Looking for cryptic animals…without location information

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome our first guest poster of 2017.  Megan Snetsinger shares some stories from her often frustrating hunt for Butler’s Gartersnakes in the wilds and not-so-wilds of Michigan.  For more about Megan, check out her bio at the end of the post.

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A snake in the hand is worth two in the bush…

I’m working on a research project about the Butler’s Gartersnake. As I’m currently in the writing process, it’s easiest to write ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING ELSE. So let me tell you about planning my last field season.

Studying an at-risk snake in Ontario can be challenging, due to the restrictions placed on even considering touching one. But in some ways, it’s also fairly convenient, because the province has a strong philosophy on maintaining a record of species presence. As my project mainly covers Ontario snakes, most of my field season prep consisted of drowning myself in permit applications. But we (i.e. my supervising committee) decided that it would be useful to include some American snakes from locations adjacent to the Canadian range. And thus began my quest to find Butler’s Gartersnakes in Michigan.

This quest almost immediately hit a roadblock – because there’s no database recording location information for reptiles in Michigan. And the Butler’s Gartersnake isn’t endangered there. It’s considered as much of a ‘throwaway’ species as the much more widespread Eastern Gartersnake, so even the herpetologists don’t put too much effort in recording where they’re found. I was on my own.

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The not-so-wilds of Michigan

My first step was to check maps for potential habitat. Not a good beginning. Check out the stretch of Michigan across from Southwestern Ontario on Google Earth. Half of it is taken up by the sprawl of Detroit and the rest is a patchwork of municipalities and farm fields. Not that I’m unaccustomed to that kind of layout – take away the giant urban centre, and that’s what the Ontario side of the border looks like. As much as I wish this weren’t the case, the Butler’s Gartersnake populations don’t have access to huge swaths of habitat; they eke out their existence in whatever pockets are available to them. I had to go smaller scale.

Zooming in on land features, I tried to pick out any locations that might have potential. While prairie-type habitat adjacent to water is the best, I settled for anything that might have long grass. This had no guarantee of working. It’s tricky to identify long grass. And even when satellite imagery is up to date, mowing can happen at any time. And there was another problem. Many of the most promising sites were on private land, owned by … somebody. Usually a corporation of some sort, which isn’t identified on Google and isn’t apparent in the street view. Trespassing on these sites seemed unwise. I needed to limit my search to locations that had public access, or at the very least had a name and face attached so I could request access.

Using these criteria, I had a working list of definite and possible places to check out. And this is where I learned that you never ever ever escape permits in fieldwork. The sampling permit was a gimme, again because no one there seems to care overly much about the snakes, but everyone I asked required intensive access permits. But I am nothing if not tenacious, and by the time I set out for the field I was wielding a binder full of printouts.

Once in the field, it was Google Earth all over again, with the added joy of trying to look for animals that are evolved to blend into and move quickly in grass, and have a habit of diving under said grass whenever someone walks nearby. We usually get only moments to react to their movement before they’ve vanished. And if they do get under the grass, that’s game over. A lot of grass-stained knees were acquired from diving to catch snakes.

Spot the snake...

Spot the snake: Butler’s Gartersnakes are quite good at hiding in grass!

With less than 2 weeks to work with, we started in St. Clair, Michigan and worked our way south, checking off stops on my (increasingly dubious) list. Some places that seemed like sure bets (e.g. state parks with a lot of open, grassy areas) turned up few to no Butler’s, and some “mayyyyyybes” (e.g. a mostly-mowed municipal park with a little patch of longer grass) were my only successful locations in a given region. That’s not to say that all my questionable locations were winners. We went though a lot of ‘drive in, look around, drive out.’

Some of the larger locations, particularly the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, even had site ecologists who were helped by telling us what they knew about sightings on-site. One of the best location resources was the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. They were happy to help conservation research, and gave us access to many of their locations, also suggesting which of their sites would prove most fruitful to search. Really, everyone was very nice. While checking out one of the Refuge sites, we met a farmer who was interested in what we were doing and offered us access to survey his land if we wanted. It turns out that even though Michigan lacks the ecological infrastructure that Ontario has, cooperation is always what drives successful fieldwork.

And it all worked out. I would have liked to have found more snakes (more data is never a bad thing, and what I got was not enough to study Michigan snakes as a focal population in my thesis), but I got a smattering of samples covering the stretch of land I wanted to cover. So all you really need for successful field work is months of prep, great collaborators, and a fantastic field assisstant (thanks Tori!). It’s simple really…

bio-picMegan Snetsinger is a Master’s student at Queen’s University working in Dr. Stephen Lougheed’s lab. Her research is a population ecology study, using genetic methods to determine how and why Butler’s Gartersnakes are distributed across their range. Like any geneticist, she spends a lot of time in the lab, but the real joy of the process is letting out her inner 8-year-old when running around catching snakes.

Family in the Field

Fieldwork often takes you away from home – whether it is 1 hour away for a day trip or across the country. As with your actual family, there are the good, the bad, and the ugly memories with members of your field team. Regardless of the circumstances, your field team becomes your family in the field.

They keep you company

Fieldwork can get pretty lonely, especially if you are in a remote location. At first this sounds quite appealing: you can just listen to the birds chirping and the waves crashing against the rocks without any interruption. However, it is always nice to share the experiences with someone. Even what might seem like the worst moment in the field at the time can always be laughed about later on with your field team.

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Team “BioCaliente” – Field team in the Yucatan, Mexico

Sometimes you look up to them

As Sarah tells it: Although I only spent about 3 weeks in the field with Ed*, he became like a grandfather to me. He had so much experience with fieldwork and so much wisdom. At the beginning, it took all of my strength to not just stare in awe listening to the many stories he shared. Not only did he teach me all of the skills I needed to know for the fieldwork ahead, he also shared simple life hacks. For example, he taught me the proper way to wash dishes – cutlery first (the item that goes directly in your mouth), then glasses (also touches the outside of your mouth), and finally the plates. He was able to push me to my limits but did not let me fall past them. He literally caught me at the bottom of a hill that I was sliding down! Although our lives are different at home, we were able to connect in the field and share our love of conservation and biology.

But sometimes you can’t get away from them

I think of the relationship with members of field teams like a relationship

Sarah with her best field mate

Sarah with her best field mate (and bff) experiencing the good, the bad, and the ugly (she knows what I mean!).

with a sibling – you enjoy each other’s company but spending every waking moment together can result in getting on each other’s nerves. You know each other’s schedule even down to the details you don’t necessarily want to know about! However, you don’t really have a choice. You have to have at least two people in the field for safety purposes. On the plus side, two sets of eyes are always better than one and they are often at your side to save you when you start to go a little crazy worrying about where that bird may be hiding, or maybe where you last put your water bottle.

Despite knowing every detail, they still support you

amanda_fieldwork-clothesAs Amanda tells it: One of the best things about having a field family is that you get really close really fast. You learn interesting facts about each other and because you spend so much time together day after day, you also learn about each other’s personal lives (past and present) and their goals for the future. Whether it was support or advice on a new relationship, talking about where we wanted to be in ten years, or chatting about family problems, my field family has remained one of my biggest support systems throughout graduate school. In fact, to date, I still keep in close contact with almost all of my field family and we continue to support one another as our stories continue to develop.

 

Thank you to our followers for keeping us company as we continue to share dispatches from the field from around the world!Amanda, Sarah and Catherine at the QUBS open house with their poster board

 

*name changed for the purpose of this story

 

Dressing like a woman

There’s an interesting phenomenon anyone who has spent time in a university science department has probably noticed: the epidemic of the vanishing women. If you walk into an undergraduate lab or lecture hall, many of the seats will be filled by women. If you look at the graduate students in a science department, there will still be lots of women – but maybe not quite as many. If you consider the post docs in that department, you’ll see fewer women still. And finally, if you look at the faculty, it’s almost certain that the men will far outnumber the women.

It’s a fact that there are fewer women than men in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields – even if it doesn’t always start out that way at the undergraduate level. So where are all these women going?

Detailing the many answers to that question is far beyond the scope of this post. But at least part of the problem arises from the fact that women face different challenges than men in the sciences. Some of these challenges are trivial. For example, I’m sure every female field biologist has had a moment of pure jealousy about how easy it is for men to pee in the field. Certainly all of us at Dispatches can remember frantically searching for sufficiently dense clumps of underbrush, while our male field assistants simply turned their backs and got on with things.

However, many of the challenges facing women in science are far from trivial. Being a woman in science sometimes means having to prove your competence over and over – often even to your male field assistants, colleagues, and supervisors. Being a woman in science regularly means fighting for respect in the field, in the lab, and in the world at large.

Recent political events in the United States have once again brought the topic of women in science into the public eye. And so as we here at Dispatches launch into a new year of reporting field adventures from all over the world, we thought we’d get off to a good start by focusing on an oft-neglected topic: field fashion. What does it mean to dress like a woman…in the field?

Cat

It was a muggy, hot July day in eastern Ontario. I dragged myself out of bed at the usual 5 a.m. to get myself ready for a day of trudging around fields, peering into bird boxes to check on the nestlings inside. It had been raining steadily for several days – but that morning, the sun came back with a vengeance, creating that miserable steamy humidity so characteristic of Ontario summers.

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Rocking the rubber boots and jean shorts combo.

I could tell from the moment my feet hit the floor beside my bed that it was going to be a scorcher of a day – and so I decided that I had no choice but to wear my old cut-off jean shorts (almost knee length, high waisted, trailing bits of thread as they unravelled, overall incredibly flattering). However, I realized I had another problem: the ground was still soaking wet from the days of rain. Obviously, the logical choice was to pair the jean shorts with my big, clunky black rubber boots. To complete the ensemble, I pulled an old tank top out of the pile of clothes by my bed, realizing as I did so that it was decorated with streaks of bird poop, which I decided not to worry about, since I would shortly be adding to them. I topped the whole thing off with my stupidly big floppy hat and my massively sexy binocular bra – a harness that crosses over my back and suspends my binoculars in the middle of my chest. (And yes, I fully admit that there are few things in the world as geeky as a bino bra – but what they lose in the fashion department, they more than make up for in comfort.)

As I left my room to start the day, my boss burst out laughing at the sight of me – but I’ve never felt better dressed for the day ahead.

Amanda

The problem with being a field biologist, particularly a plant community ecologist, is that I really never know exactly what to wear. In early spring, I have to wear rain gear, and a lot of it. In summer, I want to wear as little as possible, but that just doesn’t work. Long pants are necessary…always. In fact, long pants tucked into socks are all the rage, as ticks (and Lyme disease) are a real and present threat. And even when it’s sweltering, and I want to wear a tank top, there is not enough bug spray in the world to keep away the swarming deer flies in an old field. So sleeves – preferably long- are a necessity. And even on a windy day, when the flies are blissfully absent, too much exposed skin is still a bad idea, because no amount of sunscreen protects me from the heat of the July sun beating down on the back of my neck. To top it all off, to deal with the constant run-ins with thistles and wild parsnips, I usually wear rain boots to protect myself. Long pants (tucked into my socks), long sleeves, and rain boots in the sweltering July heat…quite the fieldwork outfit.

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Fall field ensemble . And yes, Jen does have a bucket on her head.

My favourite outfits, though, are the fall fieldwork outfits. Dressed in layers to keep warm, covered in rain gear, and then decked out in bright orange so no one mistakes me for a deer. Hats and toques (at the same time, of course) are also a must, as they keep the sun and rain off my face, and also keep my head warm. And of course, I still have my pants tucked into my socks.  But at least I complement the fall colours nicely. That’s some serious fieldwork fashion!

 

Sarah

As a first time field biologist, whose training to date had been exclusively in the lab, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I headed out to the west coast of Canada to sample seabirds. Everything I heard regarding the weather in northern British Columbia included the words “dreary” and “wet”. In addition, since I was going in early spring, I was expecting it to be cold as well.

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Take that, “cold, dreary, wet” BC!!

I wanted to make sure I was prepared for the type of weather I was likely to encounter…but some might say I was overprepared. This is a picture of me on my first day: I was wearing two pairs of socks, rain boots, two pairs of pants, rain pants, 3 shirts, a rain coat, a thicker rain over jacket (of heavy plastic), a toque, mitts, and a lifejacket (safety first!). My ‘feminine curves’ were well and truly hidden from view!

Luckily, all of the rain gear protected me from the rain and the waves splashing over the side of the boat on our way to the island. However, the rest of my time there featured beautiful, warm weather with lots of sunshine. Needless to say, traversing the cliffs of remote islands wasn’t too easy in all of that gear and the layers came off one by one.

 

So what’s the take-home message of these stories? Well, for one thing, it’s pretty certain that none of us will be getting a job at the White House any time soon.

However, there’s another message as well. The start of a new year here at Dispatches seemed like a good time to reflect on why we started this blog in the first place. First and foremost, we wanted to give field scientists a place to share stories about the places they love.

But we also developed Dispatches because all three of us are women in the sciences who love what we do. We hope that by sharing our passion for fieldwork and science, we might provide a bit of inspiration to young women starting out in science, and do our small part to combat the epidemic of the vanishing women.

Dispatches from 2016

Well, another year has come and gone. 2016 took us lots of places and was filled to the brim with adventures in the field. We started the year off chasing the mighty elf owl in Arizona, and followed up with talk of butterflies and bats.  Our first story from Ecuador then surfaced – Alpaca my bags – but we didn’t stay there long as we headed right back to Canada – this time to check out some salmon along the east coast.

As the spring began, we got sprayed with bear spray, and then had not one, but two battles with everyone’s favourite beefy animal.  We pictured the tides in Haida Gwaii, imagined guppies splashing around in Trinidad, and felt a little “tipsy” in the Adirondacks.

We spent summer in the redwoods, but took a couple of stops in Yellowstone, and White Salmon. In the fall we hit Costa Rica,  played with some honeybees and had an awesome Thanksgiving meal in Alaska.

Our most sincere thanks to everyone who contributed to those blogs featured here and the MANY other posts we had in 2016. Of course, thanks to everyone who read our blog and we promise more exciting stories in 2017. We are very excited to see what the new year brings!

Amanda, Catherine & Sarah

Strategies to find and grow the smallest possible plant

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting the Canadian Galapagos

“Our culture is born of respect, and intimacy with the land and sea and the air around us. Like the forests, the roots of our people are intertwined such that the greatest troubles cannot overcome us. We owe our existence to Haida Gwaii. The living generation accepts the responsibility to ensure that our heritage is passed on to following generations.”                                       -Council of the Haida Nation

One common theme in posts on this blog is you really get to know a place intimately. This is certainly true – but if you’re lucky, not only do you get to fully explore the outdoor habitats where the fieldwork is taking place, you also get a chance to immerse yourself in a different culture.

When I first started my master’s, I gave a talk about my research titled “Why a pipeline should not be built to the west coast”. I had just come back from my fieldwork in Haida Gwaii and I couldn’t believe that there was a proposal to build a pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to Kitimat, BC. This would inevitably bring oil tankers into the waters surrounding Haida Gwaii. I’ve been there. I’ve walked among the enormous sitka spruce and towering red cedar. I’ve heard the dawn chorus of the songbirds and noted the already declining occupancy of seabird nests. I’ve felt the spray from a humpback whale’s blowhole. I’ve been there and I have felt the magic of Haida Gwaii. I couldn’t believe that if this project was approved, it could lead to devastation of the precious habitats. Luckily, we heard this week that the Canadian government has rejected the Northern Gateway project (you can read more about the approval in this CBC article). A big player influencing the rejection of this project was the Haida Nation themselves. This I can believe. During my time on Haida Gwaii, I also learned a great deal about the Haida culture and their views on conservation.

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The Haida Nation live on the islands that make up Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the coast of northern British Columbia. As is evident from the Haida Proclamation (above), the Haida Nation are intimately linked with their surrounding natural environment and work hard to conserve it.

bc-field-work-254In fact, the Proclamation sounds as if it could have come from a field biologist! Much of their efforts towards preservation of the natural world has been documented through storytelling in art form. For example, the Haida people carve different animals and items into wood totem poles to tell stories and teach lessons. These teachings are passed on from generation to generation – and some even turn into places for new generations to start (check out one of my previous posts about nurse logs). Even today, poles are carved with stories by community members and carried by many hands to the designated spot.

Haida peoples carrying a totem pole

Haida people carrying the 42ft Legacy Pole – unfortunately I couldn’t go to the ceremony as my flight was leaving that afternoon but I did manage to sneak this picture.

Not only do the Haida people share traditional knowledge from past generations, they also care about protecting the environment for future generations. The Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve protects the southern half of the archipelago, which is home to 39 distinct subspecies (7 mammals, 3 birds, and 15 stickleback fish species) endemic to Haida Gwaii. You cannot find these variants anywhere else! It is because of these endemic species that Haida Gwaii is often referred to as the Canadian Galapagos.

If I haven’t managed to convince you that Haida Gwaii is a beautiful place teeming with interesting wildlife and vegetation, I hope that this at least makes you think twice about the consequences of potential habitat destruction. Today I am happy to say that Haida Gwaii itself and the Haida Nation that has fought for its preservation will be thankful for the rejection of the Northern Gateway project. However, with other pipeline proposals being approved, I can only hope that there are stewards of the land willing to stand up for the natural and cultural world.

A Thanksgiving meal, right out of the field

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

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

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

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

Our Potato Greenhouse getting started.

Our Potato Greenhouse getting started.

 A bucket of Romanesco that was measured for Broccoli Trials.

A bucket of Romanesco that was measured for Broccoli Trials.

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

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

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

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

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

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