication. Fox’s use of metaphors and similes bring his experiences in the field to life: you feel your teeth rattling right along with his as he rides up a dirt track in a truck that “bounce[s] over boulders like an inebriated frog”. And he does a great job of describing some of the unique and somewhat eccentric characters he meets in the field in a way that allows the reader to connect to them.

If we have one criticism of Fox’s book, it would be that it left us wanting more. Offering a bit more background information – about the natural history of the leopards, the goals and results of Martins’ research, and the larger implications of his work – would provide a context that is somewhat lacking.

Overall, Unspotted is a quick and engaging read, and we would recommend it for both field biologists – who will see many of their own stories reflected in its pages – and for the general public, who may gain some insight into the unique “madness” that drives field biologists to do what they do.

You can find Justin Fox’s book Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard on Amazon.ca.

Souls of the Vermilion Sea – a blog post

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Sean Bogle, a videographer and Project Director of the documentary series Eyes on Conservation. Check out his bio at the end of the post and a link to the documentary he talks about in this post!

When I was younger I wanted to be a cowboy, being from Texas. The thought of trotting across vast landscapes alone, surrounded by nature, with streaks of yellow and orange in the sky struck me as “the good life”.   However, this dream became no more than a dried up hoof print when I learned that the life of a cowboy involves shoveling horse manure.

Being a child, I quickly moved on to another dream. I gravitated towards the birth of video technology when my father purchased an early edition two part video system – one part being the video camera, and the other part being a condensed VCR with a strap. This interest was considerably less filthy than being a cowboy and I could be as creative as I wanted.

Time went on, life went on, and now the two dreams have collided: I am now a wildlife researcher and filmmaker. I suppose my early goals were actually foreshadowing for my chosen career. Now I am lucky enough to be able to conduct wildlife conservation research while also documenting my efforts and the efforts of other conservation enthusiasts to share with the rest of the world. These are rare circumstances, but I have only focused on enjoying this combination.

Even more rare than the opportunity to combine conservation and filmmaking is the subject of my current project: the vaquita porpoise. With less than 100 individuals remaining, the vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal on the planet. After having worked on many marine mammal research projects for the past 5 years (specifically pinnipeds, such as Steller sea lions, Northern elephant seals, Hawaiian monk seals, Northern fur seals), I had a personal interest in this issue, and I wanted to address it. I thought that since I have a talent for filmmaking, an interest in wildlife research and conservation, and the passion to make a difference, I had to make a film that would not only spread awareness of the vaquita’s plight, but would also document the dedication of those on the front lines of the fight to save this species.

the vaquita porpoise

The subject of my current project: the vaquita porpoise. Photo credit: Tom Jefferson.

Female Steller sea lion with pup.

Female Steller sea lion with pup. Images were collected pursuant to NMFS Permit #14326.

Since the middle of 2014, I have been investigating the issues facing the vaquita. I have learned what the major threats to the vaquita are, who is on the front lines of this issue, and what needs to be done to prevent the extinction of this unique species. The most direct threat contributing to the decline of the vaquita is the use of gillnets. Gillnets are commonly used to harvest an array of fish species from the Upper Gulf of California. Vaquita get entangled in these nets, which prevents them from surfacing for air and ultimately results in death by suffocation. The use of gillnets for fishing is driven partly by the demand in the US for blue shrimp, which is considered a delicacy, and the demand in China for the swim bladders of the endangered totoaba, which is thought have medicinal qualities and is a symbol of wealth.

After about a year’s worth of developing relationships and making plans, it is now time to jump in and start helping: recently, we began filming for Souls of the Vermilion Sea, a Wild Lens documentary about the vaquita. Ideally, for a project of this magnitude, funding would be secured before moving forward, but in this case, waiting is not an option – the vaquita has very limited time. Current predictions suggest that this unique mammal will be extinct by the year 2018. Time is of the essence, and I believe we need to unify our efforts so we have the greatest impact in saving these creatures.

Filming Souls of the Vermilion Sea in the Sea of Cortez.

Filming Souls of the Vermilion Sea in the Sea of Cortez.

It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing getting to where I am now. To make a good film, I had to build strong relationships with those on the front lines of this story – and trust takes time to establish. However, working at these relationships paid off – these experts have been so generous with their knowledge and hospitality. I would have not made the progress that I have without their help, and I owe them all a great deal of gratitude. I also have depended greatly on the supporters of Wild Lens, this vaquita film project, and the protection for the vaquita. This support is crucial in creating change. It is refreshing to know that there are people out there that are dedicated to preserving the planet’s integrity by protecting its biodiversity.

 

Filming in the field is in many ways very similar to working on a research project. Communication with others is important, so that efficiency can be maintained and protocols can be followed. Weather can be an unpredictable factor that influences productivity, so you need to adapt and be flexible and know how to use the time you do have. This particular issue has already arisen several times as I have been filming down in San Felipe, Mexico, where the vaquita story is unfolding. We recently had the remnants of a tropical storm brush the coast, which did not make for good filming weather! But in the end, the storm provided an opportunity to catch up on organizing gear and the footage that I have captured over the last 3 weeks. These are moments that are well embraced.

Northern fur sea l pup.

Northern fur seal pup. Images were collected pursuant to NMFS Permit #14327.

And of course, there is never enough time to do everything you want to. As I move forward with this film project, I am also mentally preparing for my next field season on the Pribilof Islands, where I am a long term assistant on a Northern fur seal project. In less than 3 weeks I will have to switch from flip flops, t-shirt and shorts, to Xtra-tuffs, thermals, and rain gear – which may be a tough shift! I sometimes have a panic moment, wondering whether I will be able to make the transition from filmmaker to scientist. But then I remember that these roles are not so different after all, and how lucky I am to have a chance to combine them!

Sean Bogle has been a part of Wild Lens since 2011, when he first became involved as a videographer documenting the conservation efforts of the Maasai giraffe in Tanzania. Following this contribution, he became the Project Director of the documentary series Eyes on Conservation. He works closely with biologists in every stage of production to tell their story. Prior to his involvement with Wild Lens, he worked on the front lines of conservation conducting research studies on a spectrum of species from fish and small mammals to charismatic megafauna like pinnipeds. He is currently creating a documentary film, Souls of the Vermilion Sea, telling the story of the struggle to save the most endangered marine mammal on the planet. Check it out at http://wildlensinc.org/eoc-single/souls-of-the-vermilion-sea/ and visit their kickstarter page if you want to contribute!