Confessions of a lab biologist

We are excited to welcome Leslie Holmes to the blog today. Leslie is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University, and while she may only be a novice field biologist…she “gets it”. For more about Leslie, see the end of this post. 

While I’m no field biologist, I have had short expeditions in field biology. As a novice ‘field biologist’ I can honestly say “I get it”, that is, I get the appeal. Who wouldn’t want to be outside all day? Imagine it’s a warm, sunny day, and there isn’t a cloud in the sky, your body is flooded with sun induced happy hormones and your mood instantly peaks. But it’s days like this, that it’s just as difficult to get your work done outside as it is inside sitting at a microscope, lab bench, or computer; my usual forte. Because, while inside there are birds constantly flying by your window casting animated shadows across your computer screen or field of view, and the idea of being outside trying out your lab’s recent purchase of a slip and slide is far more appealing than lab work, the work to be done outside is just as daunting. Inside, you’re (hopefully) cool and comfortable, struggling only with your mental capacity of getting your work done, while outside, in addition to mental anguish, you’re often overheating, sweating, and physically drained, and while you know these insects won’t collect themselves, all you want to do is lay down in the shade and read a book or go for a swim.


Trying out the slip and slide

But I think every field biologist out there would agree, not every day is like this. In the spring and summer, you might have rainy days, where it’s coming down so hard you feel like a tin can and a sponge at the same time, rain drops hitting you like golf balls, not to mention the added 20 lbs of water weight you must now carry with you. As temperatures rise, you literally become a buffet for every biting insect in a 1-kilometer radius. Then there are days you’re so exhausted you don’t think you can take a single step more, even if it’s the first step back to the biology station where a nice meal awaits you. However, this utter exhaustion will almost certainly guarantee you a solid night’s sleep, an anomaly for most of us lab biologists.

As I sat down to write this piece, I thought back to my very first field biology experience and the absolute wonder it brought to my life. It was July 10th 2009 in the McFadden National Wildlife Refuge of Sabine Pass, Texas, and our lab was trying to verify the range expansion of an invasive blowfly species Chrysomya megacephala. The landscape chosen to put some carrion out was less than 500 m from the coastal beach and was still recovering from the destruction of hurricane Ike that had passed through in 2008. In addition, the landscape had fallen victim to a large-scale lightning induced fire less than a week prior to our arrival. It was incredible, the flooding from the previous year’s hurricane, left little in the way of plant and wildlife, and what little that was there, had burned from the fire the week before, but to our amazement, the blowflies arrived within minutes of setting out the carrion. Minutes! It was here that I realized just how little we know about ecology and how it appears that the simplest organisms seem to have it all figured out.

I’ve also done some field work in the winter, and I have to say, if you’re a field biologist and you’re about to embark on a day, you know in advance is not going to be good, take someone like me with you! That is, take a novice, someone who is eager and happy to help and get experience, but has never seen a truly bad day in the field! Trust me, they will make light of what you most certainly believe will be an awful situation. The day was December 23rd, 2013, I was working in the lab over the holidays on my own experiments, so when my friend Amanda needed help in the field so that she could go home for Christmas, I didn’t even hesitate to offer my services, as limited and inexperienced as they may have been. Side bar: December of 2013 in Kingston, Ontario has come to be known as the year we got more snow than we’d seen in 5 years, and ice storm, after snow storm, after ice storm, etc.  Over the course of a week, Kingston, Ontario was blanketed with 30-100 cm of snow (depending on presence or absence of snow drifts), and 20-30mm of freezing rain. Specifically, there were layers of snow and ice throughout the landscape, and on December 23rd, the day after a second ice storm, we were headed to Amanda’s field study site. As we were driving to the Opinicon region, it occurred to us that the ATV typically used to haul us and our equipment to the field site might not be a viable option due to the deep drifts of ice and snow. But given the trek into the field site from the road was long and winding, we gave it the good ol’ college try, getting the ATV stuck in the snow/ice the instant we drove it out of the garage. So with 100+ lbs of equipment, Amanda and I started trudging through the deep snow/ice/snow/ice layers in an open field. And while Amanda would probably tell you, this day is probably one her top 5 worst days in the field, I would tell you, I laughed so much that day, that it was a good thing it was a mild -2˚C day, or my tears of laugher would have frozen to my cheeks!


Amanda crawling across the snow to place boxes containing seeds for overwintering. Distributing our weight across the snowy, icy surface was an effective strategy but drastically delayed our time to completion.

Being a novice field biologist however, is not always ideal. It was late fall (my first time out in the field in any other season but summer), and the lab was bringing the dock in from Round Lake at the Queen’s University Biology Station. I was told that it was going to be a half day job and we were leaving first thing in the morning, so I had my usual late fall hearty breakfast of stone rolled oats and was ready to go, dressed in warm layers with a new waterproof jacket, pants and winter boots. Let’s just say, just like in the lab, things always take longer than your supervisor thinks it will and here we were, 8 hours later, heading back to Kingston after a long, but successful task of taking the dock out of Round Lake. Ignorant to the whole field biology experience, I had not prepared for this task to take longer than half a day, and thus I had not packed a lunch. So, when everyone paused in their tasks for a lunch break, my lack of preparedness was evident for all to see. Too embarrassed to admit my ignorance, I told everyone that I didn’t usually eat lunch, silently willing my many layers of clothing to mask my thunderous hunger rumbles. By the end of the day I was starving, cold, wet and very hangry! Picking up some pizza and a large hot chocolate on my way home, I could not wait to peel my cold wet clothes off and have a scalding hot bath, only to discover my housemate had just used the last drop of hot water!

I’ve learned a lot from my limited experience in field biology, and while I often get envious of all my field biologists friends and the exciting places they get to discover, I certainly don’t regret moving to the dark side and doing most of my research in a lab setting. I think I’ll always gravitate towards laboratory research, where I like to think I’m in control of everything (although my entire PhD thus far would suggest otherwise). However, I do hope to continue to collaborate on field biology research and probably most ideally, pair laboratory studies with field studies.

2016-12-08 11.19.38A bit more about Leslie: “I received my bachelor of forensic science degree from the University of Windsor in 2008. Early in my undergraduate degree, I branched into the field of biology by working in a forensic entomology lab as a work study student. Helping graduate students at the time with their theses, I was engulfed into the world of forensic entomology. From there I was offered a Master’s position in Dr. VanLaerhoven’s lab in Windsor to complete a development study on the black soldier fly for the purposes of maintaining a waste management facility year round in southern Ontario. I enrolled in my Master’s degree in the fall of 2008. Prior to starting my graduate studies, I worked in Dr. VanLaerhoven’s lab in the summer of 2008 on a ‘side’ project. As a result of this project, I travelled with my lab to the North American Forensic Entomology Association conference in Atlantic City to present our findings. It was at this conference that I met Dr. Tomberlin from Texas A&M University, the leading expert on the black soldier fly and landed a visiting research scholar position in his laboratory at Texas A&M. As a result, I spent the last year of my master’s in Dr. Tomberlin’s lab, where I completed 3 out of the 4 experiments of my master’s. An electronic copy of my thesis titled “Role of Abiotic Factors on the Development and LIfe History of the Black Soldier Fly, Hermetia illucens (L.) (Diptera: Stratiomyidae)” can be download here.

I completed my master’s degree in October of 2010 and was able to land a part-time faculty position at Trent University in January 2011. I was employed in their Forensic Science Department and taught their first year introduction to forensic science and crime scene investigation courses. I also developed a new online course in forensic entomology and taught it in the summer of 2012 online. While teaching online at Trent University in 2012, I also worked as an entomological researcher, raising beneficial insects for the purposes of integrated pest management. It was in September 2012, that I decided to return to school to embark on my PhD at Queen’s University.”


Not a Foreign Field

This week we are thrilled to welcome Pratik Gupte to the blog. Pratik is a research assistant at the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. For more about Pratik, see the end of this post. 

Last autumn, I was on the River Ijssel in the Netherlands looking for something – or someone – pretty specific. White-fronted goose No. 34 was somewhere close by and I was in the process of tracking her down. She didn’t look very pleased when I found her, but I dare you to try travelling a couple thousand kilometres from Russia on your own power while wearing a GPS transmitter and look happy at the end of it.

Though it could have been, this isn’t a story full of exotic locations, harsh conditions, and action-packed days, telling the tale of how this bird got her tag (mostly because National Geographic, which funded the expedition, owns the rights to this Russian part of the story). Instead, the point I want to get across is that the process of collecting data that helps answer important and/or interesting questions doesn’t have to conform to the general public or even other biologists’ idea of fieldwork1.

For my master’s thesis, I joined Andrea Kölzsch at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany and Kees Koffijberg of the Dutch Centre for Field Ornithology, to study the winter distribution of migratory geese in western Europe. Most of my data were from flock censuses done by citizen scientist volunteers, so I set off for Holland and the Rhinelands of Germany to take a look at how these censuses were done. The idea was to identify issues in sampling that could affect analysis, and to log a few flocks myself. This is one of the major ways in which data scientists get to go outdoors (and a popular one).

I was prepared for conditions like I’d encountered in Russia that summer: open tundra and skittish geese – hard to spot, let alone count. But western Europe is human dominated, and geese are accustomed to people. Most of our observations were literally in farmers’ fields. Often, geese were just a few hundred metres from wind turbines or power plants.


All the dull colours in the world won’t help you hide if your field car is this yellow. Luckily, it
doesn’t always matter.

Dynamic Ecology has a couple of posts on the origin of the idea of fieldwork and how local sites are great.

One of our three datasets included many thousands of records of goose flocks and individually marked birds. But when broken down over 17 winters, the average volunteer (75 were listed in the data) would need to find only a couple of flocks each winter. Most of the volunteers were a bit older, armed with a love for birds, some spare time, and a telescope and notebook. Some, like Kees (who’s also the census coordinator), roll around the countryside on their bicycles.


A small flock of greylag geese (Anser anser) rests as a farmer works in the Netherlands. Field sites don’t have to be exotic, good data can come from anywhere.

Field data collection stories are often biased towards the exciting, the novel, and the harsh. But this represents only one aspect of the assignments biologists undertake outside the office or lab. A lot of fieldwork happens in everyday settings, with average equipment and transport. It happens in full view of locals. It could easily involve your neighbour, who does it as a hobby, or as a way to contribute to our understanding of the world. For example, it was the collective effort of dedicated citizen scientists like Thijs de Boer and Jan Kramer (who showed me around Friesland) chipping in over many years that provided most of my data.

So if you’re a student considering whether the ‘field’ is for you, or a member of the public wondering how you can contribute, remember: field biologists don’t always drop from helicopters, catch animals, or trudge through the desert (though I’ll admit to having done all three). Instead, we often work pretty close to home, and we need people like you to help out. There’s always a way to get involved, and often more than one way to get data. If you see a team doing something interesting, stop and ask: more likely than not, they’ll be happy to share what they’re doing with you.




Pratik Gupte is a research assistant in Maria Thaker’s Macrophysiology Lab at the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Pratik studies the movement and physiology of elephants in response to water sources in South Africa. This follows his master’s thesis work at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany, on spatial patterns and movements of migratory geese in western Europe. Pratik can be found on Twitter at @pratikr16.


How I faced my fears and made a new friend (or a thousand new friends) in the field

I know I have said this before, but I’ve never been fond of spiders. As a Biologist, I can appreciate the way they move, the piercing colours and patterns of their delicate little bodies and their interesting behaviours. These wonderful characteristics are all beautiful and incredibly fascinating, until they’re getting close to me and suddenly that beauty is out the window…literally. Some of you may recall a close encounter I had with a rather large and aggressive spider in an outhouse. Before being viciously attacked (that’s only slightly dramatic) by this potty-dwelling beast, I was indifferent to spiders. They didn’t bother me, but I didn’t love them either. After that, they bothered me, and I disliked them very much.

I live in an approximately 100-year-old house with a totally unfinished stone basement and I’m fairly confident that there’s a spider convention down in the basement every fall. I see them all the time. Most encounters I have with spiders now involve me running in the other direction and someone safely removing the threat from my vicinity. And usually they don’t take me by surprise inside. Spotting these creatures in the house is easy with the white tiled floors or light-coloured walls. However, while doing fieldwork, they are not quite as easy to spot and have startled me on multiple occasions.

In the summer of 2014, I was in the peak of my field season, and engaged in doing what I do best…counting plants. Our regular readers will know that counting wildflowers and grasses has consumed my summers for many years. When I count plants, I get in “the zone”. I usually count individuals of one species at a time, so I have a search image in my head, and I see nothing but that search image. I was trying to count wood sorrel, which is a low-growing, creeping species that is very tiny in comparison to most other old-field species. So often when counting wood sorrel, I would lie on my stomach, on a long foam mat, to get an even better image of the plot.

As I counted aloud and my field assistant recorded, I glanced for a second and at the corner of my mat, about 6 inches from my face, was an extremely large, beast-like spider. I quickly pushed my body back and up onto my knees in a quick attempt to avoid an attack like that in the outhouse. Expecting the spider to lunge at me, and tear off my face, I started to stand but quickly realized, that when I jumped back onto my knees, the spider also jumped backwards, and now seemed panicked about being surrounded by big, scary humans. I bent down gently to get a closer look, and realized that she wasn’t even a big spider at all, her entire body was actually covered in baby spiders!!

For a split second, I became more scared by this realization… a spider…covered in…BABY SPIDERS!!!!! The crazy, irrational size of my brain was chanting FLIGHT, FLIGHT, FLIGHT, leave situation now. But then the curious field biologist side of my brain chimed in and I just sat there and admired how beautiful she was. I watched how the hundreds of babies wiggled around and tried to hold on to her little body. They all managed to stay fastened to her and seemed to be enjoying the ride. I got out of her way and watched as she crossed the mat and then began weaving through the long grass towards the tall oak trees on the field edge.

I wouldn’t go as far to say this experience made me “like” spiders, but I certainly appreciate them a lot more now. The parental care and investment from the mother, and her fearlessness when approaching me, a roadblock in her path, helped me to better understand and appreciate the challenges non-sessile organisms face. I am always complaining about my plants being eaten or stepped on or blown over…but these little spiders, and other mobile organisms have a whole set of other challenges plants don’t necessarily face in the same way including feeding young, transporting young, running from predators, among others. I’ve worked in the field for several years and seen many, many cool things, and this one will always remain right near the top of my list!

spider babies

Here she is! Slightly blurred as this was taken with a very old cell phone!

Two Weeks Out at Sea

We are excited to welcome Ashley Arnold to Dispatches from the Field today! Ashley is a graduate student studying microbial ecology at the University of British Columbia. Today she tells us about two very interesting weeks out at sea. For more about Ashley, see the end of this post. 

Wait, you’re going where?!

Will you have internet connection?

I don’t get it…why are you going again?

Do you get seasick?

These are just a few of the questions I was asked when I told my non-field work going friends and family that I would be spending two weeks on a research trip in out on the Pacific Ocean. To be fair, these are pretty standard questions to ask when someone tells you that they will be travelling 1700 km off shore to the open ocean – but honestly, it didn’t seem too odd to me. Throughout my undergrad and graduate degree at the University of British Columbia, I’ve been lucky enough to do a good amount of field work, partly due to my interest in environmental science and partly because I work in a lab which studies environmental microbial ecology. To me, field work is just another part of the job and I’ve been lucky enough to go on some pretty incredible research trips.

But this trip obviously wasn’t what those closest to me thought their token scientist friend would be doing as part of her research…so I got very practiced at answering those questions.

Wait, you’re going where!?

Out to sea! But more specifically, the northeast subarctic Pacific Ocean along the Line P[] transect onboard the Canadian Coast Guard vessel – John P Tully (we call it The Tully for short). Line P is an oceanic transect starting from the southern part of Vancouver Island, British Columbia and ending at Ocean Station Papa located at 50ºN 145ºW. Line P is one of the longest running ocean transects, as Station Papa was a weather station from 1949 until the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans took over running the transect program in 1981. Now, the Line P program involves taking ocean measurements such as salinity, temperature, oxygen concentration and chlorophyll at 26 locations along the transect. This data is important for ocean monitoring, particularly in recent years, when there have been some noticeable temperature anomalies[].


This was probably the most common question I got asked, since people wanted to know if there would be any way to contact me while I was away. (Well, this is the explanation I’m choosing to go with, anyway). You’d think the answer would be no, since we were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean…but this research trip was a bit of an anomaly internet-wise, since we took a satellite sponsored by Ocean Networks Canada[] with us.  In the end, there were only a few days when we were completely offline on this trip. (In general, though, we’re out of internet range after 3 – 5 days.)


The Ocean Networks Canada satellite that accompanied us for the cruise.


Our working space while onboard. At each station we collect water and filter it through a filter to collect bacteria, archaea and  plankton. Later, DNA and RNA will be extracted from those filters and sent for sequencing.

I don’t get it…why are you going? 

For science! But also for my lab!

My lab, the Hallam lab[], has been involved with this project for around 10 years now. As a lab, we’re interested in trying to uncover the metabolic abilities of different microorganisms in oceanic, terrestrial and human-impacted environments, primarily through DNA and RNA sequencing. Line P is one of our ocean projects. And since we’ve been collecting data for almost a decade, it’s now a time series, which allows us to look at changes in the oceanic microbial community over time and across different seasons. Pretty cool right?!

Do you get seasick?

Ah, yes, seasickness. Our lab technician likes to say this whenever someone asks about seasickness: “If you haven’t been seasick, you just haven’t been in rough enough waters yet”. At first I thought this was a little dramatic, but I get what she’s saying now.

On this trip, I got seasick for a few days and it was awful. I came prepared with an arsenal of various seasickness medication and was doing pretty well for the first few days. And then I got overconfident and stopped taking any medication. Naively, I thought I had acquired my “sea legs” and was really starting to embrace my new life as a sea-going scientist.

Of course, this new persona emerged just as we hit some rough weather that made the boat sway back and forth and side to side all the time. And I mean all the time. Trying to go to bed? Hard to sleep, because the boat is swaying. Trying to walk down the hallway? Better hold on, because the boat is swaying. Want to enjoy a nice meal with your fellow sea-going scientists? Ha, nope. Your stomach definitely doesn’t want anything because the boat is still swaying.

It’s not a great feeling. I don’t wish it on anyone. I definitely learned my lesson: take your seasickness meds!

Hopefully, my answers to the above questions have given my friends, family and anyone interested in the scientific adventures of a grad student some idea of what my two weeks out at sea were like. It was a lot of work and a big chunk of time to be away from my normal life… but overall I had a great time, and I’m glad I got to experience life at sea!


Some days the view looked like this.


But most days it looked like this. It was pretty grey and cloudy for the majority of the trip.


Land ho! After two weeks at sea it was nice to see land again.

Ashley Arnold is a Masters student at the University of British Columbia studying microbial ecology in contaminated soil environments though her research interests in biogeochemical cycles and microbial ecology more broadly are not constrained to a particular environment. A long-time member of the Hallam lab at UBC, Ashley has been on numerous field adventures to collect samples for different on-going research projects such as biogeochemical cycling in Saanich Inlet, BC, coastal environmental monitoring at the Hakai Research Institute and the Long Term Soil Productivity Project at O’Connor Lake. When she’s not in the lab, you can find her enthusiastically encouraging her lab mates to listen to her most recent podcast obsession or talking about musicals.


A Resupply Gone Wrong…Horribly Wrong.

We are excited to welcome Lisa Buckley to the blog today. Lisa is a palaeontologist based in British Columbia, Canada, and today she tells us an unfortunate but equally amazing fieldwork story! Welcome, Lisa!


“I wonder how that would taste?”

I can’t think of one field expedition lacking a humorous story about food-borne desperation. You have to laugh, or it just seems horrid. A quote often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte is “an army marches on its stomach.” The same can be said for your field crew. Field crews march, and they march hard. Double digit kilometer treks. Huge elevation changes, often accompanied by surprise weather changes. Removing meters of rock with a pickaxe.

I’ll take you back to 2006, when our three-person crew conducted dinosaur track research in Kakwa Provincial Park, British Columbia. The Kakwa Dinosaur Track Site is a remote subalpine-alpine site. It is a 45-minute helicopter flight to the site from the nearest inhabited area. Helicopter time is quite expensive, especially for a small research centre such as ours, so we were relying on helicopter time donated by the natural resource industry. This meant that we couldn’t simply call for helicopter support on a whim. Barring emergencies, we worked around the helicopter’s schedule.  We had arranged for three trips: the initial drop-off of crew and gear, the final pick up of crew, gear, and specimens, and an intermediate pick up of our field technician (who needed to leave early) and food resupply at the three-week mark of our four-and-a-half week trip.


The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful, but once we were there, we were there for the duration.


Studying dinosaur tracks in British Columbia is difficult because many of the track-bearing rock layers, once horizontal, have been pushed into a vertical position thanks to the building of the Rocky Mountains. This means that we have to use rock climbing gear to access the track surface to collect measurements and make latex replicas to bring back to the lab.

This site was hard, calorie-burning work. Every morning we had to hike from our water-accessible camp site to the top of the mountain, an increase in elevation of almost 1000 meters. We would put in at least six hours on the track surface, and then hike back down to camp. Although we had ensured that our initial food supply was generous (including not only staples, but lots of variety and the occasional morale-boosting snack), we knew a resupply would be necessary at the three-week mark.

A few days before the resupply, I called an in-town contact to ask her to pick up items. But here’s where I initiated the most spectacular #fieldworkfail of my career: I did not specify the amount of food. At the time, I assumed that either the person on the other end could read my mind, or that the person, being the outdoorsy type, would know exactly how much food two hard-working palaeontologists would need for a week and a half.


Resupply Day dawned gloriously sunny. The helicopter came in, our field tech loaded her gear, and our food resupply was unloaded. Sitting on the ground were three small shopping bags.

I asked the pilot “Where’s the rest?”

“That’s it!” he replied.

The lead palaeontologist, Dr. Richard McCrea, and I stood staring at the paltry pile of plastic sacks.  We looked at one another, and looked back at the groceries. One of us said some version of “We’re going to die.”

Maybe we were being a little melodramatic…but at this point of the trip, we were pretty eager for a change in diet. What we saw in those bags supplemented our meager remaining rations for three days. After the food from the resupply was gone, we were left with lentils, rice, mustard, raisins, some tins of Louisiana hot sauce, herring, and marshmallows. Every. Dang. Night. For seven nights.

This is where I tell the tale of the Wiliest Ptarmigan. Right up until the day of our resupply, we could not go anywhere in camp or on the mountain summit without seeing White-tailed Ptarmigan. Ptarmigan, like many grouse, use the “if I don’t move, you can’t see me” strategy for avoiding predation…meaning that you can get very close to them. This picture was taken without a zoom.

After the Resupply Gone Wrong, we started making jokes about Ptarmigan Pot Pie and Kentucky-Fried Ptarmigan. And both Rich and I would swear, as soon as the resupply happened, we didn’t see one ptarmigan for the ten days remaining days of the expedition. It’s almost as though they knew we were assessing their culinary virtues. All we found was a solitary feather in the area where they would usually roost. I think the ptarmigan left that feather there on purpose to mock our hunger.


The Wiliest of Ptarmigan. These White-tailed Ptarmigan have a cunning sense of when humans are hungry.

Joking aside, we knew we were not going to starve or go hungry, but we also knew mealtimes were going to be…strange. Let me answer the “I wonder how that tastes?” question with respect to the different food combinations we tried:

Rice and lentils: Edible but very, very bland.

Rice and lentils and heated tinned fish: It should work, but it didn’t. It was kind of nasty.

Rice and lentils and mustard: It’s edible. That’s as far as I’ll go.

Rice and lentils and fish and mustard: Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Raisins stuffed inside marshmallows: Really, really strange. The two don’t go together.

Marshmallows and mustard: No, YOU ate marshmallows and mustard. Shut up. I don’t want to talk about it.

Needless to say, we survived, but we really couldn’t call it living. When we were flown back into town, the first thing we did was eat a big plate of nachos with lots of salsa.

Ultimately, the Resupply Gone Wrong turned out to be a great learning experience. I now have a field meals list where I not only plan out the number of meals for an expedition, but the quantities of required ingredients.

Dedicated to the Wiliest Ptarmigan: well played, you floofy-footed fowl. Well played.

Dr. Lisa Buckley is a palaeontologist with the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre based in Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia. Lisa’s work with the PRPRC is field- and lab-based research on the tracks and traces of dinosaurs, birds, and other vertebrates from the Cretaceous Period, with a focus on researching Cretaceous-aged bird tracks and trackways. Lisa also manages a comprehensive archive in British Columbia of vertebrate fossils from British Columbia, and is an advocate for responsible fossil stewardship in the province. Lisa can be found on Twitter @Lisavipes, where she manages the track-based game #NameThatTrack, and the sciart project #BirdGlamour, where eye makeup is used to highlight bird diversity.10498226_10202228340212179_8097162662899592582_o

How many words is a fieldwork picture worth?

One of the current hot topics regarding human social trends is the use of social media platforms to document our lives, especially in terms of photos. Why not just live in the moment? You can take experiences with you, but you can’t take photos! These are just a couple of the common mindsets out there. I’m not particularly sure where I fall on this spectrum. I love taking photos, and I do upload quite a few to social media. For me, it is a way to keep in touch with my family and friends and let them know what I am up to, and occasionally, it’s to brag about the 10 pounds of tomatoes I just picked from my garden. Either way, it is certainly a highly-debated topic.

I’ve been doing fieldwork for almost 10 years now, and I quickly learned after my first field season that having a camera, or at least your smartphone with you at all times is a must, and for many reasons. Of course, taking photos, specifically selfies in the field is key. Sarah told us this not so long ago, and about her many regrets regarding her lack of fieldwork photos, especially those with her in them! I, on the other hand, have the opposite problem. I have SO many fieldwork photos, I don’t even know what to do with them. But, even though there may be 10,000 photos, all of my photos have a purpose.

First of all, I take fieldwork photos so I can use them to explain what I actually did in the field. Photos are excellent tools for Powerpoint presentations, or to use in the methods sections of manuscripts. My Supervisor has always told me, “there is no better explanation than a photo” and he always encourages all new students to document their entire fieldwork experience with photos. Photos have helped me explain many things over the years. For example, I designed “micro-germination chambers for the field” and explained in nearly 1000 words of text just how these chambers were built, stored and used. But it was always met with confusion. In a recent talk, I simply showed a photo, and provided a very brief synopsis of that same device’s uses and it was much clearer.


“Micro-germination chambers for the field”

Second, you get to document some of the interesting things that happen in the field. One of the best parts of doing fieldwork, is the other stuff that happens while you’re doing it. And often, that stuff is not related at all to your work. You might remember me talking about that in one of my favourite posts to date “The White house: from damp and dark to cold and warm” where I was be-friended by an exceptional group of gray rat snakes inhabiting our field storage building. Or the time the biggest, most beautiful praying mantis decided that my forearm was the ideal place to hang out for the afternoon. Or the time we found a random group of white turkey-like birds and a black duck wandering the roadsides…the list goes on.

Finally, and probably, most importantly, fieldwork photos are useful as an outreach tool. One of our goals at Dispatches from the field is to tell fieldwork stories that aren’t captured in manuscripts and to showcase the work we do, and why we do that work. The best way to tell our stories has been through photos. Our blog is littered with beautiful photos from posters all around the world and while our stories are certainly amazing, photos have been a big draw for new readers and followers. At outreach events we have posters and slideshows that are almost exclusively photos, and we have always been met with wonderful feedback. It helps me answer the common questions I get asked like: what is an old-field anyways? Or, when you say you measured maximum potential body size, just how big are we talking??

Our experiences, and the stories that have culminated in Dispatches from the field highlight the places, the species, and the problems that we as field scientists, care so deeply about. Showing pictures to accompany those stories, we hope at least, has helped others realize why they should care about them too.

Creating artificial natural communities

I have always been interested in understanding how plant communities are structured and assembled. That’s why I’ve spent the last half decade tromping around in old-fields, shrublands and woodlands, collecting, counting and measuring plants. While most of my research has involved surveys of different types of natural plant communities, in 2013 I was trying to understand the structure of communities when all plants were the same age. This meant that the established habitats I was used to studying were no longer suitable. I had to start my own communities from scratch.

One of my beautiful old-field sites.

The easy option would have been to collect seeds from an already existing herbaceous plant community and create a new community in a controlled greenhouse setting. But I didn’t want to do that. When you start moving experiments to a “controlled” greenhouse setting, things can often end up more complicated than you ever imagined. Greenhouse disasters I have witnessed in my time in graduate school include aphid/spider/mite outbreaks, extended water outages/contamination, issues with heat/lighting control, sabotage by angry colleagues and even, I kid you not, the panes of glass on the roof smashing. (Incidentally, those panes of glass are 1.5 inches thick…and the offending object was never found… can anyone say UFO???) In addition to having little control in these supposed controlled experiments, when you use a greenhouse setting, you are also introducing other sources of variation that you wouldn’t see naturally. For example, the water/ fertilizer you apply is different from a plant’s natural environment, as is access to sunlight, and often plants end up root-bound and limited by their pot size.

So, for me, the obvious solution was to take the hard route, and attempt to set up my own communities in the field.  To create these communities, I installed aluminum cylinders into the ground (about 9 inches deep) to ensure neighbouring roots couldn’t access them. I then applied a herbicide to the resident plants in those plots, and after they died, I cleared the dead vegetation out. At one site I installed 100 cylinders and just left them as they were after clearing the dead vegetation. This allowed seeds from the natural seed bank to germinate and grow and eventually reproduce. The issue with this site though, was that I had no idea how many seeds of each species were present in each plot. So for the second site, I spent the entire summer of 2013 collecting seeds. I chose species that didn’t overlap with those already at the field site, but had been found growing in similar habitats and had a wide range in body size, flowering time and life history strategy (annual, biennial, perennial). I ended up collecting seeds of 46 species, and putting 200 seeds of each of the 46 species into each of the 100 plots. I followed these communities over the next three growing seasons, and the results were amazing.

Early growing season plot (early May) versus mid-June

In the site without introduced species (just from the seedbank), the first year plots were filled with species I didn’t recognize. This site is normally dominated by perennial wildflower and grass species, but suddenly all sorts of annuals were popping up again. In the site with introduced species, I saw tonnes of beautiful annuals flowering in year one. In year two, the plots were exploding with biennials and in year 3 finally a perennial dominance was seen. The interesting part is that now this experiment is in year 4, and although we aren’t monitoring or collecting any data, we see the resident species starting to slowly make their way back into these plots. So even though we planted tens of thousands of seeds from introduced species at the site, the resident species seeds from the seed bank and plants surrounding the plots are slowly starting to take over again. This is the perfect example of how plant community dynamics are always changing.

So taking the hard route really did pay off in the end. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t a whole slew of hideous disasters that could have affected my natural plant communities. But I could definitely sleep better at night knowing that these experimental plant communities were experiencing as close to natural conditions as possible!