Be a lady (in field biology) they said

In honour of the 6th International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11th, 2021), we wanted to take the opportunity to explore what it means to be a woman in field biology.

While many aspects of fieldwork don’t discriminate by sex or gender (for example, getting bitten by insects, getting dirty, losing your phone/your field notes/your mind), fieldwork can present some unique trials for women – especially when it involves long days, weeks, or even months. Below, we’ve listed some of our favourite posts reflecting on the challenges and rewards of being a woman in the field.  

In 2017, in response to claims that then-President Donald Trump liked female to staffers to “dress like women”, women all over the world came together to describe exactly what it means to #DressLikeaWoman. As editors of Dispatches from the Field, we shared our own experiences from the cutting edge of women’s (field) fashion. Spoiler alert – don’t become a field biologist unless you’re willing to pair cut-off jean shorts with rubber boots or hats with…more hats. We’re still waiting on our job offers from the White House.

The challenges facing women in the field can range from meeting basic needs, such as figuring out where to pee and what to do when you have your period, to more serious issues like feeling isolated and unsafe. Dr. Jodie Wiggins (who has completed her PhD since writing this post for us in 2017; congrats Dr. Wiggins!) shared some of her hard-earned wisdom and tips for women in the field, including the importance of stocking tampons in the field supplies.

Fieldwork takes a toll on everyone, but it may be particularly difficult if you’re trying to be a parent at the same time. Dr. Tara Imlay shared her experiences juggling the competing demands of fieldwork and parenting, from timing her pregnancy to minimize conflicts with the field season, to dealing with tiredness, nausea, and the need to delegate tasks.

And like the video Be A Lady They Said, us woman can be a lady in field biology! Over the past six years, we’ve published posts from fierce, funny, and fantastic women field biologists around the world. These are the women who will shape the future of science – and it’s been our privilege to share some of their stories with you.

Cows, Creosotes, and Checkerboards

This week we welcome Dr. Kaiya Provost to the blog. Kaiya is a Postdoc at the Ohio State University working with Bryan Carstens on bioacoustics and phylogeography of North American birds. For more about Kaiya, see the end of this post or find her on Twitter @KaiyaProvost.

Big Bend National Park, Texas, 2016, is where my hatred of cows began. That summer, one charged me when I rounded a corner and got too close. I thought for sure I was going to get gored or trampled, but I didn’t. For some reason, I decided to continue being an ornithologist who works on southwestern ranch land. What can I say? Ranch land birds are great. 

Ranchers’ cows, which are common to the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and are the nemeses of the author. Credit to B.T. Smith

By 2018, I was in the Big Hatchet Mountains, New Mexico. Hard to get to. Extremely dry. You can see creosote bushes for miles, dry canyons that capture what little rainwater there is, and no people.

My advisor, Brian, and I were out in the field before heading to a conference in Tucson. I’d spent my morning looking for Canyon Towhees. I’d been trying to lure them in with a recording of their song, holding a handheld bluetooth speaker over my head. I’d seen zero. 

It was a 3 km hike uphill to get into that particular canyon, and I could make out our truck only as a black pinprick among creosotes. Lunch was in that truck, and breakfast had been only half of a Clif bar. 

As both humans and birds agree that midday in the desert is unpleasant, I started hiking back to the truck. Brian was around somewhere. In the canyons I didn’t have cell service, so I couldn’t text him until I got up on a hill. 

A typical field work lunch or dinner for the author. Tortillas with canned refried beans and pickled jalapenos. Not pictured: diluted Gatorade and apples. Credit to B.T. Smith

As I rounded a corner, I froze. 10 feet in front of me was something big. Much bigger than me. It was a cow, I realized. And it stared at me with big black eyes. 

I bolted through the mesquite, thorns everywhere; I scrambled down that hill, my hands grabbing at creosote bushes to keep me from slipping. I slipped anyway, landing on my hands, shredding my palms. I heard my bluetooth speaker chime off and power down, but dismissed it, running as fast as I could until I realized the cow had not charged me. No, as I turned around, the cow was placidly munching on a bush.

Heart pounding, I glared at the cow and its dopey black eyes, hoping that it could sense my anger and not my panic. For ten minutes I cussed out the cow, field work, Canyon Towhees, and Clif bars. After that I ran out of steam and limped to the truck in the desert heat.

After another half hour, I reached for my phone to text Brian. Shoot. Where was it? I must have misplaced it.

There was a mesh pocket on the side of my bag, one I’d been keeping my phone in. The problem? The bottom of the pocket was gone and the mesh was full of mesquite thorns.

Icy dread clogged my throat. I dumped my bag on the passenger seat. Half a Clif bar. Water bottle. Pencil. Paper. Field notebook. Bluetooth speaker. Another pencil. No phone. Which meant no directions, no playback, no field work. I went through the pile again. I turned the bag inside out. 

Brian came back as I went through the pile again

“What’s up?” he asked. 

I looked under the seat. I went through the pile a fourth time. “I lost my phone,” I said.

“Yikes,” he said. 

I stared up at that hillside, at the mountain. It loomed over me, like it spanned forever. I wondered, I was out for six hours. Where could my phone have fallen? I could see it in my mind’s eye, the blue case knocked off, battery slowly discharging.

I thought I was a failed scientist. 

As I started putting my bag together, I saw the bluetooth speaker. Oddly, it was still on. Hadn’t I heard it turn off before, while I was scrambling through that mesquite bush?

Wait. It was a bluetooth speaker. Connected to my phone, with a range of 30 feet. And it chimed anytime it lost or gained the connection. I could use the speaker to find my phone! Like a metal detector, with a 30 foot sensor on the end! 

Determined, hopeful, I walked back up into the Big Hatchet Mountains. Uphill. At high noon.

The hike felt like it took hours. To add insult to injury, I could see the offending cow as a speck in the distance. There were more mesquites than I remembered up there. They all looked the same. Was that the one I fell through? I can’t give up, I told myself. I’m gonna find that phone or pass out from dehydration. 

I picked a bush, took out the speaker, and started moving in circles. One loop around. Two loops. Three. I’m never going to find it, I thought. I’m a bad scientist, I couldn’t even find a Towhee, this was a mistake —

The speaker chimed. 

I could have cried from sheer relief. Somewhere close to me was my phone. I wasn’t a failure. 

Of course, as I moved forward, the speaker disconnected. Turns out, a 30 foot radius is a lot of ground to cover when looking for something that small, even if it’s in a bright blue case. I walked one way, the speaker turned on. Another, it turned off. I made a checkerboard across the hillside, the day well past noon and the sun relentless, but not as relentless as me. 

Forever later, finally, I saw it under a mesquite. A rectangle with a bright blue case on it and a bird sticker on the back. My cell phone, which could have been a bar of solid gold at that moment. 

I grabbed it and dropped to the ground. The screen was newly cracked, but I could still see everything and swipe through. I even had service! A text from Brian popped up, asking if I was still alive. 

I did it! 

As I went back down the hill, that cow still stared at me. When I made it to the truck, my lunch was the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Diluted Gatorade and cold refried beans; a victory feast. 

I didn’t tell Brian about the cow until after we got to Tucson. 

A view from the base of the Big Hatchet Mountains. Credit to the author
Kaiya Provost is an ornithologist, evolutionary biologist, and self-declared cow nemesis. She is a postdoc at the Ohio State University working with Bryan Carstens on bioacoustics and phylogeography of North American birds. She got her PhD with Brian Tilston Smith at the American Museum of Natural History’s Richard Gilder Graduate School working on desert bird genomics and demographics. 

Our “why”

2020 was a difficult year for everyone. It was challenging. It was tragic. At some points it didn’t even seem real. The beginning of a multi-year pandemic, locust swarms in Africa, and fires devastating Australia are just a subset of the terrible turns that 2020 took.


Implications for field biologists ranged from minor to significant. With many universities and institutions closed, some projects were put on hold or cancelled. Work was only permitted if considered “essential” – which, more often than not, didn’t include fieldwork. Even when fieldwork could be completed safely without traveling too far from home, it could only continue with additional safety precautions in place. It’s a virtual certainty that all fieldwork was affected in some way in 2020.


For us at Dispatches from the Field, 2020 was a tough year. When we started this blog six years ago, our lives looked very different. With changing geographies, changing life situations, new jobs, and new challenges, keeping up with Dispatches from the Field hasn’t been easy and the motivation hasn’t always been there. And 2020 just reinforced that. With the state of the world, we weren’t always on top of our game. We aren’t afraid to admit that. This past year was not easy.


So, the three of us (Amanda, Catherine, and Sarah) all sat down (virtually, of course) to figure some things out. Could the blog continue? Were we motivated enough to keep it going? Did we have the time? After much discussion, the answer was clear: yes. Yes, to all of the above. While the focus of the discussion was a lot of logistical stuff about dividing up the work and how we can attract more guest posters, what we really needed to consider was why we started the blog in the first place.


Dispatches was created to share stories about fieldwork, stories capturing the core of the experience and the moments that never make it into scientific papers. We wanted to teach people about important places and species by sharing engaging stories about our experiences with them. Our ultimate goal was to inspire people to care. When people care about something, it elicits action. It provokes calls to change. It results in movements to protect our beautiful planet. We need people to care more now than ever about the world, about our precious natural resources, about conservation and protection, about each other and about the incredible diversity of life on earth.


Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously remarked, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In creating Dispatches from the Field, it was never our intention to change the world. But we hoped, by telling our stories, to inspire others to care. And if even a small handful of people start to care about a place, or a plant, or a rare animal because they connected with one of the stories we told, then that could be the beginning of a real push for change.


With that thought in mind, we are all really excited to keep this blog going. It won’t be easy; it never has been and it never will be. There will always be other stuff going on in our lives: new commitments, new changes, and new challenges. But at the back of our minds, we will remember why we are doing this, why we started it, and why we can’t let it go.


If you have a story you want to share please reach out to use at fieldworkblog[at]gmail.com.

Eliminating the uncertainty of “fieldwork” in 2020

With 2020 coming to an end, it’s time to reflect on all of the uncertainty that came with this year. Normally, I use my agenda every day, planning out my daily, weekly, and monthly activities. So the idea of the “unknown” is what has stressed me out the most this year. Not knowing when we will be able to work in the lab, when I can travel to see my family, or when I might be comfortable eating out at a restaurant again makes it difficult to plan ahead.

But this sense of uncertainty is not unknown to field biologists. When working with wild animals, it is often a gamble whether you’ll be able to enough of them catch them at the right time in the right place. Sure, for many species, we have a lot of data about where they can be found, for how long, and at what time of year. But if you’re trying to plan your fieldwork to coincide with a specific period in a species’ annual cycle which may only last a few weeks or even days, it can be stressful to try to guess the right time.

adult cormorant

Since I started the third year of my PhD this past spring, I planned to have a big last field season to collect lots of wild bird eggs for many lab experiments. My plan was to collect freshly laid eggs from different seabird colonies throughout the Great Lakes region. The key word in that sentence is freshly laid eggs – in other words, I needed to collect eggs within a day or two of laying so I could artificially incubate them and monitor embryo growth from the beginning.

Normally, we pinpoint egg laying by checking eBird for reports of breeding from birders, or by calling birders in the area for their observations. However, even when we make use of the detailed knowledge of local birders, we still can’t be 100% sure what we’re going to find when we show up at the colony. It’s always a guessing game trying to figure out when the breeding pairs of birds will lay their first egg.

But just like most other field biologists, COVID interrupted my ambitious fieldwork plans for this year. Due to restrictions, I was not able to collect wild cormorant eggs during the birds’ short breeding season at the beginning of May. I was pretty discouraged when I realized I’d be missing out on a whole year of experiments. But after a discussion with my supervisors, I decided to compensate by adding a model lab species into my research and avoid delaying my PhD.

The domestic chicken is a model bird species – in other words, they have been used in many studies and there’s lots of data available on them. Turns out that chickens are actually a great species to study during a pandemic, because they breed throughout the year and hatcheries are considered an essential business (since the chickens are being raised for eggs or meat).

Working with chickens was a big change from previous years of playing the waiting and guessing game with wild bird fieldwork. My “fieldwork” this year consisted of calling a local hatchery a week before I planned to run an experiment and driving an hour to pick up as many fertilized eggs as I needed. While I still treated the eggs with care, putting them in a cushioned egg box and monitoring the ambient temperature, the challenges were very different this time around. Normally I collect wild eggs in the spring, when it’s warm outside, and I have to blast the air conditioning during transport to keep them cool. This time, I collected domestic eggs in the winter, so it was more of a challenge to keep the ambient temperature warm enough!

waiting at the hatchery

Waiting only 15 minutes at the hatchery to collect the chicken eggs and transport them to the lab.

egg carrying case in the car

While studying chickens wasn’t my first choice – and the ‘fieldwork’ wasn’t as much fun – my chicken experiments will help me to compare my results with those of previous studies and integrate my wild bird results into a broader context. So while 2020 was full of uncertainty and frustration, the resilience and persistence we all needed to make it through the year can sometimes produce unexpected benefits. I am learning quickly that these two traits are useful for succeeding in grad school – particularly during a pandemic!

Getting caught with your pants down at 4500m

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

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

Let me set the scene. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things that go Bump in the Field


I have spent a lot of time at a lot of different field sites over the years. I have spent days in the blistering sun, days in the frigid cold, and days in the pouring rain, but until this spring, I had never spent any time in the field after dark.

Every year, there is one field site with several kilometres of fencing that need monitoring to ensure the fence is in good working order. This work can take many more hours than we expect and is often completed in very early spring, so the days are still quite short.


This year, after a few days of repairing broken wires, straightening crooked poles and pulling tree branches out of the way, my field assistant and I were almost finished. It was nearing dusk and with a 1.5 km walk back to the road, we knew we had to leave shortly to make it out before dark. But we were so, so close to being done.


Let’s just go for it, we thought. We fixed the final panel of fencing and we started the trek back to the road where our vehicles were parked. But when I said it was “nearing dusk”, I really meant that it was already dusk, so by the time we were on our way out the sun had fully set and it was, well, total darkness. I have particularly bad night vision, so walking over ground was full of hummocks, rocks and small shrubs was particularly challenging for me. Given the terrain, a quick pace was far from possible, so I just trudged steadily along in the dark.


It was quiet. It was so very quiet. Since it was spring, birds were starting to migrate back to their Ontario breeding grounds, so the quiet skies were slowly beginning to come to life again during the day, but night was a different experience. There was only our heavy breaths and the slight rustle of leaves in the trees above to break the silence.

The only photo I got before the sun disappeared.


Suddenly, the quiet was interrupted by a very quick, almost vibration-like sound…and whatever made it was right behind us. Before we could even turn around, we heard a forceful “peeeent” from that same direction. My field assistant and I spun around, but halfway through our rotation, we heard the same vibrating sound again and it was gone.


We took a few more steps and then heard the same quick vibration sound followed by a loud “peeeent”. After this happened consistently for another 2 minutes, I knew I needed to figure out what was making this sound. The vibrating sound was definitely the wind rushing through feathers, so we knew it was a bird, but this was still very early in my birding career (I still knew almost nothing about birds), so that was about it. Something about the sound was oddly recognizable to me, but I just couldn’t place it. So, we walked slowly a few metres away and then turned around quietly and waited. As if perfectly on cue, the vibrating sound was back and as soon as it settled, I shone the light of my phone camera in front of us. And as soon as I caught sight of the bird, I knew exactly what it was, having watched this hilarious internet sensation many times. It was a woodcock!


As soon as I got a glimpse he was off again, and we continued to walk back to the road. The whole way back the woodcock followed us, “peent-ing” the entire time. Maybe we were bothering him and he was trying to get rid of us? Maybe he was protecting something? Or maybe he was just genuinely curious about what we were doing in his home territory so late in the day? Either way, when he escorted us to the car, it gave me a feeling of safety – like something was watching out for us in the darkness.


As we reached the vehicle and packed up our tools and equipment, I heard another nighttime sound, more immediately recognizable: the familiar call of the whip-poor-will was bouncing around in the distance. Having never spent any time in the field at night, that night was a very memorable experience for me. And it was certainly an excellent reminder that when you’re doing fieldwork or spending time in nature, no matter what time it is, you are never truly alone.

Nest building

Early one May morning in 2019, I disembarked from the ferry in Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, bewildered and discombobulated from too many days of long-distance driving and too little sleep. The previous evening, I had left continental North America behind; however, I still had a long way to go before reaching my new home in St. John’s.

The route from Port aux Basques to St. John’s.

Back when I started planning my inter-provincial move, it seemed an entirely reasonable proposition make the 900 km drive from one end of Newfoundland to the other in a day. Blinking in the cold, salty ocean air that morning, I wasn’t quite as sure. But turning around wasn’t an option, so I filled my travel mug with coffee and climbed back into my car.

However, as the day wore on, it became clear to me that I had severely underestimated the size of my new home. By early afternoon, I was barely at Grand Falls-Windsor (town motto: “Perfectly Centered”). Many hours later, I crossed onto the Avalon Peninsula – only to find an impenetrable fog blanketing the highway. I gripped the wheel a bit tighter as my mind filled with images of moose lunging suddenly into the path of my car.

The sun had long since set by the time I drove into St. John’s. All day, as my tires ate up the miles, my panic had also been ratcheting up. I had moved to Newfoundland to coordinate a breeding bird atlas – a massive citizen science initiative to inventory all the bird species breeding on the island. But as I drove…and drove…and drove…I couldn’t help but think, “We have to atlas all this?”

A very different view.

And my panic went deeper than that. The scraggly fir and spruce trees and quiet waterways scrolling uninterrupted past my window were very different to the deciduous trees, crop fields, and suburbs of southeastern Ontario. The landscape felt very alien, and I felt very out of my depth. It seemed impossible that this place would ever be home.

***

If left to my own devices, I might never have left my apartment. But I had moved to Newfoundland to do a job, and part of that job involved learning what fieldwork in Newfoundland was like. If we were going to ask citizen scientists to brave the island’s bogs, forests, and windswept cliffs, it seemed only fair to understand what we were asking of them.

Where’s Waldo?

And so, less than a month after arriving, I found myself setting up camp on a small island off the north coast, spending my days plunging my arm into underground burrows, groping blindly for Leach’s storm petrels, and my nights untangling them from mist nets by the dozens. A few weeks after that, I perched on the edge of a precipice at Cape St. Mary’s, staring at northern gannet nests until my eyes crossed and my vision blurred. (Magic eye pictures are nothing compared to trying to find a particular nest among hundreds packed onto a rock ledge.) And shortly after that, I was in a helicopter, heading out to the rugged backcountry of Gros Morne National Park.

***

Yup.

And suddenly a year had passed, and I found myself right back where I started. After a long day on the road, my car was suddenly encased in fog. Between the dark and the dense air, it was impossible to see more than a few meters ahead; I crept along at a snail’s pace just in case a moose suddenly got the urge to cross the road. Our headlights lit up two words painted onto a rock by the side of the road: “Fog off”. I couldn’t have agreed more.

The parallels were striking. But over the year, many things had changed

“You know, it’s a mistake to think of Newfoundland as a terrestrial place,” said my friend from the passenger seat. “It’s half marine, at least at times like now. That fog? That’s the ocean paying us a visit.” I couldn’t decide whether that made the fog more benign or less.

My friend and I were on the first leg of an epic journey to survey for birds in some of the farthest flung places on the island. In planning for the trip, we decided to target locations citizen scientists would be unlikely to get to. In other words, we picked a few peninsulas and followed them right to the end.

A perfect day for a dip in the ocean.

And so my second summer in Newfoundland consisted of exploring some of the small towns, dirt roads, and hidden gems of the island’s interior, serenaded by the omnipresent “Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada” of white-throated sparrows. From an ocean dip in St. Alban’s, to the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted in Grand Falls-Windsor (they should put that in their town motto!), to exploring an enchanted little park in Summerford, it was the kind of trip that can make you fall in love with a place.

I’ve often said that fieldwork offers a unique opportunity to get to know a landscape. But I don’t think I realized just how true that is until I moved here. Over the last year and a half, fieldwork has given me the means and opportunity to get out and explore this windy, foggy, magical island. Newfoundland still isn’t home to me, but it no longer feels impossible that one day it might be. And in the meantime, I can’t wait to get back out there next summer and explore some more.

Studying a species you’re not sure exists

This week on the blog, we are happy to have Charlotte Hacker, a PhD student at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, who shares her adventures of studying the elusive snow leopard on the Tibetan Plateau of China. For more information about Charlotte, check out her bio at the end of the post!

I have a confession to make…

But first, some background. I’m a noninvasive conservation geneticist using DNA extracted from snow leopard scat to answer questions about the diet, distribution, abundance, density, and landscape connectivity of these animals, among other things. I predominantly focus on populations of snow leopards living on the Tibetan Plateau of China. I’ve been fortunate to establish collaborative projects with other scientists at an incredible research institute in Beijing which have facilitated opportunities for my favorite part of research – fieldwork. 

Charlotte Hacker in snow leopard habitat collecting carnivore scat samples. Photo credit: Rou Bao

I’ve been back and forth between the United States and China since 2017. I’ve sampled hundreds of kilometers of transects, I’ve picked up approximately 600 carnivore scat samples, and I’ve extracted DNA from over 1,500 samples. I’ve met and interviewed dozens of local people about their attitudes towards wildlife. I’ve spent hours staring out the window of an all-terrain vehicle. I’ve identified individual snow leopards based on their genetic profile, determined their sex, and figured out what they ate. I’ve published a handful of peer-reviewed papers and technical reports. I’m one year out from getting my doctorate, which is basically a PhD in snow leopards.

The big secret? I’ve never seen a live one in the wild.

In my defense, there’s good reason for that. There are reasons why there’s still so much we don’t know about snow leopards. They are well camouflaged and elusive. They live at low densities and at high altitudes in terrain that can be inhospitable to humans.

One incredible advantage of my research is that I don’t need to find a snow leopard to study the species, but seeing one in the wild has been on my bucket list since the first time I stepped foot on the Tibetan Plateau. I’ve had three close calls, which I hang on to each time I go into the field, thinking, “Remember when you almost saw one? Remember when one probably saw you but you didn’t see it? Hold on to hope!”

Close call #1:

In addition to collecting scat, we record and take pictures of any signs indicating carnivore presence. Typically we find things like pugmarks (paw prints) and claw scrapes along our collection transects in the thick of snow leopard habitat. But one afternoon, driving along a well-traveled dirt road, our driver slammed on his breaks. “看看! (Look, look!),” he exclaimed. I sat up, holding onto the headrest in front of me. On the left periphery of the dirt road were immaculate snow leopard pugmarks. One after the other, in succession: two sets. We immediately hopped out and inspected, careful not to disrupt the tracks.

The snow leopards had to be nearby. The pugmarks were fresh. A downpour of rain had occurred within the last half hour, which would have washed older tracks away. We started looking in all directions. The pugmark sizes suggested they were from an adult and juvenile – a mother with offspring? Snow leopards can move quickly, but with a cub in tow she could be right in front of our faces.

The pugmarks of an adult and juvenile snow leopard along a dirt roadside. Photo credit: C. Hacker

But despite our best efforts, we didn’t spot the pair of snow leopards. I took dozens of pictures of the area and spent hours after my return to Beijing scanning through each one, hoping to find them hidden in an outcrop. Still no luck.

A picture of the surrounding area where fresh pugmarks were found. Photo credit: C. Hacker

Close call #2:

When we’re on or traveling to and from transects, we count the number of all other animals we spot to get an idea of prey abundance. One afternoon, within 200m of a transect, a herd of blue sheep bounded in front of us. Snow leopards love blue sheep, and I was frustrated because this herd moved so quickly that I wasn’t confident in my count. We had started sampling the transect when our local field guide pointed out bright red blood on a large rock. We followed the blood trail until we found it – the carcass of a young blue sheep with fresh puncture wounds to its neck.

Our field guide started to explain the scene. It hadn’t been killed by a wolf; they attack from behind. Snow leopards and foxes attack at the neck, but the space between the puncture wounds, and therefore the canines, was too big to be from a fox. “雪豹. (Snow leopard),” he confidently stated.

A freshly killed young blue sheep with puncture wounds to the neck. Photo credit: C. Hacker

We started putting the pieces together. Our vehicle hadn’t caused the blue sheep herd to run: a snow leopard had. That snow leopard had been successful in its kill. What if our presence forced it to abandon its meal to get away from us? We elected to leave the transect to allow the animal to reclaim its prey, feeling guilty that we had disrupted the natural order of things in the first place.

Close call #3:

Snow leopards sometimes predate livestock. We’re still trying to figure out why and how often, but it happens. Losing livestock can be a financial burden on herders, so finding non-lethal ways to stop predators from attacking livestock is a high priority. We wanted to test the effectiveness of one of these deterrents, a flashing light called a Foxlight. This entailed interviews of area residents, including one who casually pulled out his phone and showed us photos from a couple days earlier – a snow leopard, sitting in a predator-proof corral (maybe not so predator-proof?), amongst a couple sheep carcasses, just… hanging out.

The herder described the snow leopard as calm. We knew from earlier work in the area that the herders there had positive attitudes towards snow leopards, despite losing livestock to them relatively frequently. This herder was no exception. He waited for hours for the snow leopard to leave, reported the loss to his insurance, cleaned up the mess, and carried on. I sat back impressed but dismayed. If only we had gotten there two days earlier… Another chance to see a snow leopard that just wasn’t meant to be.

A snow leopard resting in a corral after having killed livestock. Photo credit: Bawa

For now, my fieldwork is on hold because of COVID-19, but I’m confident that one day I’ll get to spot the world’s most elusive cat. I sometimes think of what that moment will be like. A sigh of relief? Sheer awe? Accomplishment? Only time will tell. For now, I’ll keep my three close calls in the forefront of my mind to keep the hope alive.

Charlotte Hacker is a conservation geneticist using molecular approaches coupled with traditional field techniques and collaborative work with local communities to study at-risk species. Her PhD work through Duquesne University focuses on bridging knowledge gaps surrounding the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and entails a set of research initiatives between numerous conservation partners and organizations both in the United States and Central Asia. For more about Charlotte, visit her website.

We’re back!

After taking a much needed break over the summer, we at Dispatches from the Field are back in action and ready to bring you more stories of fieldwork adventure from researchers all over the world!

Here in Canada, Sept. 21-27 is Science Literacy Week, and this year’s theme is “B is for Biodiversity”. One of the main goals of our blog is to bridge the gap between the elusive scientist and the public. Sharing our experiences and adventures as field biologists is a great way to communicate why we love what we do!

So in honour of Science Literacy Week, we wanted to highlight some field research stories on Dispatches that showcase the magnificent biodiversity we have here in Canada:

3 Canada Jay nestlings in hand

Alex Sutton narrates his adventures of chasing Canada Jays in Algonquin Park. Photo credit: Alex Sutton.

Help us celebrate biodiversity by checking out these archived posts, and stay tuned – we’re excited to bring you new stories about field research in Canada and around the world starting in October!

What do you miss most about fieldwork?

As time slips by during the seemingly endless coronavirus pandemic, my plans for fieldwork keep changing. Even in a normal year, fieldwork can be unpredictable. However, when social distancing rules are in effect and uncertainty about how long this could last keeps growing, fieldwork plans may not even have a chance.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the small window of time I had during the cormorant breeding season to conduct my field study still seemed far away. But as cities stayed closed and travel remained risky, that small window approached. If I walk through my neighbourhood down to the shoreline of Lake Ontario, I can see an island where cormorants nest. Through binoculars, I’ve watched the cormorants arrive on the island and build their nests. Although the island is too far away to see any details, as the parents sit on their nests more consistently, I can only assume they are incubating eggs. I’m happy for the birds, but I am also watching the opportune window of time for my fieldwork plans slip away.

However, while I am frustrated, researchers are used to coming up with plan B (and C, D, etc.)! For now, I am fortunate to be able to use the time to work on results from my last field season.

But as I look back through my data, I keep thinking about everything I miss about fieldwork – and I’m guessing that I’m not alone. So we asked field biologists on Twitter what they missed most about fieldwork. You can check out the full conversation here, but here’s a summary of what we’ve been hearing:

  • Surprisingly, the things that bug you the most when you’re in the thick of it (such as early mornings and the sights and smells of a seabird colony) turn out to be the things you miss the most.

 

  • Your field crew really does become your field family, through all of your experiences together  (including getting a positive response from saying “poop!” and competitions running through sagebrush).

 

 

 

 

 

  • The idea of being unplugged and outside – and everyone else you know understanding why.

 

 

 

  • Enjoying the little things after a hard day’s work (like being covered in dirt and the best tasting ice cream).

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • The cool questions we get to ask and try to answer in limited amounts of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading all the responses we got really solidified the reasons why we love fieldwork. In these times of uncertainty, what we all keep hearing is true – we really are all in this together! So feel free to keep sharing what you miss most about fieldwork and let us know if you want to share a fieldwork story on the blog. We are always looking for guest posts!