Making with the ha-ha

We are excited to welcome the super-talented Liv Monck-Whipp to the blog today. Liv is the creator of Tails From the Field and write for us about how she uses humour to share her fieldwork stories. Make sure you check out her site – it’s hilarious!

It was shortly after getting attacked by a Ruffed Grouse in Algonquin Park that I decided to start making comics about fieldwork. I had been making my way out of the woods after monitoring some thrush and warbler nests, and I accidentally strayed into a mamma grouse’s domain. She did not take kindly to this (I am a big scary predator lookin’ thing, or at least so I like to tell myself), and while her brood flew hither and thither, she flew straight at my eyes. Luckily I was able to brush her off before she did any serious damage, and she set about buzzing by my head, perching on my shoulder to flap into my face. She continued her assault until she decided a broken wing display was more effective, and I thankfully escaped with my life. True story.

Photo of a toad that says toad-a-lly awesome

And my friends thought my dramatic re-enactment of this story was pretty hilarious. Much in the way so many of us gathered to guffaw around #fieldworkfail, stories of minor mishaps and equipment failing*, or weird study subject behaviour, if told with a dollop of humour, can be used to grab the attention and interest of non-fieldworkers and fieldworkers alike. And it’s not just the fails that amuse us. I know that you know that your field biology and/or naturalist friends have some of the cheesiest nature puns and jokes out there (and please send them all to me!). These are the product of true geekery – being so into your subject that you can’t help but inject it into everything with a grin.

That harrowing grouse encounter was pretty early into my field days. My second season out there, and I was starting to appreciate how hilarious field work could be. From the surrealness of explaining to my relatives that I couldn’t visit unless it was raining, to waking up covered in slugs, there were a lot of funny-weird, and funny-ha-ha things. And I loved it. And I wanted to communicate about how awesome it was.

I’m a web comic addict (often catching up on them once the field season is over!). So when I wanted to tell stories and in-jokes, I thought in comic-terms. Comics, if you think about it, are a really elegant way of delivering a story or idea in a short amount of time. They allow for the nuances of facial expressions, and the hyperbole of exaggerated figures to come through without using up text. The messages are usually quick, and humorous.


For my first few field seasons I was an assistant for graduate students working on bird and turtle studies out of Algonquin Park. Then I decided I wanted to do my own graduate work, and began studying bats in farmland. Somewhere in there, I worked for a large land trust doing conservation work, and I also got to radio track snakes and turtles for another study. This actually left me with a lot of “thinky” time in the field: hiking or canoeing long distances, or quietly getting eaten alive by mosquitoes while waiting for a bird to return to its nest. In this time I started to come up with comics and jot them down in my notebook**. Positive feedback from friends and co-workers convinced me that there would be a niche (geddit, geddit?!) for field work and ecology themed comics.

Laughter is a universal language. While I wanted to amuse others involved in field biology, I firmly believe that jokes and funny stories are some of the best ways to engage people about subjects you love, no matter their background. Humour can help to reduce the “stuffy scientist” image a bit, or lighten up an academic lecture. By sharing our sillier sides with each other and with the public we can gleefully spread our enthusiasm, and demonstrate just why fieldwork is so dang interesting.

So crack jokes in your talks, do that wacky impression of your study species’s mating call, and by all means, include that anecdote about “this one time we were out in the field and…”



**Always have a notebook. Always.


Liv just finished her MSc at Carleton on the influence of crop arrangement and composition on bats. She did her BSc in Zoology at the University of Guelph, and then took off into the woods for awhile to assist in studies investigating nest protection for turtles, road mitigation for reptiles, and the effects of logging techniques on birds and vegetation communities. She also enjoys contributing to citizen science projects and is the creator of Tails From the Field, a web comic about field biology and nature.

A night at the symphony

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Amanda Cicchino, who shares some of her adventures wading through the marshes of QUBS in the dark to record frog songs.  For more about Amanda, check out her bio at the end of this post.

I like to compare the frog chorus to a symphony. The orchestra in this case is composed of many different species, each with the same end goal. The timing and frequencies of the noises they make have been molded over time to allow them to be heard simultaneously, yet they still compete with one another. Over the course of the night, the entire chorus comes together and tells a story.

My last field season was done at QUBS (Queen’s University Biological Station) and focused on frog acoustics. As I learned from presenting a poster at the annual Open House, not many people are aware of the different sounds frogs and toads can make. Though some species sound quite pleasant, others present you with ear-splitting, gurgling screams that result in a pounding headache1. Most frogs and toads call during the breeding season as a way to attract mates. Most calling and breeding is done at night in marshes or swamps. My original aim for that season was to record the mating calls of Spring Peepers to supplement a dataset, but I developed a “small” side-project with a lab-mate that would require recordings from each species found at QUBS2. What a shame.

Single male seeks available, interested female: a male spring peeper adds his voice to the chorus.

Single, lonely spring peeper seeks soulmate…

A typical night of sampling involves organization and proper preparation. Prior to leaving for the site, a few cups of coffee must be ingested, with at least one travel mug packed. The field pack must include digital calipers (to measure the frogs), plastic calipers (in case it rains and the digital ones can’t be used), multiple flashlights and headlamps, a heat gun, my notebook and pencil, recording equipment, back-up batteries (in case the ones in the devices die during the night), and emergency back-up batteries (in case the back-ups die or spontaneously combust3). Everything digital is kept in Ziploc bags in case it rains through the car or through the rain-cover on the pack.

Wearing the right attire is also a necessity for a smooth sampling night2. Fashion has always been a priority in my life, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to maintain that passion while sampling. Since the first frogs (typically Wood Frogs) begin calling when there is still ice floating on the marsh, the temperatures I sample in can be quite low.  I won’t bore you with specifics of how I dress, but I do want to give you an image of how I feel I look.  (But also stuffed into brown neoprene chest-waders). Of course, dressing with that many layers might impede my speed and agility in the marsh, so I tend to invest in good thermal clothes.

Once the sun sets, a few individuals will start to call until the peak is hit and the chorus is in full swing. My sampling begins at the peak and ends either when I have transected the whole marsh, reached my sample size limit for the site, or the chorus goes silent (usually the last one). I record every individual I come across for at least 20 consecutive calls using a Marantz PMD660 recorder and Sennheiser microphone. This can look quite humourous as the microphone is at least 30cm long and some frogs are approximately 2cm in length. I then catch the individuals and take morphometric measurements before releasing them. This can be a slow process as some individuals are “mic shy”. When they stop calling once the microphone is put near them, my general tactic is to turn off all my lights, splash a bit, and wait. Usually after a minute, they start calling again and I can feel good about myself for out-smarting a 2cm long frog. This tactic does not have to be employed too often, as I find that frogs can be quite bold. In fact, on more than one occasion, I have witnessed a frog making mating calls when the lower half of its body was inside a snake’s mouth. Once I have finished my sampling, exhausted and exhilarated, I look forward to reliving the night when I analyze the call recordings the next day.

A gray treefrog adds his two cents to the chorus.

A gray treefrog adds his two cents to the chorus.

Perhaps comparing a frog chorus to a symphony seems a bit quixotic, but they do have some similarities. They both require a specific dress code, they both overlay impressive sounds and rhythms, and they both tell an extravagant story. Of course, the frog chorus’s story is one of acoustic niche and evolution, but that is one of the most interesting stories I can think of! This kind of field work isn’t for everyone, but I truly love it. Nothing compares to standing in the middle of a marsh during peak breeding season, with a full chorus of hundreds of frogs desperately calling to attract a mate. The frog chorus is quite literally music to my ears.

  1. Google ‘Bird Voiced Tree Frog call” and “American Toad call” for this comparison. You may want to make sure your speakers are turned a bit low for the latter.
  2. Please beware of extreme sarcasm used ahead.
  3. A pessimistic mindset leads to the best preparation.

AmandaAmanda recently completed her BScH at Queen’s University, researching acoustic divergence in the Spring Peeper for her Honour’s thesis. She is starting her MSc at Queen’s this fall, and will continue to study the role of mating systems on speciation.

The spider forest

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome guest blogger Scott Lillie, the author of the book “Tents, Tortoises and Tailgates: My Life as a Wildlife Biologist“. Check out his bio at the end of the post!

One summer I found myself doing nesting bird surveys for the federally threatened south western willow flycatcher. While most of June I spent bushwhacking through thick forests of tamarisk in extreme temperatures one day I got a different opportunity, kayak surveys. There were some parts of the lake that still flowed well into the forested areas, and while the tamarisk could not survive being inundated with water, the native willows and cottonwoods could. The idea of gently floating on the lake listening for birds calls sounded amazing, but there turned out to be a catch.

My expectations did not match the reality. My site was filled with dead trees half underwater. Everywhere I looked the dead trees expanded for what seemed like miles. Paddling was no longer an option, and so I simply pulled my kayak along using the dead trees.

After paddling a few feet into the dead forest I felt something hit my face: sticky threads of a spider web. I turned the kayak slightly to get a view looking into the sunrise, and my stomach dropped. When the first rays of the sun hit the dead trees, thousands of large spider webs began to shine in the sun. Every tree was connected by them. It reminded me of something out of a horror movie. There was no going around them. I knew I could not call off my surveys because of spiders. If I did, I might as well just pack up my tent, go home, and throw away my diploma because my career as a biologist would be over. Time to grow up. I swallowed my fear and started in.

At first, I was using my paddle to cut through the webs, but after almost tipping over twice I just started using my hands—no need to endanger the $1000 pair of binoculars they gave me to avoid spider webs. After making pretty good progress in the forest I felt something crawling on my head. I lost it. I flailed madly. I made contact with one of my frantic blows. It was a spider, a large brown spider. It hit the water of the lake and—to my horror—the spider stayed afloat. It could run on the water due to the surface tension, and came right back to my kayak. At this point, I stopped looking for birds and looked at my kayak. This was another bad choice. I saw three more large spiders on the front of my kayak, then another climbing on the side. I feel like I handled myself heroically until I felt the ones on my legs. I immediately leaned over to reach into the kayak and hit the spider on my leg. The shift in weight made my kayak lurch sharply to the right, and just like in training, I over corrected, and into the water I went.

Now I was floating in water holding my $1000 pair of binoculars over my head in one hand and holding onto the kayak with the other. I looked around. No shore in site. I knew the closest shore was through the spider forest. I knew it, but it didn’t mean I had to like it.

It was almost a quarter of a mile to shore. A quarter mile of swimming in hiking boots and dragging a kayak! After finally making it to shore I emptied the water out of the kayak and laid some of my wet clothes to dry on top of my kayak to dry. I decided to take a break and sit in the shade for a minute.

I ended up nodding off to sleep. It was just a brief nap. Upon walking back to the kayak to retrieve my clothes, I was surprised to find one of the largest western diamondback rattlesnakes I have ever seen stretched out next to my kayak. Most days, I would have loved to see it, but since I had surveys to do and it was essentially guarding my clothes, it was rather inconvenient.

An encounter with a snake in the field


I decided to stomp my feet and try to scare it away. If you ever want to feel ridiculous, try yelling and stomping your feet at a five-foot-long rattlesnake while wearing nothing but your boxers. Needless to say, it did not go away. Instead, it retreated to safety underneath my kayak, which I had flipped upside down to dry out. After a minute, I flipped the kayak and the snake immediately started rattling and backing up to the kayak again.

I was able to retrieve my boots, which had been placed at the base of the kayak. I found a stick to move the snake. Having never even moved a rattlesnake by myself before, moving it with just a tree branch proved difficult. Unlike in the movies, the snake did not chase me. In fact, it proved to be rather stubborn about moving at all. After accidently poking at it multiple times I eventually got the branch under the snake, lifted, and before I moved more than a foot the snake flopped off the branch. It immediately put its back to the kayak again. I tried again, got the branch under the snake, and lifted, this time moving the snake two feet before it fell off. I wasted no time and put the branch down in front of it again. After a very tense five minutes, I got the snake away from the kayak.

Eventually, I did end up completing my surveys and even found a nest. Looking back I always appreciate that day. Even a bad day in the field beats the best day in the office.

Scott LillieScott Lillie has nearly ten years of wildlife experience in the south west United States, Missouri,       and Georgia. He is also the author of Tents, Tortoises and Tailgates: My Life as a Wildlife Biologist     ( ). He currently works as an environmental consultant in southern California.


A Canuck in the Outback – Cane toad research in north tropical Australia

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Cameron Hudson, a PhD candidate in Western Australia, to fill us in on what it is like to work at a remote field station. Check out his bio and a link to his own entertaining blog at the the end of the post!

Sun sets over Fogg Dam.

The sun sets over Fogg Dam.

The sun sets over Fogg Dam conservation area. Despite the stillness in the photo, we’re minutes away from a frenzy of activity. Snakes, insects, crocodiles and cane toads (my study species) all spring into action, going about their nightly activities. I spend many of my evenings here, chasing toads around and swatting at mosquitoes. Located in the wetlands region of the Northern Territory, roughly a 45 minute drive south-east of Darwin, sits the research station that we lovingly call Middle Point. It has been a long standing study site for researchers from the University of Sydney, where I moved roughly a year and a half ago to start my PhD research on the cane toad (Rhinella marina) invasion of Australia.

A bright yellow male cane toad

A bright yellow male cane toad (Rhinella marina)

I first learned about the cane toad introduction when I was in high school – my grade 10 science teacher Ms. Holterman showed us a documentary from the ‘80s titled: “Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.” It’s worth a watch as they outline the history and spread of a devastating invasive species while managing to interview some quirky individuals. Little did I know that ten years later I would become one of those quirky individuals, moving across the world to study the evolution of the world’s most successful amphibian invasive species. A quick summary – cane toads were introduced to many countries around the globe in order to control sugarcane pests. They arrived in Australia back in 1935, and in the eighty years following, have spread over millions of square kilometers of the Australian landscape. Since they are highly toxic, and Australia has no native toads, many of the native predators have been devastated as the toads move through new areas. Animals that try to eat the toads don’t realize that they are toxic until it is too late (particularly a problem for snakes since they swallow their prey whole). This biodiversity crisis has fostered a lot of hatred towards the toads, and produced a good deal of research funding for studying their impact, and developing control methods. It has also given us a unique opportunity to study the evolution of an invasive species as it invades an entire continent.

Cam with kangaroos.

Obligatory kangaroo photos.

That’s where I come in! I met Professor Rick Shine, my PhD supervisor, when he was visiting QUBS after I had just completed my MSc. We discussed his extensive research program, dedicated to various areas of the toad invasion, and I was hooked. The project we decided on would examine phenotypic changes in cane toads across Australian populations, focusing on adaptations that promote dispersal. As the toads move across the landscape, they are doing so at a rapidly accelerating pace. Previous work on the toads had already shown differences in morphology, behaviour and physiology between toads at the invasion front and toads at the range core, so I was excited to examine these findings further. It also meant that I would get to go wherever the cane toads are, and for a Canadian who had always wanted to travel around Australia I felt pretty lucky.

Purnululu National Park

The real outback – Purnululu National Park, Western Australia

As much as I love the field, life is not always easy in the top end. The field station is pretty remote, the weather is intense and the health hazards are real. From a lifestyle perspective, cell phone coverage is spotty, internet connectivity is low, and we’re surrounded by buffalo farms. Having a social life can be difficult; it’s easy to get wrapped up in my research, and it means that my relationships with friends, family, and my partner require a lot of work (and patience, from people having to put up with my dropped calls). I suppose being a Canadian in Australia means you’re in a long distance relationship with most of the people you know, so it can get a bit lonely.

Buffalo as friends

Luckily we have buffalo friends out here!

From the safety side of things, my work involves a lot of long hours driving (often at night), there are venomous snakes, crocodiles, and mosquito borne diseases to watch out for. In the wet season we’re met with cyclones and flooding, in the dry season it’s droughts and wildfires. Needless to say, you have to be careful.

Northern death adder

A northern death adder (Acanthopis praelongus) about 2 minutes away from my front door

With all of these factors considered, I still love my job. Living in the field means I’m surrounded by wildlife, free from the clamour and noise of the city. You never know what you’ll run into. Long road trips alone, or with good friends, have given me such an appreciation for the geography and biodiversity of this country. In the short time that I’ve been here, I feel that I’ve seen so much, and yet there is still an endless number of places to explore. As damaging as the toads are, I guess I have them to thank for this experience. Not to mention helping me on my way to getting a PhD, and becoming one of those quirky individuals that I learned about in school.

Cam measuring toads.

Measuring toads – Cam’s favourite activity.

Cam Hudson is a PhD student at the University of Sydney, studying evolutionary biology under Prof. Rick Shine and Dr. Greg Brown. He is a Queen’s University (BScH) and University of Gulelph (MSc) alumnus. His previous research has examined male mating strategies and hybridization in spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) with Prof. Stephen Lougheed, and sexual size dimorphism, multiple paternity and combat in the Emei moustache toad (Leptobrachium boringii) with Prof. Jinzhong Fu. He spent his childhood catching frogs and salamanders in Ontario, and hopes to continue chasing amphibians into adulthood as an evolutionary biologist. If you want to read more about his life and research in the Northern Territory, check out his blog:


Land of living skies

We are very excited to welcome this week’s guest blogger, Krista Cairns, to tell us about some of her adventures as a resource management officer in the Canadian prairies.

Grasslands National Park

Welcome to Grasslands National Park in southwestern Saskatchewan, the northern edge of the mixed- grass prairie ecoregion!  This is where I work as a resource management officer for Parks Canada.  I am a part of a team that works to protect, preserve, and present this special ecoregion to Canadians, and my job is focused on monitoring, maintaining and recovering prairie ecosystem function. The mixed-grass prairie ecoregion is named after the short- and mid-height grasses that grow in mixed stands here, most notably in our region blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), wheatgrasses (Agropyron spp.) and spear grasses (Stipa spp.) This beautiful broad plain, interrupted by deep valleys and hilly uplands, stretches all the way from the Canadian prairies to the Gulf of Mexico.  Grasslands National Park is Canada’s only park representing mixed-grass prairie, and efforts to preserve this landscape were launched 50 years ago by conservationists and local land owners.

Worth preserving: the seemingly endless sea of grass in Grasslands National Park.

Worth preserving: the seemingly endless sea of grass in Grasslands National Park

Canadian prairie – mixed-grass or otherwise – has largely been converted into agricultural or developed land. In Saskatchewan, mixed-grass prairie makes up about 13% of the province, and about half of that has been cultivated (Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management, 1998).  I feel extremely fortunate to work in such a rare and beautiful landscape along with other people who share my passion for the prairies.

During the spring and summer field season, I am posted in the East Block of the park, a particularly remote and sparsely populated area of Saskatchewan. The horizon is wide and largely uninterrupted; however, severe weather systems still manage to sneak up on me in an instant.

Awesome power: a storm approaches the East Block

Awesome power: a storm approaches the East Block

There is spectacular storm viewing in East Block; however, that is not the only upside to storms – the thunderstorm activity at the end of April and beginning of June in our last field season in East Block brought up plains spadefoot toads.

Plains spadefoot toad

Plains spadefoot toad

Spadefoot toads aren’t actually toads or frogs – in fact, they’re in their own suborder. Check out the hind foot (pictured above): see the black protrusion? That is the spade!  These toads are excellent diggers, and spend most of their life underground. This means they are not dependent on permanent waterbodies: in fact, they are dry-land specialists. Spadefoots are particularly tied to thunderstorms, emerging only after those really big storms to breed, possibly drawn out by the rumble of the thunder. In dry years, they may not emerge at all! We feel pretty lucky to have seen and heard these spadefoots breeding. We would wait up until after dark to hear them calling, and would wade out into the ankle-deep pools to find them.

Catching spadefoot toads

Catching spadefoot toads

During our last field season, it continued to be rainy well into June, and we were able to observe the tadpoles’ progress in nearby ditches, ponds and other shallow, water-filled depressions.  Come August, as the landscape was drying up, the last clutches that had not yet metamorphosed were surviving in puddles of moisture collecting in cow hoof prints (neat, eh?). Spadefoots are one of the fastest metamorphosing “frogs” out there! In good conditions, they take only two weeks to go from egg to adult form, which is important considering they use such ephemeral, shallow pools. If the water starts drying up early, the algae-eating tadpoles turn cannibalistic, thereby achieving both more elbow space in the disappearing puddle as well as additional protein (which presumably helps them metamorphose faster). Sure enough, in the most crowded puddles you could differentiate vegetarians from carnivores by both jaw structure and size – both were a lot beefier on the cannibals!

Encore, please: lekking sharp-tailed grouse male

Encore, please: lekking sharp-tailed grouse male

Lekking grouse are another fun springtime sighting. The park is home to both the endangered sage grouse, and the sharp-tailed grouse. Sharp-tailed grouse are a lot easier to find, as they occur across their range in greater numbers. Their name comes from their tail shape, which tapers to a sharp point thanks to elongated central tail feathers. Like many grouse, male sharp-tailed grouse gather in groups on specially selected dancing grounds called leks. On the leks, the males puff up special air sacs, flair up colourful combs above their eyes and do a noisy and extremely entertaining dance. Females watch from the sidelines and select only the most deserving male specimen (usually only a couple get any of the action from what I’ve been able to observe). Every year, I get to watch these very interesting birds at several dancing grounds throughout the park. They dance the hardest in the wee hours of the morning, but will sometimes perform an encore in the evenings near sundown.

Black-tailed prairie dog surveys the landscape.

Black-tailed prairie dog surveys the landscape.

When I get called over to the West Block of the park, the black-tailed prairie dog is a dependable wildlife sighting. These critters live in small clusters of family groups within a larger colony, which can be quite extensive. They create habitat and foraging areas for many other species, as well as form a reliable source of food for many predators.


Home sweet home: a prairie rattlesnake takes advantage of a prairie dog burrow

Burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, prairie rattlesnakes, black widows and tiger salamanders are examples of some of the very interesting fauna you can find taking shelter in a prairie dog burrow. Bison and other grazers are often found near or on prairie dog colonies, whether attracted there by the new green shoots of a lawn kept well-grazed by prairie dogs, or by the dependable alarm system that results from having so many sets of eyes peeled for predators.


A coyote prowls near a prairie dog colony

If I sit hidden among the hills surrounding any one of our colonies for any length of time, I often see owls, hawks, golden eagles, foxes and coyotes swooping over the colony or skulking by, looking to catch a prairie dog off guard. Sometimes I am lucky enough to see a badger, which is always interesting because of their amazing digging skills – they will excavate a prairie dog if need be; you can see the evidence of their diggings if you walk around a colony.

Better yet are the things that happen when no one is watching. We set up remote cameras on prairie dog colonies which monitor several handy things, for example presence/absence of burrowing owls and ferrets and emergence of prairie dogs and the associated temperature and date. However, we capture many additional images, such as predation events, interesting intra- and interspecies interactions, and animals looking into the camera!

Saskatchewan: land of the living skies

Not another soul in sight

But when working on a monitoring project in the more remote areas of the park, the rarest sighting can be other people. When I prepare for fieldwork, I have to plan, plan, plan because it’s an open landscape, devoid of people and services, exposed to the elements – and it is a loooong way back home. Packing involves collecting back-ups of all equipment, plenty of food and water, first aid supplies, navigation and communication tools, clothing for all weather, and emergency shelter, and then filing a detailed plan of where I’m going and when I’ll be back with several people. It’s also essential to have a plan (and back-up plan) for which route I am going to use for access and how – it’s usually not a matter of driving to the field site; most field sites are remote. If a site is accessible by vehicle, there are river crossings, washouts and rough terrain to navigate. Above all, I have to watch the weather: checking weather before leaving is key, but even more important is watching the weather while I’m in the field. It’s easy to forget to look up when you are doing vegetation surveys or looking for small animals in the grass, which can lead to being stuck in the field.

Working in the park is both a pleasure and a challenge, providing plenty of opportunity for fieldwork as well as a lot of deskwork. I love this beautiful place, and encourage everyone to come explore.


Krista has worked for Grasslands National Park in various capacities since 2008, contributing to a variety of projects, including species at risk monitoring, wildlife management, prairie restoration and invasive species control. Occasionally, she also has the pleasure of working with the public, through volunteer programs, guided tours or educational programs.


Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management, D.F. Acton, G.A. Padbury, C.T. Stushnoff. 1998. The Ecoregions of Saskatchewan. Canadian Plains Research Center. University of Regina


Like nowhere else on earth

This week, we’re pleased to welcome Becky Taylor as our guest blogger.  Becky has just returned from doing fieldwork on Ascension Island, and is excited to share her experience with us!  For more information about Becky, check out her bio below.

“Like nowhere else on earth.”  That’s what all the leaflets say about Ascension Island – and they are definitely correct.  Ascension Island is one of the most remote places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting: a small volcanic island quite literally in the middle of the ocean.  Most people have never even heard of it, let alone know where it is.  Formed by the volcanoes along the mid-Atlantic ridge, it is situated midway between Africa and South America in the south Atlantic Ocean, just below the equator.

The peaks of Ascension Island rising from the south Atlantic.

The peaks of Ascension Island rise from the south Atlantic ocean.

Despite its remote location, Ascension Island has a fascinating history.  Discovered in 1501 by the Portugese, it went unclaimed for hundreds of years – it was just too barren to be of interest to colonial powers.  Occasionally, sailors would stop by on their way across the Atlantic and nab a sea turtle to snack on, but with little fresh water available at the time, no one bothered to settle there.  However, things changed in 1815, when Napoleon was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo.  After his defeat, he was exiled by the British to a remote island called St. Helena – which just happens to be a neighbour of Ascension Island.  The British were worried that Napoleonic sympathizers might try and stage a rescue from Ascension.  To prevent this, they claimed and garrisoned Ascension – and it remains a UK territory to this day.

So the British found themselves in possession of a barren, arid island in the southern Atlantic.  But far from being discouraged by its inhospitable nature, they took it as a challenge, and immediately set about changing it.  In 1836, the HMS Beagle landed on the island, carrying, of course, naturalist Charles Darwin, who noticed how dry and barren the island was.  Seven years later, in 1843, a friend of his also visited the island: Joseph Hooker, a botanist who also happened to be the son of the director of Kew Gardens.  After hearing about the island from Darwin, he hatched a plan.  He began to ship trees from England to Ascension, with the help of the British Royal Navy and Kew Gardens.  Thousands of trees and plants from all over the globe were sent to Ascension, and planted onto what was then known as “the peak”, the highest point on the island.

Today, “the peak” is known as Green Mountain, and has undergone a complete transformation from its original arid state.  Green Mountain is now home to an entirely man-made and now self-sustaining  cloud forest environment.  It was the first experiment in terraforming: the deliberate alteration of an environment to make it more hospitable to humans.


Before: when it was first discovered, all of Ascension Island looked like this - arid and barren.

Before: when it was first discovered, all of Ascension Island looked like this – arid and barren.

After: the results of Hooker's terraforming experiment - the lush vegetation of Green Mountain today.

After: the results of Hooker’s terraforming experiment – the lush vegetation of Green Mountain today.

Many people consider Green Mountain to be an inspiring success story, and there is no doubt that it is scientifically fascinating.  However, there are always costs associated with massive changes like this.  Ascension Island’s endemic plant species did not cope well with the changing environment.  There are now only 7 of these endemic species left on the island – all of which are listed between Vulnerable and Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.  Conservation efforts are currently under way to attempt to save these unique species.

But while the changes were detrimental to some of Ascension’s endemic species, one of the island’s inhabitants was all for the transformation of Green Mountain: the land crab, Johngarthia lagostoma.  Today, these crabs live at the top of the peak – a strange place to find crabs, particularly because their larvae are marine.  So once a year, between January and March, these crabs undertake an epic journey down the mountain to the sea to mate – and then they trek back up the mountain again.  They travel up to 1,400 ft. per day, an impressive feat for such small creatures.  They come out at night, and have a tendency to wander onto the island’s roads in the dark.  Luckily for them, the island’s inhabitants love them and will go out of their way to prevent running them over – whether that involves simply swerving around them, or getting out of the car to chase them out of the way.

Ascension's land crabs come in two different morphs: purple and orange.

Ascension’s land crabs come in two different morphs: purple and orange.

Beyond the land crab, Ascension Island is home to a fascinating cast of characters.  It hosts a variety of seabird species, which breed on Boatswain Bird Island, just off the main island.  And of course, you can hardly write about Ascension without mentioning the sea turtles.  The island is an important green turtle nesting site.  The green turtles found on Ascension are apparently the largest of their species, and they migrate more than 2000 km to get there – all the way from the coast of Brazil.  Between December and June, the females heave up onto the island’s beaches to lay their eggs, which hatch 50-60 days later.

Seabirds soaring over Boatswain Bird Island.

Seabirds soaring over Boatswain Bird Island.

Newly hatched green turtles make their run down the beach to the ocean.

Newly hatched green turtles make their run down the beach to the ocean.

Wandering along the beach one night at sunset, I was lucky enough to see a green turtle nest hatching, and watch the hatchling turtles run down the beach to the ocean.  I was so excited by the encounter that I ran straight to the conservation team to tell them what I had seen – only to find out that my exciting sighting was common on Ascension.  The conservation team was pleased for me, but nowhere near as excited as I had been.  More than anything, it was their attitude that made me realise: Ascension really is like no place on earth.

Becky faces off with a black capped chickadee.

Becky faces off with a black capped chickadee.

Becky completed her BSc in Biology at the University of Bristol, UK in 2010, and then worked for the conservation charity Wildscreen on their ARKive website for two years before deciding to undertake her MSc at the University of Exeter, UK. She started her PhD at Queen’s University in September 2013. She is currently researching the genomics of the evolution of seasonal populations of the band-rumped storm-petrel (Oceanodroma castro), and aims to create a comprehensive phylogeny of this cryptic species complex.

Snakes on a [fragmented] plain

Here at Dispatches from the Field we are VERY excited to welcome our first guest blogger, Amanda Xuereb, a PhD student from the University of Toronto. For more about Amanda, check out the end of this post!

Hot mid-afternoon in late June, 2011. Sitting on a large rock overlooking a local community beach north of Parry Sound, Ontario. Taking a lunch break of PB & J with Caroline, my field assistant, after a sweaty morning of flipping rocks and cursing myself for wanting to study such a cryptic animal. Suddenly, shrieks of fear from below – a woman yelling at her kids “GET OUT OF THE WATER RIGHT NOW! HURRY!!” We look down at what looks like a scene from Jaws as all the kids are running and splashing to safety and in the distance, the silhouette of something swimming along the surface of the water – A SNAKE! We haven’t seen one in days! No words were spoken. As quick as a reflex we dropped our sandwiches and ran to the water. No time for bathing suits (our clothes needed a wash anyway). We tread water to slowly approach the beast from either end and Caroline makes the grab – success! It’s a 3.5’ long eastern foxsnake, one of the most beautiful and docile creatures I have had the pleasure of working with.

My first summer of field work was in 2009. I was an undergrad between my third and fourth year and I scored a job as one of two field assistants to a PhD student. Our primary task was to collect blood samples from eastern foxsnakes for a study on genetic population structure in Ontario. The three of us bunked in a shabby 2-bedroom apartment in Kingsville, ON for 4 months that summer, which we furnished with air mattresses, Rubbermaid containers, and a tent so that the person who got to sleep in the “living room” at least had some privacy. I knew I would be in for a summer like I never experienced before, but I didn’t realize just how much I would love it. I loved spending our days wandering around such pristine areas like Point Pelee National Park, Hillman marsh, various sewage lagoons (yep), searching for that distinct gold and brown pattern slithering in the grass or basking on rocks. On a good day, and in the right places, we could find upwards of 10 snakes in one day. That fall, we found a nest in a compost pile in someone’s backyard with nearly 100 eggs (in clutches of about 10) that were hatching right before our eyes! That was cool.

photo of living room, cluttered with lawn chairs instead of furniture

Photo of tent in livingroom

Five star accommodation


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

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

After finishing undergrad, I started a master’s degree in the same lab. I was interested in understanding the effects of the landscape (namely anthropogenic features like roads) on shaping the genetic structure of species at risk. I chose a species about which very little was known – the eastern hog-nosed snake – and I quickly understood why this was the case. Although they are extremely charismatic (with a unique way of defending themselves against predators, see pictures below and YouTube), they are pretty elusive. As their name suggests, hog-nosed snakes have an upturned snout, which they will use to burrow themselves in sandy soils (females also use their snouts to dig themselves a nest to lay their eggs in). In one 3-month stint in the field, I personally found and collected a blood sample from five individuals – hardly enough of a sample. My field assistants and I literally spent weeks walking up and down and up down the shores of beaches only to come back empty handed (I know, it doesn’t sound so bad saying it now but the beach thing got old pretty fast). For most of that summer I felt frustrated and discouraged and scared that my project was going to flop, but I was saved by some incredible people all over the province who stayed on the lookout and called me if they came across the coveted hoggy. The acknowledgements section made up a good chunk of my thesis.

Hog-nosed snake defense strategy – Step 1: Make like a cobra.

Hog-nosed snake defense strategy – Step 1: Make like a cobra.

Step 2: Roll over, play dead.

Step 2: Roll over, play dead.

The eastern hog-nosed snake does turn its nose up at everything, but it is not condescending…or so we think.

The eastern hog-nosed snake does turn its nose up at everything, but it is not condescending…or so we think.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my field work was the opportunity to meet and talk to so many people. I spent a lot of time searching in provincial and national parks, cottage areas, and backyards, sometimes even pulling over to sample a snake on the side of a road, which always begged the question “what are you doing?” by passersby. Of course, interacting with people who lived in the communities in which I was working often benefitted me when they agreed to be my eyes when I couldn’t be in 20 places at once. But some of the most fulfilling interactions were with those for whom idea of chasing after snakes was totally bonkers. I’ll return to the shrieking woman from above: When we reached shore with the snake in hand, the kids were naturally stoked and ran over to us to get a good look, while the nervous woman pleaded for them to stay back. When we approached her, she confessed that she thought all snakes in Ontario were rattlesnakes, and thus all snakes were venomous and must be feared. After explaining that most of the snakes you would find anywhere near here are harmless, and even the Massasauga rattlesnake (our only venomous species) isn’t as scary as it’s made out to be, she became very interested in understanding what species occurred where she lived and how to tell them apart. I was thrilled to (seemingly) change someone’s view of a creature so misunderstood from downright terror to “Hmm, I guess they’re not so bad”.


Disclaimer: I do not advocate picking up any snake that you come across in the wild; you probably wouldn’t like that very much, would you? Admire it, but let it be.


Amanda with a snake in a tube

Amanda in action

Amanda  completed her master’s degree in the department of biology at Queen’s University in 2012. her thesis focused on the impacts of land cover and habitat fragmentation on the spatial structure of eastern hog-nosed snake populations. She is interested in understanding how environmental or landscape features influence an organism’s ability to disperse and ultimately shape patterns of genetic structure at a broad scale, especially in a conservation context. She is currently a PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at the University of Toronto.