Be a lady (in field biology) they said

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eliminating the uncertainty of “fieldwork” in 2020

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

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

adult cormorant

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

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

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

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

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

waiting at the hatchery

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

egg carrying case in the car

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

Getting caught with your pants down at 4500m

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

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

Let me set the scene. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nest building

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

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

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

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

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

A very different view.

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

***

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

Where’s Waldo?

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

***

Yup.

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

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

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

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

A perfect day for a dip in the ocean.

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

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

Studying a species you’re not sure exists

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

I have a confession to make…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Close call #1:

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

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

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

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

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

Close call #2:

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

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

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

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

Close call #3:

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

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

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

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

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

We’re back!

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

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

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

3 Canada Jay nestlings in hand

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

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

What do you miss most about fieldwork?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

How do you solve a problem like migration?

This post was initially published on the Science Borealis blog on April 27th, 2020. Check out their blog for more great science stories, published every Monday!

An ornithological pedicure: taking a claw clipping from a western bluebird for stable isotope analysis. Photo credit: Catherine Dale.

I can feel the rapid thrumming of the bluebird’s heart against my palm as I carefully manoeuvre its foot into position over a tiny Ziploc bag. I pick up my nail scissors and take a deep breath to steady my hand. I will only get one chance to make sure the miniscule claw clipping lands in the bag. If it doesn’t, I will have no chance of finding it…and no way to discover where this bird spent the winter.

Field biology often requires unusual skills. I have spent the last decade becoming an experienced bird pedicurist, because analyzing the chemical composition of tissues like claws and feathers is one method scientists use to determine the movements of migratory animals.

Unfortunately, this method suffers from the same drawback as many others: a lack of precision. As a result, many aspects of bird migration remain a mystery. But this spring, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany are entering the final testing phase of a new space-based tracking system, which they hope will revolutionize our understanding of animal movement.

The puzzle of migration

For Canadians across the country, the return of our migratory birds marks the beginning of spring. Each year, 2.6 billion birds cross the Canada-U.S. border, heading north to their breeding grounds.

Two thousand years ago, Aristotle believed the spring reappearance of barn swallows meant they were emerging from their winter hibernation at the bottom of ponds. Although we now understand more about animal migration, many questions remain – largely because it’s very difficult to track individual animals as they travel vast distances around the globe.

For many years, the only approach was to mark animals with bands or tags in the hopes of re-sighting them somewhere else. But the sheer number of animals that migrate makes seeing a marked individual again extremely unlikely.

A flock of shorebirds takes to the air at Oak/Plum Lake Important Bird Area, a migration stopover site in Manitoba. The mixed-species flock includes Wilson’s phalaropes, red-necked phalaropes, stilt sandpipers, pectoral sandpipers, dunlin, white-rumped sandpipers, and semipalmated sandpipers. Photo credit: Christian Artuso.

Putting the pieces together

In the 1990s, migration research took a leap forward when scientists realized the chemical composition of animal tissue reflected the place where it was grown. By analyzing the ratio of various isotopes in tissue (termed stable isotope analysis), researchers can roughly reconstruct an animal’s geographic history…which is why I found myself giving bluebird pedicures.

Scientists can also now track moving animals directly by fitting them with tags that record location. These tags can be divided into two broad categories. Archival tags, such as geolocators, record and store movement information. In order to find out where a tagged animal has been, researchers must recapture it and retrieve the tag.

Recapturing migratory animals often proves difficult, especially as many fail to return from migration. So when possible, researchers prefer to use tags that remotely transmit data to a receiver, eliminating the need to recover them.

But transmitting tags face a fundamental constraint: transmitting takes power, and the more power a tag requires, the larger it needs to be. Tags must weigh less than 5% of an animal’s body weight to avoid affecting its behaviour or survival. Considering that many migratory birds weigh less than 10 grams, making tags small enough for them to carry is a huge challenge.

A sanderling carrying a Motus nanotag. The tag’s long antenna is easily visible. Photo credit: Jessica Howell.

The amount of power required to transmit data depends largely on where the receivers are. Tags for ground-based tracking systems – with receivers located on the Earth’s surface – can be very small. For example, the nanotags used by the Motus Wildlife Tracking System range from 0.2 to 2.6 grams, and can even be carried by some large insects. However, the range over which ground-based systems can track individuals is limited. Animals carrying Motus tags can only be detected within approximately 15 km of a receiver.

In contrast, satellite tags send data to receivers on orbiting satellites. They can track movement at a much larger scale than ground-based systems, and have been used for years on big animals, such as seabirds and caribou. But most satellite tags are too heavy for small migratory birds.

The Icarus Initiative

In 2007, Martin Wikelski, the Director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany, proposed a novel space-based system for tracking animals across the globe.

It took more than 10 years, and the cooperation of the Russian Space Agency (Roskosmos) and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), for the system to become a reality. In March 2020, the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (Icarus) entered its final testing phase. The first Icarus tags are waiting to be shipped to researchers, and the system will be available to the scientific community this fall.

“We wanted to build [a tracking system] specifically for wildlife,” Wikelski says of Icarus. “It’s built by the community, for the community.”

The International Space Station, pictured here in 2009 after a visit by the space shuttle Discovery to add additional solar panels. Photo credit: STS-119 Shuttle Crew and NASA.

Icarus tackles the trade-off between tag size and transmission distance in part by the simple expedient of moving the receiver closer. Conventional satellite tags transmit their data to Argos satellites, which orbit the poles at an altitude of 850 km. Icarus tags will transmit their data to a receiver on the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting at an average altitude of 400 km.

Data collected by Icarus will be stored in Movebank, a free online database accessible by the public.  The system will also incorporate a citizen science initiative: Animal Tracker. While Icarus tags tell scientists where an animal is, citizen scientists can provide information about what it’s doing there. Using the Animal Tracker app, people can follow tagged animals online, and anyone who spots those animals in the wild can submit their observations to the database.

Of course, like any tracking system, Icarus will have some limitations, at least initially. The first tags will weigh five grams, which – while smaller than many satellite tags – is still too heavy for most migratory birds. However, the design of a new generation of tags weighing only one gram is already underway.

Satellite coverage will also be an issue. The receiver on the ISS will be able to pick up signals from most of the Earth’s surface; however, high latitude regions in the north and south will not be covered. Eventually, Wikelski’s goal is to deploy dedicated Icarus satellites strategically to cover the entire globe.

But even with these limitations, scientists are eager to begin harnessing the power of Icarus to tackle some of the unsolved mysteries of migration. Dr. Kevin Fraser, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Manitoba, is keenly awaiting his first shipment of tags. He and his graduate students plan to put them on saw-whet owls – and they are most interested in the birds that don’t come back in the spring.

Banding a saw-whet owl. Kevin Fraser’s lab hopes to use Icarus tags to track these small owls during migration. Photo credit: Kevin Fraser.

Fraser’s previous research has largely depended on archival tags, meaning tagged birds must be recaptured to determine where they went. Individuals that don’t return to the study sites to breed – those that die along the way, or the young birds that disperse to breed elsewhere – are lost data.

“Most of what we know about migration, we know from birds that have successfully migrated,” Fraser says. “We know much less about where survival might be limited, or what the juveniles are doing. But [with Icarus], for the first time, we will be able to track 100 gram birds (the smallest yet) in near real-time, without the bias of only focusing on survivors and adults.”

Solving the puzzle

With the sliver of claw safely stowed in a bag for later analysis, I’m ready to liberate my captive bluebird. I position its feet over my empty hand and release my hold. For a moment, it perches on my palm, apparently unaware of its freedom…then, in a flutter of wings, it’s gone.

Of the 450 bird species found in Canada, 78% spend at least part of the year outside our borders. This fall, four billion birds will cross our southern border to spend the winter in warmer climes. More than a billion of them will not return, succumbing to the dangers of the journey or the hazards of their wintering grounds.

Icarus offers us a unique window into the world of migratory birds, and a chance to improve their odds. If we know where they go and how they get there, we can begin to understand the perils they face – and perhaps develop solutions.

I’m late for a very important date!

I don’t like to be late. I am the kind of person who arrives extra early to the airport just in case I can’t find the gate or I get stuck in security. If I am late for whatever reason, I feel incredibly anxious. So when my time at a field site is limited by the arrival and departure of a pre-scheduled boat, this is all amplified.

When we arrived at Bonaventure Island with our research permit, the staff members reminded us of our agreement: “You can join us on the employee boat. It is the first boat to depart for the island in the morning and the last boat to depart for home in the evening.” Great! We wanted to spend as much time as possible on the island, collecting data on the northern gannet colony there.

Sarah carrying equipmentIt is easy to lose track of time when I am sampling during fieldwork. I get really focused on the task at hand, on how many birds I have sampled already and how many I still have to do. The time ends up passing at a very variable rate; sometimes really fast, and sometimes really slow. One day we were so focused on sampling that we did lose track of time – a big problem when you’re on an island and the only mode of transportation to your cabin is a boat about to depart.

Sometime after lunch, absorbed in our work, we heard someone shouting and rustling through the bushes. We looked up to see a colleague running over to us, saying “It’s time to go! We are late!”. We finished processing the bird in hand and started to pack up as fast as possible. But it still took a good 5 minutes to get all our equipment and samples ready to go. Within that time, a park staff member came barreling down the narrow path on a four-wheeler to meet us. “Come and hop on, the boat is going to leave!”. I looked at this four-wheeler with two seats in the front and a small flatbed in the back and wondered how 6 adults were going to fit on it.

the treachorous pathSomehow, we all made it into the vehicle (or in my case, half in; the other half was hanging through the door frame) and started the trek towards the boat. In a previous blog, I talked about the difficult, steep hike up to the colony. Now, we were 6 people crammed into a four-wheeler, flying back down this same path. Our route was mined with potholes the size of large buckets and tree roots lying in crisscross patterns across the path. This did not make for a smooth ride! I clutched the handle with all my strength as we tipped from side to side without slowing down, really pushing the four-wheeler to its limit.

boat at the dockLuckily, we did make it to the boat in one piece prior to its departure, and except for a few hungry staff members, no harm was done. But I didn’t want to make any more staff members angry with us, so I vowed that we would keep better track of time the next day. The only problem was that I was wearing a really old watch, (because no one with any sense wears anything nice to a seabird colony) and I didn’t trust the time on it.

Sometime after lunch, I checked the time. My watch said 3:30 pm. Just to double check, I looked at my phone. It said 4:30 pm. I panicked: “Oh no, my watch must have frozen, we have to go!”.

a no walking sign in front of the colonyAt top speed, we packed all of our gear up and headed towards the main lodge…only to find everyone still working. Unbeknownst to me, my phone had switched to the Atlantic time zone of 1 hour ahead! My unreliable watch was right: it was actually only 3:30 pm, meaning we still had lots of time to sample. Of course, now we were all packed up and ready to go. But luckily for us, there were a few birds nesting near the main lodge that we could process to pass the time. And we were not late for the boat!

The Kalahari Queen

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we are happy to welcome Zach Mills, a graduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa! To learn more about Zach, check out his bio at the end of the blog.

Field work in Africa never behaves itself. It consists of perpetual improvisation because things never go to plan. It demands adaptability, a bit of nerve and resilience. The truth is that fieldwork is what happens when everything functions smoothly; the rest of the time you’re trying to make fieldwork happen. Fieldwork is a lesson in patience and mental fortitude, and this is precisely why we field people love it.

I study thermoregulation in spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta); specifically, I study the influence of metabolic heat production on hunting in endurance hunters. That’s right – endurance hunter; hyenas are effective cursorial hunters that capture prey by running it to exhaustion.

In May 2019, I arrived at my field site in northeastern Namibia with eight days to re-capture eight spotted hyenas in order to remove GPS collars I had deployed a year prior. My plan was simple and effective: use a carcass to bait the clan into a suitable area and blast a series of prey vocalizations followed by a series of hyena vocalizations to get the clan’s attention. Wait and thou shall be rewarded with scores of hyenas. It usually takes a day or two to congregate the clan, but it has historically been foolproof. While spotted hyenas are competent hunters, I’ve never known them to turn down a putrid carcass per gratis.

Zach takes a minute to pose with a lion carcass in Khaudum National Park, Namibia (Photo credit: Hans Rack)

Two things work in my favor when it comes to hyena aggregation at a bait site. First, spotted hyenas have amazing noses, far better than a bloodhound. With a favorable breeze they regularly beeline 10 km directly to a bait site. Second, they regularly patrol their home ranges in small coalitions. In a clan of 40 individuals, the chances of a patrolling group intercepting the scent of the bait and alerting the clan to the complimentary bounty is extremely high.

However, one thing generally works against me: hyena astuteness. When I started studying hyenas, I considered myself to be the more intelligent species and therefore assumed the odds of successful capture were in my favor. I have since reconsidered this.

Last May, I had returned to the field to retrieve the devices at the precise moment the hyenas were all where they were supposed to be – their natal home range.

However, the first night I put the bait out, nothing. Second night, again nothing. On the morning of the third day, I called the collar manufacturer to get recent locations for the study animals. Seven of the eight were 15 km to the north; the eighth (a male) was moving east towards Botswana. I disregard a recommendation from the collar manufacturer to use a helicopter to capture that male and persisted with baiting and calling. Third night, nothing. I called the collar company back and was informed that the rogue male was well into Botswana moving toward the Okavango Delta. The misfortune continued the fourth and fifth nights. At this point, I had only 72 hours to capture 8 hyenas.

Zach performs a physical examination on a sedated spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

Lucky for me, a helicopter pilot in camp for other projects took pity on me and offered me an hour of fly time at sunrise and another hour at dusk to locate the wily hyenas using their radio collar frequencies and capture them. This was far more effective than my ‘foolproof’ strategy; the first hyena was tranquilized by a dart administered sedative shortly after sunrise. We captured a second individual that morning and a third in the evening. I was hit with a wave of optimism.

Zach attempts to locate a study animal in Khaudum National Park, Namibia.

The next morning, horizontal rays of the early Kalahari sun cut through the bush as the helicopter rotors began to roar. The shadows cast by the acacia trees are deceptively long in the early morning hours, making it feel like you’re flying over an endless game of jackstraws.

Looking like a vagrant who had escaped from an international detention center, with collar frequencies scribed on my arms, holes in my down jacket, and a face weathered by endless desert sand, I was after one particular adult female that morning: #2746. Last year, #2746 was 210 pounds of impossible to chemically immobilize bad attitude. She was the boss of the bush, the matriarch of the motherland, the Queen of the Kalahari.

I hate to anthropomorphize, but #2746 is an animal of note. I had spent the past year psychologically preparing for our next encounter. True to her mysterious ways, it was a telemetry exercise from hell locating her that morning. Ultimately, I understood why: she’d peek her head out of a shallow den just long enough to send a few radio signals my way before vanishing underground.

But eventually, we caught her off guard, and a well-placed dart found her rump. A chase ensued, and she led us directly to a second den site. We gained altitude to let her fall asleep before she descended deeper into the den.

Zach recovering #2746 from a den (Photo Credit: Markus Hofmeyr)

After ten minutes, we landed, and I peered into the den. #2746 seemed comfortably asleep a meter from the surface. I descended into the den in with a rope in my teeth to recover the half-asleep hyena. I planned to loop the rope around her shoulder, shimmy my way out, and drag her out with the help of two people.

As I looped the rope around her shoulder, she blinked. And then she lifted her head. And then she growled.

Our faces were 10 centimeters apart and I could tell from her breath that she had no reason to visit my bait because she had been enjoying something equally putrid all night long. She lifted her front leg, and the rope slipped from her shoulder. She then advanced in my direction and as the rope slipped to her wrist, I elected to evacuate the den.

Equally startled, we exited the den simultaneously. Now #2746 was tethered to the other end of the rope wrapped around my arm. I tried to act casual while walking behind her, imagining myself out for a morning walk with Canis familiaris. However, I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the feeling of impending doom one experiences while walking an irritated hyena through the bush. Keep it together Zach, she smells the fear!

I was able to keep #2746 on the rope long enough to administer a second sedative dose. She finally fell asleep peacefully and we fitted her with a new GPS collar, and sent her on her way. I’m actively preparing myself for our next encounter.

Zach is a self-proclaimed field junkie; he views his body as an all-terrain vehicle specialized in getting him far from the beaten path.  He explores the world through his passion for wildlife research, conservation and sustainable resource management. His research focuses on the physiology of large carnivores but he enjoys storytelling and sharing his adventures from the field with public audiences. He prefers his meals cooked on an open fire, his clothes ripped and his beard untamed. He’s a field biologist.