It only took one run

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Scott Lynch, a Master’s Candidate at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, to share how his love for field biology (with sharks!) started.

There are few experiences more unnerving than being told you have to run off a boat, up a ramp, and through a parking lot while carrying a 3-foot shark in your arms. I peered through the hot August Virginian sun, eyeing the obstacles along the boat, not quite believing that this was actually happening.

Just a few days beforehand I had been a newly hired undergraduate intern, working for a month optimizing my supervisor’s western blot protocol. Although I had said I wanted to work in the field when I was hired, I understood the importance of paying my dues. I worked hard at the tasks my supervisor gave me, until one day he asked to see me in his office. When I walked in he had one simple question for me: “How do you feel about Virginia?”

small town signWithin a few short days I was landing in Norfolk, Virginia, headed to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science Eastern Shore Lab in Wachapreague. As a new undergraduate researcher I had no idea what to expect. What I found was a sleepy little town of 400 people, characterized by its charter fishing fleet, one large restaurant, and the research lab. As I approached the research lab I found it to be a small complex of buildings, including offices, staff housing, an under-construction dry lab, and a newly opened, state-of-the-art, wet lab. The newly opened building was a concrete hulk nestled on the edge of the salt marsh, the home of the animals studied there. It was accompanied by a set of docks and bobbing boats.

As I got out of the car I was immediately met by a rush of activity. A fresh set of oysters had been brought in for study. The boat was being unloaded and the huge clumps of mud containing oysters along with whatever else happened to get caught up in the shovel were being cleaned and separated. I immediately jumped in and learned just how frenzied and tiring life at a field station can be.

view of the salt marsh

The next morning I was up bright and early for my first encounter with sharks. The salt marsh around the lab is a common place to find juvenile sandbar sharks that time of year. I went out with the senior fish scientists at the lab and learned a great deal, very quickly about fishing and shark handling.

I also learned a great deal about the brutality of bugs on the Virginian Eastern Shore. They have these bugs that look like houseflies with green heads, earning them the creative nickname of “greenheads”. However, unlike houseflies, when they land on you, their bite draws blood – even straight through jeans sometimes. This leaves you with a hard choice: wear jeans, melt to death in the 100 degree (when you include the brutal humidity) weather, and still get bitten occasionally, or wear shorts, keep cooler, but get home with blood running down your legs?

Later that afternoon when we got back to the lab, it came time for that run with a shark in my arms to deposit it into the large outdoor holding tank. I have been asked time and again why we would transport the sharks in such a way and the simplest explanation is to minimize time in between breaths for the sharks. These animals are obligatory ram ventilators, meaning that they need to swim forward to be able to breath. In other words, they can breathe in the tank on the boat and in the holding tank, but still wouldn’t be able to breath in a tub small enough to also be able to carry or wheel around. Therefore, covering their eyes and gills with a wet cloth to protect them and simply running them between locations means that they have the smallest possible window between breaths.

I eyed the path I had to take to get off the boat: up the floating dock, around the corner, through the water tables (being careful not to trip on the pipes running along the ground), and up some stairs. Once at the top, I could carefully slide the shark into the water. Easy, right?

I wrapped the shark’s head in a soaked towel, held its jaw shut with my hands, and went for it. Now I’m a big guy (6’3”, around 300 lbs) so running is not my strong suit, but there is no motivator quite like having a shark in your arms and being responsible for its safety. Especially when a big part of that safety includes getting it back in the water as quickly as possible. I jumped off the boat, ran up the ramp, through the water tables, up the stairs, and with great relief deposited the shark into the water. As the shark slipped out of my hands and took off, I was immediately hooked.

taking some measurementsFrom that point on, working 17 hour days dealing with the heat, the bugs, and the danger of handling live sharks was nothing but exhilarating to me. I worked through meals, woke up in the middle of the night to check on my sharks, and was happy for every minute of the work. I had absolutely caught the shark bug, and the field work bug too.

From those summers working with juvenile sandbars in remote Virginia I have stories of near shark bites, drowning scares out on the mud flats, and so many stories of evil salt marsh bugs. While I love telling all of these stories, and gladly will if you give me a minute of your time, nothing since has ever affected me as much as that first day at the field station, and that first time running a shark.

 

Scott on a boatScott Lynch is a Master’s Candidate at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he studies white shark movement and also works full time as the Technical Services Coordinator for Campus Services. He holds his BS in Marine Biology from University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he conducted work on the effects of satellite telemetry tags on juvenile sandbar sharks. Twitter: @savindafishies

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Studying guppies in Trinidad

For National Fishing Week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes Tim Hain, a biologist at the University of Western Ontario to tell us about his fieldwork studying the not-so-fancy-looking (but very cool for evolutionary studies) guppies in Trinidad. To find out more about Tim and his fieldwork stores, check out the end of this blog for a link to a book he recently published!

Many North Americans have heard of guppies – perhaps because they or a friend had guppies as pets, perhaps because they have watched Bubble Guppies on television. Aquarium hobbyists have an enthusiasm for guppies because these fish have natural variation in colouration and fin size or shape that breeders have exploited to develop many different beautiful strains with descriptive names like tuxedo, sunrise, mosaic, snakeskin, or swordtail. Although “guppies” have name recognition with the public, many people do not realize that these little fish are a favourite among researchers in evolutionary ecology. In fact, guppies are one of the best vertebrate species for studying evolution in the wild, particularly on the island of Trinidad in the West Indies. Because guppies have short generation times and waterfall barriers that restrict migration, there is variation in behaviour, life history, physiology, and appearance among populations that can often be attributed to variation in the local predator community.

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Image 2The classic story is that guppies below waterfalls are subjected to predation by large vision-oriented predators, so male guppies in these populations tend to be cryptic in colour to avoid being eaten.Image 3

 

 

 

 

Above waterfalls, the predators are either smaller and cannot eat adult guppies Image 4or eat using tactile or chemical signals,Image 5

so male guppies from these populations are free to evolve conspicuous bright colours to attract females.Image 6Many evolution students will have heard all about this. But “science-world famous” is very different from “world famous.”

 

 

In fact, most people do not know how important these insignificant-looking fish are. When I first went to Trinidad in 2006 as a Ph.D. student, I had been studying guppies for three years. At its most fanciful, my imagination pictured monuments to guppies at important sites around the country.

Of course, I did not truly expect to find statues of guppies, but I was amazed by how common guppies were in the country. My first ‘wild’ guppy sighting was in a sewer along the major east-west road, and this was not unusual.Image 7 In fact, they are so common that many locals were surprised that someone would travel from Canada to study them. In some locations where I collected guppies, I would attract a small crowd. Because I neither looked or sounded like I was from around there, local people would ask me what I was doing. One middle-aged Trinidadian that I spoke to was confused when I mentioned guppies, but when I described them, he said “Oh, you mean canalfish.” In Trinidad, guppies have this common name because they are frequently found in sewers and ditches alongside roads. Several times I used this name with Trinidadians to refer to guppies, and they knew what I meant.

Because female guppies give birth to live young, a single pregnant female can establish a population. This makes guppies master colonizers, and I saw them in a huge range of environments. Image 8The best-studied guppies are native to the Northern Range of forested mountains, where waterfalls break up narrow streams, but they are also founder in wider, dirtier rivers and some unique geographical features, like Pitch Lake in the southern part of the country.

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My mother and a guide.

Pitch Lake was formed when pitch – a resin once used for waterproofing ships – bubbled out of the ground and now covers 40 hectares of area . It resembles a naturally-formed parking lot, but without lines and full of fissures that give the tarmac area structure. Rain filled these fissures, and guppies have found their way to the lake and become established. The unusual water chemistry of Pitch Lake and the black substrate (leading to high water temperatures) means that it is very difficult to rear these guppies in the lab.

One environment where I did not find guppies was in the brackish estuaries along the northern coast. Guppies can tolerate light saline environments, but in one tea-coloured estuary that I visited, I instead found the congenic Poecilia picta fish. Image 10The low visibility in the water of that river might explain two unusual observations I made: low colouration of P. picta males, and transparent bodies of their predator, a prawn.
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Transparent bodies are also found in deep-sea fish, which live in low-light (or no-light) environments: an interesting example of convergent evolution.

Perhaps the reason why guppies are such an appealing textbook example of evolution is in how intuitive and simple the explanation is: the same geographical barriers that restrict predator presence also restrict gene flow, and predation as a selection pressure drives trait differentiation. Guppy researchers know that the story is a little more complex than that, but these wrinkles in the story seldom make it into textbooks. So, I was left to independently discover these things for myself.

One variation on the story is that waterfalls are not the only feature that restrict large predators. For example, I found one ‘low predation’ environment located between two ‘high predation’ environments because the water in one stretch of the river was too shallow for the larger predators to enter. Male guppies in this stretch were more colourful than males I found upstream.Image 13Image 12

A second under-discussed variation on the story is the presence of avian predators. I often saw striated herons or little egrets walking alongside narrow streams, looking for guppies to eat. I also saw or heard kingfishers around my collection sites. Image 14These birds were skittish and difficult to photograph in the act of feeding, but their intention was clear. What is less clear is if they exert a selection pressures on guppies to be more cryptic in colour, or if their feeding habits are random with respect to colour. I do think that avian predators are important to guppy evolution – I suspect that guppies colonize new environments by escaping these flying predators after being given a short trip.

My fieldwork in Trinidad taught me many things about guppy evolution that I could not have learned from a textbook. Who knew that such small and common fish could be so interesting?!

Tim Hain is a biologist at the University of Western Ontario in London. He completed his PhD on kin recognition and multiple mating in guppies and bluegill sunfish, and he did his fieldwork in Trinidad and at the Queen’s University Biological Station. His first trip to Trinidad was for eight months, and he recently published his memoirs (Fieldwork: Stories from Trinidad) of his time living in the country on Amazon. Tim currently teaches at UWO. You can follow him on Twitter (@tjahain).

This land is our land

In honour of Canada Day, we wanted to highlighted some of the cool, interesting, funny, or neat stories about fieldwork in Canada that we have shared on Dispatches from the Field over the years. Our blog tells stories from fieldwork happening all across the country, and also across many different species. We do truly live in a great country – check out these blogs for yourself!

Beginning in the west, Catherine D. shares why bluebird at a nest boxeveryone loves bluebirds in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia,

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset.

Julia S. shows us the varied habitats of Alberta’s boreal forest,

Feeling smalland Krista C. shares her adventures in the Land of Living Skies in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.

 

From the great white North, Michelle V. explains how she prepared for polar bear fieldwork.

Sampling polar bear poop.

The bugs were bad, but maybe we did look like poachers.Julia C. and Rachael H. share their hilarious (sorry Julia) beaver story from the Muskoka region of Ontario where they almost flip the canoe, while Melanie S. explains how help is always where you least expect it.

 

 

 

Southern Ontario is quite busy with field biologists, with Jenna S. running around in fields chasing butterflies, Toby T. listening for what the bat said, and Amanda X. searching for snakes on a [fragmented] plain.

catching butterflies in nets in the field

A big brown bat

Adorable baby eastern foxsnakes emerge from their eggs only to be fondled by eager researchers

 

Single male seeks available, interested female: a male spring peeper adds his voice to the chorus.Fieldwork is very popular at the Queen’s University Biology Station in southeastern Ontario.  Amanda C. spends her nights at the symphony listening to the frog chorus,

Me counting seedlings

 

 

 

Amanda T. collects beautiful wildflower seeds (being both wonderful and disastrous at the same time),

 

Liz P. plays hide and go seek with whip-poor-wills,  and Adam M. creates robots for sampling daphnia.

Centre stage: the dock at Round Lake

 

 

 

 

 

As we head to the east coast, Michelle L. shares what it is like to collect salmon eggs in New Brunswick…in the winter.

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We will leave you with a short variation on a great song:

This land is your land, this land is my land,

From Bonavista, to Vancouver Island (or studying seabirds off the coast of Labrador with Anna T. to Haida Gwaii with Sarah W.)

From the Arctic Circle to the Great Lakes waters, (or what to do with your not so “down time” in Nunavut with Kathryn H. to getting stuck in beaver pond sampling aquatic invertebrates in Muskoka with Alex R.)

This land was made for you and me.

Sunset on the tundra

The unpredictability of working with wild animals

Even though I am mostly in the lab these days, somehow I am still subject to the unpredictability of working with wild animals. The research project I am currently working on uses yellow perch eggs collected within under 24 hours after fertilization. I was lucky to find a fish farm in central Ontario that had “wild” yellow perch. I say “wild” because although they live on this fish farm, they still live in a fairly natural habitat. Achieving the right timing of egg development was the tricky part. I had to wait until I heard that the adult yellow perch were spawning and drive up there to collect the eggs within a day. Essentially I was like a doctor on call waiting for a delivery (of yellow perch eggs).

ponds at the fish farm

Natural ponds at the fish farm are a great habitat for yellow perch.

I originally spoke with the owner at the end of February and he said he would give us some perch eggs. However, he was reluctant to give up much detail about the fish. When I asked when they usually spawn, he replied, “I can’t tell you when those little buggers are going to spawn; I’m not God”. Yellow perch in this area typically do not spawn until mid April so I was not surprised, given the cold February we had, that they would not be near ready.

At the end of March, I received a phone call from the owner who explained that he had caught two females that were “as big as footballs” and that they could spawn any day now. (Side note – I think it is very interesting how people describe their study species. For example, the seabirds I was studying for my master’s thesis were often described as “flying tennis balls with wings”.) I was not ready for the fish to be ready; I thought I had two more weeks to prepare for the experiment! I scrambled to get all of the equipment together so that at any point I was ready to go collect the eggs.

Big tanks in front of the ponds.

From eggs to fry: the yellow perch are collected and kept in big tanks until they are old enough to be put back into the ponds.

And then I waited. The owner told me not to call him for updates as it would take a lot of his time. But no sign of eggs. So I waited longer. Still no eggs. At this point, it was now the end of April and I started to get worried. Did the owner forget to call me? Did he lose my number? Would the perch ever lay their eggs? Was the project ruined!? (Questions in field biologists’ heads often escalate quickly).

The owner finally called me last week and told me that the yellow perch had spawned and there were a few strands of eggs that I could collect.

Using a net to scoop the strands of Yellow perch eggs out of the pond.

Scooping eggs out of the pond. Don’t fall in!

The next day I drove a total of 6 hours to retrieve the eggs and bring them back to our lab (Believe it or not, 6 hours driving for 1 hour of fieldwork does sound appealing when you sit behind a lab bench most of your time!). However, even though I had over a month to prepare, I still forgot my rain boots and ended up with a wet foot. The owner kept saying “This is a fish farm you know. You’re going to get wet.” and “Don’t you go falling in there, I don’t want to have to come in after you!”.

strands of yellow perch eggs in baskets.

Yellow perch eggs come out in long gooey strands.

Although it seemed that I was an inconvenience to the owner most of the time, when I arrived at the fish farm, he was surprisingly very interested in the research that we do and said “I just want to know that you are learning something”.  In addition to learning more about yellow perch, it turns out that interactions with people in the field can also surprise you!

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).

Thinking outside the lab

Shortly after starting my PhD, I was assigned to TA a class called “Diversity of Plants”.  As an ornithologist, I did not feel entirely confident teaching undergraduates about plants.  But what worried me most was the first lab, which focused on how to use a microscope properly.  “This is going to be a disaster,” I lamented to a friend over the phone.  “How am *I* qualified to teach people to use a microscope?”

“Why do you say that?” my friend asked. “I would think you’re actually extremely qualified.  Don’t you use microscopes all the time?”

I stared at the phone in consternation.  “Um…I study bird behaviour, so…not so much, no.”

There was a long silence, and then my friend said uncertainly, “But you’re a scientist!  All scientists use microscopes…don’t they?”

 

My friend is not alone in her misconception.  For most people, the word ‘scientist’ conjures images of serious people wearing white lab coats and safety goggles, ensconced in pristine labs full of Erlenmeyer flasks and microscopes.  Few people immediately picture dirty, windswept individuals wearing an excess of plaid, large floppy hats, and socks with sandals.  Fieldwork isn’t usually the first thing the general public associates with the word ‘science’.

And this misconception often extends to science students as well.  As an undergraduate in Biology, I spent a lot of time gathered around lab benches counting fruit flies or looking at slides – but I didn’t really understand that science doesn’t always take place in a laboratory until I was in third year.  That year, my ecology course went on a mandatory weekend field trip to the Queen’s University Biological Station.  This trip was a long-standing tradition in the course; its purpose was essentially to introduce us to some of the questions, methods, and experiences of field biology.

Years later, that trip is one of the few things that stands out vividly in my memories of undergrad.  I remember dragging myself out of bed obscenely early to catch the bus to QUBS (and getting carsick on the twists and turns of the gravel road).  I remember stepping out of the bus into quiet air that smelled faintly of pine and rain.  I remember tromping through a field wet with dew to check live traps for small mammals, and I definitely remember the large and extremely angry weasel that the lab coordinator very carefully released from one of the traps.  I remember discovering that chickadees, although small, pack a surprisingly powerful bite, and the moment I realized that the chest waders I was wearing to seine for sunfish had a rather large leak.  Most of all, I remember being completely entranced by the whole experience.  That field trip was my first real exposure to the world of field biology – and clearly it made a lasting impression.

Seining for sunfish in Lake Opinicon.

Seining for sunfish in Lake Opinicon.

 

Fast forward a few (okay, many) years, and suddenly I found myself TAing that ecology course.  I was really excited to help organize and teach those field weekends – not least because it would be my first chance as a PhD student to teach something I felt passionate about.   But I was also a bit apprehensive about it.  The field weekend had been one of the most important parts of my undergraduate experience, but this group of students didn’t seem particularly excited about it.  I was frustrated because I wanted them to love it as much as I had.

Throughout the early weeks of September, I spent several long days at QUBS with the lab coordinator, preparing all the weekend activities – from digging holes for pitfall traps to carefully laying out and flagging grids of small mammal traps.  In doing so, I got a firsthand look at just how much work was involved in pulling off the trip each year.  Planning a field weekend for 160 young adults is no small task.  The lab coordinator, who had been organizing these weekends for many years, was a bit like a general in charge of a very intricate military campaign.

On the last Friday of September, she and I headed up to the field station late on Friday evening.  I was driving the (very sketchy) departmental van, which made for a somewhat nerve-wracking drive.  The brakes creaked ominously, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to turn on the high beams.  On top of that, the road was inexplicably covered in frogs – so the drive was a bit like an obstacle course, as I swerved first one way and then the other in an attempt to minimize the carnage.

However, I made it unscathed (although sadly the same could not be said for all the frogs) – and upon arriving, was immediately put to work.  It was late and dark, but there was so much to be done before we got to sleep.  Cabins needed to be assigned, lists and maps needed to be printed and posted, and supplies needed to be distributed to the appropriate places around the station property.

Finally, before falling into bed, we headed out to bait the 40 small mammal traps we’d laid out with seed.  When we put the traps out earlier in the month, we’d flagged them with glow-in-the-dark flagging tape to make them easier to find.  However, I learned a few valuable lessons that night.  First, glow-in-the-dark flagging tape doesn’t really glow in the dark.  Second, forests are tricky places at night, even with a headlamp.  And third, spider eyes glow when light hits them.  The last lesson led to another discovery: there are many, many, many more spiders in the forest than one might think.

With the traps baited, everything was ready for the arrival of the students the next morning and I finally got to crawl into my sleeping bag – for a short time, anyway.  Very early the next morning, we climbed back into the departmental van and headed out to meet the students.

The bus had been scheduled to leave Kingston at 6 a.m., so it was no surprise that the students staggering through the doors into the cool fall morning were sleepy and cranky.  Despite having been told multiple times about appropriate footwear, at least five or six of them were wearing flip flops.  Several others were still in pyjama pants.  They stood shivering in the field beside our grid of mammal traps, leaning against each other, yawning, and complaining about the hour and the cold.

Naturally, the order to split up into pairs and go retrieve the traps was met with some muted resistance.  But eventually, they all grudgingly trooped off into the woods, and then ambled slowly back carrying the metal Sherman traps.  At first it seemed like all the traps were empty…until one last pair of students came running out of the forest, clutching their trap and shouting, “I think there’s something in here!”

Who would have thought one little deer mouse could capture the attention of 80 undergrads?

Who would have thought one little deer mouse could capture the attention of 80 undergrads?

I watched as the coordinator carefully emptied the contents of the trap into a plastic bag.  A surprised deer mouse slid out, which she then held up for everyone to see…and a collective “Ooooohhhhhh” rose from the students around me.  All of a sudden, no one was yawning.  Everyone’s eyes were on the deer mouse, and everyone looked awake and interested.  Suddenly, I was less worried about the weekend.

 

I ended up TAing that course for four years, and helping to run the field trip is still the most fulfilling teaching experience I’ve ever had.  Every year I watched tired, cold, and disinterested students straggle off the bus on Saturday morning – and energized, excited students climb back onto the bus on Sunday afternoon.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I know that the skills and techniques learned in labs are an essential part of a scientific education.  But I think it’s also important that we give students a chance to explore the other side of science.  For most people, the experience may change the way they think of the discipline.  For some people – like me – the experience may change the course of their lives.

Watching a grad student band birds at QUBS.

Watching a grad student band birds at QUBS.

To sink or swim – wet waders and heavy rocks

During the Fall of 2013 I was in between contracts for work and was really itching to get outside into the field. I decided I would reach out to the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RVCA) to see if they needed any volunteers. Luckily, fall can be a busy time for them. The water keeps flowing and there are projects in the field that still need to be done but their summer students have left for school.

I was super excited to have the chance to be in the field again. Also, I would be in the field as a volunteer, meaning the whole project wasn’t resting on my shoulders and my decisions. This was going to be easy right??

One project I helped out with was monitoring benthic invertebrates (or “bugs”) that inhabit streams. We put on our waders and used a net to “sweep” the bottom to catch whatever bugs were living in the stream. The composition of species found in the streams can help determine the health status of a stream. We sampled in streams that were in a natural state and ones that were impacted by residential areas (guess which type was my favourite to sample!). A lot of the natural streams were fast flowing which made it hard to stand upright at times. However, I didn’t mind tipping over when the water was clear – it was only in the human impacted streams where I hoped that I did not take a wrong step.

On the boat with buckets of gravel.

Ready to lift heavy rocks – still smiling!

There was one artificial stream where the water level didn’t look too high. So as the eager volunteer, I said I would bring the measuring tape to the other side. I took a few steps and my boots started to stick a bit to the bottom. I didn’t think too much about it, as I didn’t want to be that volunteer who couldn’t make it across this small stream. As I got closer to the middle of the stream, the bottom dropped off quicker and I was sinking more into the clay bottom. At the deepest point, the water level was almost at the top edge of my waders. It was a good thing that I could not move very fast, otherwise the waves might have gone over the top (not the type of water you want to be soaked with)! Unfortunately, even though I was very careful about the top of my waders, somehow they ripped at the knee and I ended up with boots full of water anyway. In the end, wet socks were worth it to be able to say I helped sample “bugs”!

Another very cool project I helped RVCA with was The Otty Lake Fish Habitat Enhancement Project. They were improving habitat by putting gravel in small piles in the lake and fixing old branches and trees in cement to sink into the lake. This created gravel piles that fish species such as bass could use as nesting sites, while the cemented branches and trees provided shelter from predators. Needless to say, my arms were very sore after filling and carrying buckets of gravel all day! There were many times throughout the day that I thought I should quit – I was just a volunteer anyway. But there was a moment in the afternoon where a couple of the cottagers were questioning what we were doing to their lake. I do not blame them, as it must have looked very odd to see a team of about 15 people dumping buckets of something into the lake. However, once we explained to them what we were doing, they were very pleased about the efforts RVCA was taking to protect their lake and told us many stories of the fish they had seen swimming around. Being involved in these conservation efforts first hand reminded me how even the smallest thing can make a big difference in the greater story.

Two volunteers dump buckets of gravel over the side of the boat.

Dumping the big buckets of rocks in a pile in the water to create nesting sites for fish species such as bass.