Strategies to find and grow the smallest possible plant

We are so excited to welcome Emily Morris to the blog today! Emily is doing an MSc at Ryerson University in Toronto, and will tell us all about her adventures doing fieldwork for her Undergraduate thesis. For more about Emily, see the end of this post. 

My undergraduate thesis project provided me with the mission to find the smallest possible plant of about 50 different species in the Kingston area. This task follows a particular, repetitive formula: driving around aimlessly trying to spot plants out of the window. But don’t think once you find the perfect plant that it will have any seeds whatsoever; that’s nature’s way of making you work for it. So you end up crawling around with your face on the ground looking for a plant that does have seeds. Oh, you found one? Better take 20 minutes to collect your data, only to hear your partner yell, “I found a smaller one over here!” The pain doesn’t end there. As luck would have it, the smallest possible plant is always in the most inconvenient, problematic location.

Through my painstaking experience with this process, I have made a list of strategies to help scientists in the future whose goals involves finding and collecting the smallest possible plant of a species:

  1. Wear thick denim pants because you will inevitably end up sitting on the side of a cliff in a juniper bush.
  1. People driving by are going to see someone sitting cross-legged on the side of the road shoving a ruler into the ground; bring your neon vest so you look like a city worker to avoid never-ending questions
  1. If you think you will need 2 sharpies to write on the paper bags, buy 15 – these mysteriously go missing constantly.
  1. HAVE BACK-UP COLLECTION SITES (in case the current ones are overtaken by a toxic invasive species; looking at you, wild parsnip).
  1. Surround yourself with people who are comfortable with curse words.
  1. Don’t be afraid to rock a poncho in the rain.
  1. Invest in a full-length mirror so you can obsessively check for ticks everywhere on your body (everywhere) after each field day

Despite encountering a multitude of trials and tribulations during my field work, I thoroughly enjoyed it and wouldn’t change a thing. The field sites were beautiful and I had amazing colleagues to work with. Field work has become my favourite thing about being a scientist and it’s all because of my undergraduate work.

field

One of my favourite pictures from an old field site during my undergraduate work.

 

Once I managed to collect the seeds from the smallest possible plants from the field, I then transplanted them into a greenhouse project. I eventually had about 50 species spread among 1,000 pots planted in the Queen’s greenhouse. At first it was great – the greenhouse has an amazing view and there is something therapeutic about gardening for the sake of research. While completing my greenhouse project, I ran into some trouble along the way; I was ultimately grateful for these hindrances, as they all came with a lesson about life as a scientist:

  1. I definitely underestimated the amount of time it takes to water and fertilize 1,000 plants on a weekly basis; sometimes it felt like a full-time job (on top of an undergraduate degree). This taught me to plan projects with the expectation that it will take longer than you think it will – that way, you can only be pleasantly surprised.
  2. In October of 2015, the greenhouse temperature skyrocketed and my plants were drying out faster than ever. Many of them died and I lost a chunk of replicates for my experiment. At the time, I was freaking out, but I learned later that situations like these are not the end of the world. I still had a huge amount of data to work with, and I was still pleased with the results I obtained.
  3. An aphid infestation tore through my plants in February of 2016. This was unexpected (and frankly, gross) and I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. This taught me the importance of considering all possible difficulties that can be encountered during an experiment and having back-up plans to combat challenges.
A few of my many pots in the Queen’s greenhouse for my undergraduate thesis project.

A few of my many pots in the Queen’s greenhouse for my undergraduate thesis project.

Science is one big “trial and error” but the errors and challenges are the best thing about science because they teach you the most. I would not be where I am today without the experiences from my undergraduate thesis project. It was something I will value throughout the rest of my career as a scientist and the many lessons it taught me will continue to stick with me in the future.

emilyEmily Morris is a Master’s student at Ryerson University, where she works with Dr. Michael Arts and Dr. Lesley Campbell. Her current project is looking at the effect of temperature change on fatty acid composition in grasses. She completed a Bachelor of Science in Biology at Queen’s University. During her fourth year, she worked with Dr. Lonnie Aarssen and Amanda Tracey on an undergraduate thesis project, examining the effect of crowding on plant body size.

A Thanksgiving meal, right out of the field

We are so excited to welcome Jennifer MacMillan back to the blog today. Earlier in 2015, Jennifer told us about her time spent on exchange in New Zealand. Now she is back, and this time tells us a rather appropriately-timed story about enjoying a Thanksgiving meal, right from the field. Happy Thanksgiving to Jennifer, and all of our American readers/posters! We are so thankful for all of you. For more about Jennifer, see the end of this post. 

Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday. Everything about it is awesome: the food, the family, the fun times. But the main reason I love this day is because I get to celebrate it twice a year.

I have dual Canadian and United States citizenship. Along with other perks, this means I have the pleasure of over-eating on the second Monday in October and the fourth Thursday in November every year.

Since graduating from a Canadian university, I have been working in the States. I am currently in Alaska working for the Division of Agriculture as a Field Technician at the Plant Materials Center (PMC). The main focus of the PMC is the production of native plants and traditional crops. I spend my days on a 400 acre farm where I maintain greenhouses and fields while assisting with the Horticulture Program’s Observation Variety Trials. We evaluate cauliflower, broccoli, apples, asparagus, and potatoes to see how well they hold up in the Alaskan climate.

Our Potato Greenhouse getting started.

Our Potato Greenhouse getting started.

 A bucket of Romanesco that was measured for Broccoli Trials.

A bucket of Romanesco that was measured for Broccoli Trials.

Conveniently, harvest came just in time for Canadian Thanksgiving. Lucky for me, I helped plant pretty much every side dish you can imagine and was definitely excited to collect my reward. Also, the PMC has a staff full of avid hunters so between moose, caribou, and sandhill cranes, there were more than enough meat options on the table. I even helped add fish to the menu!

Small Halibut are called “Chickens”, a perfect substitute for turkey.

Small Halibut are called “Chickens”, a perfect substitute for turkey.

Regardless of where I am for the holidays, I am lucky that I always have a diverse group of interesting and entertaining people around to break bread with on Thanksgiving. No matter which month we celebrate.

Small Halibut are called “Chickens”, a perfect substitute for turkey.

Jennifer is currently working  for the Division of Agriculture as a Field Technician at the Plant Materials Center in Alaska. Jennifer completed her BScH at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON, Canada, studying masting in sugar maple trees. She is an avid cyclist and nature-lover.

Stranger things have happened in Wire Fence field

Seven years. I have spent seven years doing fieldwork in Wire Fence field, and just last weekend, I collected my final data from that site. Next year the field is set to be bush-hogged and that will mark the end of my time at the site. I wanted to take a moment today to write a bit about the wonderfully beautiful and endlessly frustrating Wire Fence field.

Wire fence field is a beautiful field site, and over the seven years I have worked there, I have developed a very strong love-hate relationship with this place. Wire fence field is a small old-field that is entirely surrounded by closed canopy forest. It is located about 500 m off Opinicon Road on route to the Queen’s University Biological Station. To access it, there is a laneway through the forest. The laneway is accessible enough to travel by vehicle or it can be easily hiked in about five minutes. Friends and colleagues that know me well have certainly heard me complain about this field site. Statements like “I’d rather stare at a wall all day than ever have to spend another moment in that       field” or “This field is ruining my life” are not uncommon in the peak of a field season. It is a rewarding but challenging place to work for many reasons.

The beautiful walk into Wire Fence field (October 2016)

The beautiful walk into Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Getting there – yes, a short five-minute walk doesn’t seem that bad. And it isn’t. Except in the summer months, when mosquitoes swarm like the monster from Stranger Things would if you cut off your finger. Then that five-minute walk quickly seems endless. The path to the field is well-maintained, generally flat and easy to walk or drive on. Except that it dips down into a very low-lying area right before you hit the field site. This summer wasn’t so bad because we were hit with a really bad drought but in previous field seasons this has made for many boots getting stuck in the muck, and well, with a 2 wheel, rear wheel drive Astro van- It wasn’t just boots getting stuck in there. Getting to Wire Fence field isn’t always easy.

You always get stuck in Wire Fence field

You always get stuck in Wire Fence field (November 2015)

Surviving there – There is no cell phone service in this field, so if something bad happens, let’s hope it’s before dark and you’re well enough to walk out on your own. Evidence of black bears have been found at this site on more than one (hundred) occasions so being aware of that is important. The field has more and more thistles in it every year. Also, there is one spot where an old Wire Fence (coincidence??) has fallen over and grown into the ground, and in one spot it sticks up and I kid you not SOMEONE trips over that fence EVERY single time we work there. And it’s usually me, who has been to the field site probably over 500 times. I’ve also never seen deer flies like I have seen them at this site. In the peak of deer fly season, you have to be fully clothed from head to toe and with layers. At one point I was wearing gloves and still got more than 10 bites on my hands alone. Surviving in Wire Fence field is a challenge.

 

Staying there – Things disappear – it’s almost as if there is some ‘Upside down’ Wire Fence field somewhere and the monster comes to the field in the night, and steals stuff and takes it back to the Upside down. Stranger Things fans, you’ll know what I mean. Shovels, cages, individual tagged plants, you name it! If we have brought it there we have also lost it there. Of course, on the other side of the main road there is a camp ground and patrons often venture across the road for hikes, so it might not be too surprising that we have lost some items here and there. The more troubling part is that I have installed cylinders into the ground at this site (100 of them in fact). That are only about 1 inch above the ground and cannot be removed with ease. With grass that reaches well over one metre at its peak they definitely aren’t easy to spot. Even some of those have gone missing. Including plot 11 (Eleven)..I am not even kidding….OK perhaps it is time to call in Hopp, Mrs. Byers and the whole crew to investigate.

 

Even though getting there, surviving there and staying there all present their own set of unique challenges, I love the place. And I miss it already.

 

Wire fence field is surrounded by closed canopy forest with lots of very large oak, basswood, ironwood and blue beech trees towering over it. In the spring months, sides of the laneway and all of the ground surrounding the field edges is sprinkled with white and red trilliums, trout lilies and wild ginger. For about one week in early May, the entire laneway is covered in spring beauties. Tens of thousands of them peak out from the decaying autumn leaves and brighten up the forest. As the season progresses along buttercups burst open and give the field vibrant pops of yellow among the tall green grass. I haven’t seen buttercups in such numbers as I do at Wire Fence field. And then there are the deer. Deer love buttercups and thus, deer love Wire Fence field. Many mornings we would walk up to the field site and see anywhere from one to a dozen deer happily grazing on all of our experimental plots and lots of pressed down areas of grass each morning suggested that it was a common place for them to spend their nights. Sometimes we would stand there and just watch them for a few minutes, before they noticed us and re-located for the day.

Even in early spring, with nothing growing, this field is a beautiful place (April 2014)

Even in early spring, with nothing growing, this field is a beautiful place (April 2014)

Last day of fieldwork in Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Last day of fieldwork in Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Even though working in Wire Fence field has many challenges, it was a beautiful, peaceful and quirky place to spend the last seven years.

I am slowly going crazy… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… switch

Crazy going slowly am I… 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

For the past 30 days I’ve been finishing the data collection for a major experiment that spanned three field seasons. I’ve spent the vast majority of the month sitting next to experimental plant communities that contain anywhere from 8-40 species. I counted each individual of each species, pulled them all out of the ground, and then sorted them into paper bags by species, and by whether or not the plant is reproductive. Each community took up to one hour to completely harvest and with 200 communities in total… well…yep…it’s been a long summer.

As much fun as data collection can be, it’s also a tedious, sometimes painful task – especially when you need very detailed data to answer a given question. This got me thinking about all the ways I have tried to not lose my mind doing tedious field tasks over the years.

Sing

Singing is an excellent way to pass the time, and it’s easy to sing and still concentrate on the task at hand. Over the years, campfire type songs have always been a favourite, or other songs from childhood. The whole field crew will likely know the song, they’re catchy, and they’re fun. One thing I’ll warn you about though…don’t sing songs like “99 bottles of beer on the wall” or other tunes that count you down. By the time you get to 4 bottles of beer on the wall and realize you still have 194 plots left it could have the wrong effect on your motivation.

Learn a new language

I took French growing up and loved it. I lost touch with it as I entered post-secondary and really regret that. In my early years in the field, I would try to speak French, which we lovingly called “field French” because it was mostly just English words spoken in a French Canadian accent. Years later I would look up new French words each night, and then try to use them in the field the next day. And a couple years ago, I was lucky to have a field assistant who was fluent in French, and she would quiz me with various French translations. It’s a great way to pass the time and it’s a useful skill to have!

The “favourites” game

One of my favourite things to do with my field assistants is play the “favourite game” (no pun intended). We each take turns asking one another about our favourite hobbies, foods, colours…anything really. It’s entertaining and it really helps with team bonding.

Reward system

New to this field season, I started a fieldwork rewards program: one mini-Reese’s peanut butter cup for every plot we successfully count and harvest. It might encourage poor eating habits, and it might rot our teeth, but let me tell you, it is surely the most motivating way to make it through the day.

I best be off to bed now, as another long field day awaits me.

Crazy going slowly am I… 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Summers in the redwood forest

We are excited to welcome Matthew Brousil to the blog today. Matthew is a graduate student at California Polytechnic State University and to find out more about him, check out his bio at the end of the post. 

When I meet someone new, they usually ask me what I do for a living and I tell them that I study redwood disturbance ecology. Their eyes will then open up wide and they will tell me either how they’ve always wanted to see the redwoods, or that when they did visit the redwoods, they couldn’t believe how huge they were. At this point I shift around uncomfortably and admit that while yes I do work in the redwoods, it isn’t in quite the same place as the massive old-growth stands of northern California that they might be imagining. Instead, I have been lucky in a different way. For the last two summers I have worked in the coastal redwood forests of Big Sur, California doing research for my master’s degree program. The redwoods are a bit smaller there, but the location is still incredible.

If the majority of graduate students in the natural sciences are anything like me, then the opportunity to do field or lab work with a unique species or in an interesting location was a big part of their decision to go to grad school. When I saw advertisements for a graduate research position studying the effects of fire disturbances on redwood forests, I jumped at the opportunity and put together my application pretty much overnight. Three years later, I spend most of my summer weekdays hiking from early morning until evening in the redwood forests of Big Sur to measure trees, collect soil samples, or take pictures of the redwood canopy to determine how much light reaches the forest floor where seedlings grow. Big Sur is a huge travel destination for tourists from around the world and my work lets me see many of the same trails and parks that tourists often visit, but in locations that are more ecologically sensitive and so not available for general public access.

1

Me at one of Highway 1’s famous pullouts in the Big Sur area.

 

2

Kara, a technician, and Devon, a volunteer, collecting soil samples from one of our research areas at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

A hemispherical understory photo used to determine the amount of light reaching the forest floor.

A hemispherical understory photo used to determine the amount of light reaching the forest floor.                    Photo credit: Matt Terzes

 

 

One of the fantastic benefits of seeing Big Sur from *slightly* off the beaten path is that I have come to appreciate how dynamic and changing the forests and other ecosystems are along the coast. Having been a tourist in Big Sur myself, I know that the majestic redwood forests and picturesque scenery like McWay Falls inspire feelings of intense reverence and impermanence among such towering and grand sights.  And so they should.

Looking out over Highway 1 from a research area in Big Sur.

Looking out over Highway 1 from a research area in Big Sur.

Coast redwood trees in an area burned in 1985 and 1999.

Coast redwood trees in an area burned in 1985 and 1999.

Spending time off-trail for a couple of years in Big Sur, however, I now appreciate how often things really do change in the redwood forest. As locals are familiar with (and as news reports have reminded the rest of us this year), fire in the Santa Lucia mountain range is a common occurrence. Some of the sites where I do my research have experienced multiple fires in the past 30 years and the fire history for the coast redwood range shows similar patterns over longer periods of time (Lorimer et al. 2009). Large redwood trees often survive fires because of their thick bark and elevated branches, but smaller individuals are killed by tall flames yet remain standing for years afterward. Two years after a fire noticeable changes abound: thousands of sprouts and seedlings litter the forest floor around damaged trees, charred deer skeletons remain, slopes and trails become unstable terrain, and even the soil in some parts of the forest is stained an orange-brown color as a result of the fire. In areas where multiple fires occurred recently, some less fire-adapted tree species might be less common and smaller understory plants are absent from the forest floor.

Bottlebrush sprouting on redwood trees – the result of flames reaching the canopy of these trees.

Bottlebrush sprouting on redwood trees – the result of flames reaching the canopy of these trees.

 

 

 

 

Prolific sprouting at the base of redwood trees where fire has come through.

Prolific sprouting at the base of redwood trees where fire has come through.

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Since the Big Sur area has been fire-prone for thousands of years, the response to these fires is  cyclical, reminding us that change is a very natural part of healthy ecosystems. Winter rains lead plants in Big Sur to put on growth that becomes fuel later in the year, and many shrubs in the area are fire adapted. In some areas, lush plant growth even covers up the visual reminders of fire within a year or so. However, an increase in fire frequency due to climate change is expected in redwood and other temperate forests in the future. The goal of my research is to describe what could happen to redwood forests when fires overlap more frequently in time and space.

Doing fieldwork is one of the biggest draws for graduate students in ecology, and the chance to see behind the scenes of the coastal redwood forests in Big Sur is an opportunity that few students in my position would pass up. These experiences allow researchers like me to observe our ecosystems of study and to collect important data with which to test hypotheses. However, I think students also gain a lot in seeing how ecosystems like the redwood forest change over the course of the time it takes to complete our degrees!

But one thing that hasn’t changed in two years’ time is the uplifting feeling of a warm breeze carrying the smells of redwood needles and blackberries through the forest as I hike. With that kind of inspiration you can do just about anything – even write your thesis.

 

Matthew Brousil is a graduate student at California Polytechnic State University where he is working on his MSc studying coast redwood responses to fire disturbance. His first trip out to the field was in Patagonian Chile as an undergraduate, which sparked his current interests in coast redwood forest ecology. You can follow his work on Twitter through @mrbrousil.

 

 

 

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.

IMG_4

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

#fieldwork – #itsallinthehashtags

We love our Twitter followers SO much. Thanks to everyone who follows us each week, retweets our posts and supports Dispatches from the Field. As we approach the 2 year anniversary of the blog we reached out to you, our Twitter followers and asked “If you could sum up your fieldwork experience in one hashtag, what would it be”? And you certainly answered.

We got lots of great tweets.

micetrigger

exhillaratinghotstickyandfullofwin

 

Of course we got several about the challenges of doing fieldwork.

tennisballswashedawaybreaks

And the sentimental ones we can all agree with (or maybe not!)

rightpeople

Some make no sense…but certainly sound freaking awesome!

wizardboats

And of course, some were just downright badass.

nesthunter

adam

Thanks for the love, all!