The great stadium

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we are excited to welcome back guest blogger Adam Meyer, who is completing his MSc in Biology at Queen’s and who tells us about some of his experiences observing and being observed by nature.

As an aspiring scientist I often fancy myself to be some great observer of nature, and I do this in what I consider to be grand fashion (sometimes with robots!). In the pursuit of knowledge I will rudely send some clunky collection device crashing through the water and haul zooplankton out of their world and into mine. I do this so I can observe them closely for their size, reproduction and, over time, their behaviour. But when you’re so dead-set on observing and understanding nature, picking it apart for its precious details, you can sometimes forget that for all the time you spend in the field, nature also observes you. This isn’t a zoo, after all. There’s no one-way mirror for us to hide behind safely as we observe the outdoors. When you’re in the field, you observe and are observed. I don’t know if the fuzzy and feathery members of the Frontenac community actually “study” us per se, but they certainly observe and they almost certainly form opinions.

I came to feel this way over the course of my field season at QUBS last summer. I had many interactions with this community that made me feel utterly observed. For instance, one bright July day my field assistant Marcus and I were walking back from Round Lake (where I did the majority of my observing) and we happened to see a beautiful Barred Owl fly right across the path before losing it in the trees. We were of course compelled to try to find it again and so began “stealthily” stalking through the woods, our eyes toward the canopy, scanning the branches for the grey-brown lump of the owl. We actually managed to find it again! There it was, perched on a high branch, starring plainly back at us. I was almost embarrassed. I immediately felt silly for “stalking” around as it was obvious the bird had been keenly watching us the whole time, and probably long before it allowed us to catch a glimpse of it.

An interaction like this with an owl was a treat for me last summer, but I also had daily interactions with other busybodies of the animal community. The loons on Round Lake are a good example. Spending the majority of my time on the lake allowed me to observe the loons behaving in all sorts of interesting ways. I looked forward to witnessing their eccentric calling and dancing across the lake, and even their early morning flight from Round Lake to somewhere else (it takes a loon a full aerial lap around Round Lake to get high enough to clear the tree line (cool!) and they did this every morning I was there). Unfortunately, my fondness for the loons was not reciprocated. This was made abundantly clear when they would passive-aggressively relieve themselves 10-15 feet away from the floating dock where we worked. This happened several times a day, every day, and was the only time they would ever come so close. Nice.

Centre stage: the dock at Round Lake

Centre stage: the dock at Round Lake

But for all of these lovely and personal interactions, I have never felt more observed by nature than during my 12 hour nightly sampling sessions on Round Lake. That’s because on a clear July night, Round Lake becomes a stadium and you’re standing in the centre. The flat lake is like the stadium floor, and the dock is like a stage. The stars in the sky, brightest at the top and fainter near the horizon, form a great dome all around you. Eventually the moon comes out and blasts the stadium with light, casting midnight shadows over the water. On the shore you can see a great blurring of shapes and dark colours that make up the audience with the whooing and hahhing of wind through the trees as their voice. The hundreds of blasts of firefly luminescence on the shore are like the flashes of cameras as the first pitch is thrown at the World Series or the Olympic torch is trotted out in Vancouver. Sometimes we even had hecklers, as the yips and cackles of coyotes echoed across the lake. I spent several long nights working at the centre of the stadium, on the stage, hauling water and sampling zooplankton, fighting with robots and munching on peanut butter sandwiches. Everybody watching. Observing.

The audience, watching from the cliffs.

The audience, watching from the cliffs.

My very first night in the stadium was undoubtedly the hardest. After what was otherwise a gorgeous July day, the clouds rolled in as the sun was setting, creating what must have been one of the darkest nights of the year. Even on cloudy nights it is usually possible to somewhat see what you’re doing, but that night was so dark that I could only see what was directly under the dim red light of my headlamp. I would look over at Marcus from time to time and see only his red light moving about in the dark.

We began the night in fine spirits but I quickly developed a nagging anxiety about a thunderstorm that was brewing on the horizon. If we were forced off of the lake for an extended period this would ruin the time resolution of the 24 hour sample. We would have to start all over another day.

After a few hours of sampling, I moved into a good rhythm with my Schindler trap hauls and my mind began to drift. Somewhere in between worrying about the storm, worrying about the project and daydreaming about breakfast I forgot the importance of stable footing when pulling heavy things out of the water. I proceeded to to slip on the wet edge of the dock and topple head over heels into the water, gracefully hitting the dock on the way down. My first thought was something close to “this is how it ends” but I quickly emerged from the cold darkness into a warmer one I could breathe in. By now, Marcus had rushed over to help and soon I was standing on the dock, peeling off my sopping wet clothes and mourning my now very dead ipod. It was at that moment that the sky opened up (of course), and the downpour began. I threw on my rain gear but there was almost no point. I was already soaked to the bone and would stay that way as it rained steadily for the next ten hours. Yep. Ten hours. We were wet, we were cold, and we were all too aware that an imminent thunderstorm or our soaked and rapidly disintegrating field notes could make all our efforts useless. We managed to keep our spirits high by laughing at just how hard it was still raining, and thankfully the thunder passed us by around 3:30 a.m.

That night was completely exhausting and we never had a night quite like that again. In fact, I almost exclusively had clear nights throughout the rest of the summer. The stadium had approved. When the sun came up at 5 a.m. that morning it was as if we’d been given Caesar’s symbolic thumbs up. I was allowed to continue observing, and so would they.

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After a long, hard night…approval from the stadium!

I will admit to having a wild imagination that can get the best of me from time to time. But after returning to the lab after my field season I’ve kept that sense of being observed. If you’re walking through the woods and you feel like you’re being watched, you are. By nature’s busybodies. Maybe keeping that in mind can help us remember to be better neighbours.

20150603_141040Adam will soon be finishing his MSc at Queen’s University studying aquatic ecology and maintenance of behavioural diversity in zooplankton.  Originally from Keswick, Ontario, Adam completed his BSc at McGill University in Montreal. There he worked on a variety of systems in the museum, in the lab and in the field, including evolutionary rescue in microbial communities, hadrosaurus fossil preparation and plant-insect interactions. He spends most of his conscious hours pondering biological diversity, frowning at R scripts, playing music, and daydreaming.

A Love of Organisms

We are thrilled to welcome Adam Meyer, an MSc student at Queen’s University to the blog today. Read all about his love of organisms below! For more about Adam, check out the end of this post!

Finally! That is what I’m thinking as I traverse the winding trail towards my study lake on field day #1. After 8 months of lab-based tinkering, failed and re-designed mesocosm prototypes and the scorching of a permanent GOOGLE SCHOLAR tattoo on the back of my retinas, I’m finally back in the world of the living! EVERYTHING IS ALIVE! MUAHHAHAHAHA!

Sorry. It was a long winter, ok?

I think spring is a special time for all Canadians. We’re reunited with the chirps of robins and chickadees and the refreshing smell of wet dirt and grasses. Not to mention the Sun’s much anticipated return to working at least regular business hours. We all appreciate these changes, but as an aspiring biologist I can’t help but feel an extra pulse of giddiness as I hike through the newly green Ontario forest towards my site on Round Lake. It’s real. This thing, this place that I’ve been reading about and planning for and picturing for months is real, and it’s wild! This sense of elation at being back in nature after a long winter of simply reading (albeit a lot) about ecology caused me to reflect on a bit of advice given by my undergraduate supervisor, Dr. Graham Bell.

Upon being asked by a student newspaper what he felt every biology student should take from his or her education, he responded,

“I think a love of organisms. Just liking, and being interested in the organism. I see that as being a bit of a shortcoming in many of the classes that I teach.People tend to think in terms of concepts. In ecology, people are interested in population regulation or invasive species or whatever, or in molecular biology they’ll be interested in particular pathways of development or transmission. But I think that a feeling for the organism is really important to a biologist.”

I like this bit of wisdom for a couple of reasons. First, while it is something that stuck with me, it’s also something that I didn’t really understand until now. I work in the Nelson Lab at Queen’s University, which is a lab for experimental and theoretical population biology. I study maintenance of diversity using Daphnia (a small aquatic crustacean) in Round Lake and as I’m sure you can tell, I absolutely love the outdoors. Despite my motivations, when I began my new M.Sc project and found myself (necessarily) navigating through a vast ocean of population biology literature for months at a time, a disconnect formed between the theory I was reading and the natural world. I found that by (again, necessarily) breaking down an ecological system into its bits and pieces and going through the logic of the biological question, I began to see the organisms not as animals but as “units” being pushed and pulled through the world by this force or that factor. The logical problem was interesting, but where was the love of organisms? I see this as a trap for population biologists, and a strange place to be for a field that I feel is ultimately rooted in just how freaking cool organisms are, and how their interactions shape life on this planet. So, this advice stands out to me for making me aware of this disconnect, even before I had experienced it.

The second reason why I continue to enjoy Dr. Bell’s insight is because I have a ready solution for evading the trap. Do field work! There is no surer way of rekindling a love of organisms than by hanging out with them for 4 or 5 months. On any given day, just on the way between QUBS and my study site, I may see deer, turkeys, black rat snakes, painted turtles, snapping turtles, owls, turkey vultures, loons, thousands of dragon flies, blue herons and a million other living things that would be ridiculous to try to list here. I can’t study all of these organisms this summer, but getting to see them is exhilarating, incredibly motivating and a reminder as to why this is all so important.

I’m not saying that everyone has to do fieldwork. It isn’t for everybody and there is important work to be done elsewhere. I understand that, but I also see a pressing need to keep population biology, a field that is steeped in theory and modeling, connected to the natural world and a love for the organism in a way that is meaningful to those that do the work. For me, doing fieldwork up at QUBS is a surefire way of preserving this connection and reminding me of just how much more there is to know about our environment. Hopefully, everyone can find some time to get out and enjoy our fellow organisms!

 

Adam completed his B.Sc in biology at McGill University in 2013 and began his M.Sc in the department of biology at Queen’s University later that year. He is interested in the mechanisms maintaining diversity at fine spatial scales. His current project examines the role of strong environmental gradients in maintaining phenotypic diversity in freshwater zooplankton.