These boots are made for walking

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest blogger Sian Green, who shares some stories about her ‘fieldwork style’.  For more about Sian, check out her bio at the end of the post.

For my 21st birthday I wanted what all girls want…a new pair of shoes! I got my wish and, although they were somewhat lacking in heels and glitter, since then they have taken me all over the world and been an essential part of my fieldwork outfit for nearly 5 years now. When you’re on your feet and walking long distances day after day, a good, comfortable pair of boots can make a big difference!

My poor, finally beaten, boots.

My poor, finally beaten, boots.

My boots have travelled with me to Costa Rica, Tanzania and Kenya; however, sadly, during my last expedition to Romania, while trekking the Carpathian foothills in search of large mammals, they walked their last mile. Having been soaked in the dewy grass every morning then baked by the fierce Transylvanian summer sun every afternoon, they finally fell apart.

In memory of my favourite pair of shoes, I thought I would share some of the most memorable moments I had whilst wearing them out in the field.

Scariest moment: After graduating from my BSc in Zoology, I wanted to get some more field experience. I decided to volunteer on a project in Costa Rica, working in a remote camp in the jungle, right next to a turtle nesting beach. At night we would go out along the beach to monitor the turtles, recording condition and taking shell measurements, as well as marking locations of new nests. On one night we saw a turtle about to start digging her nest. Not wanting to disturb her at this crucial point, we walked on and spotted another turtle about 25 meters up the beach. She had finished laying her eggs, so we set to work measuring her shell. I should mention at this point that it is important to use minimal light, and only red light on torches, so as not to disturb the turtles, meaning visibility was limited. Anyway, having finished measuring our turtle, we turned back to see if the first turtle had finished her nest…only to find her carcass lying on the beach surrounded by large jaguar tracks! This silent hunter had made a kill a few metres away from us in the dark and was surely now watching us from the forest edge…possibly annoyed by having been disturbed from its dinner. Needless to say, we moved on quickly and kept in a tight group at a healthy distance from the forest edge after that!

A green turtle carcass. Jaguar predation of turtles seems to be on the rise, and is being monitored in Costa Rica.

A green turtle carcass. Jaguar predation of turtles seems to be on the rise, and is being monitored in Costa Rica.

Proudest moment: I am very proud of all the fieldwork I have done, in particular my work in Kenya I undertook as part of my own independent research project for my Masters thesis. Of course, I am proud of my thesis, but sometimes it’s the little things that really stick in your memory. To study the elephants using the Mount Kenya Elephant Corridor, I set up a grid of camera traps. I would regularly trek through the corridor to check the cameras, aided and guided by rangers from the Mount Kenya Trust. I am tremendously grateful to these extremely helpful rangers… but they were sometimes almost too helpful, insisting on doing all the climbing and retrieving of awkwardly-placed cameras. After a couple of expeditions, my confidence grew and I started to feel I needed to prove a point – that I could climb trees just as well as they could! At one point this did result in me being up a tree covered in biting ants while playing it cool and pretending I was totally fine – but mentally questioning whether it was worth it to prove my point! But one very satisfying moment came when a ranger was unable to unlock one of the padlocks attaching our camera to a tree. I asked if he wanted me to try but he said no and called over one of the other rangers, who also failed to get the key to budge. Ignoring me, they called over a third (male) ranger. While they were discussing the problem, I went over, gave the key a jiggle and the lock popped straight open! They were all very impressed and claimed that I must be very strong. I think it was more about technique than strength, but I wasn’t about to correct them!

Positioning camera traps to catch elephant images, while keeping them out the way of curious hyenas!

Positioning camera traps to catch elephant images, while keeping them out the way of curious hyenas!

Most rewarding moments: All surveys are important, even when you don’t find what you are looking for. In fact, the latter type of survey can sometimes be the most important, as if you don’t find what you are expecting it may indicate a decline in population, or lack of accurate understanding of a species’ biology. This is what I would explain to all the volunteers I led on large mammal surveys when working in Transylvania. However, there is no denying that it is hugely rewarding when your hours of trekking up steep slopes result in finding a beautiful trail of perfect brown bear prints, or when that early start results in getting to see your (normally elusive) study species. Working in Transylvania was incredible, as we found signs and got camera trap footage of many elusive mammals, including martens, badgers, foxes, wild boar, wildcat and brown bear – and I even got to see a brown bear!

European brown bear tracks found while out on survey in rural Transylvania.

European brown bear tracks found while out on survey in rural Transylvania.

This fieldwork was also particularly rewarding because I got to share my knowledge and experience with the volunteers that came out. Teaching camera trapping skills and seeing how excited everyone got when we checked the memory cards was a great feeling. Hopefully some of these volunteers will go on to use the knowledge further on their own fieldwork adventures – and hopefully they will remember to pack a good pair of shoes!

Sian completed her undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Reading and her Master’s by Research with the University of Southampton and Marwell Wildlife studying elephants in a wildlife corridor in Kenya. She loves to travel and explore new places – and if she gets to put up a few camera traps all the better! Her fieldwork has taken her to Costa Rica, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, and Romania; however, she is now back in Devon, UK looking to move on to a PhD and camera trapping any innocent animals that pass by! She can be found on Twitter at @SianGreen92.

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What would a real field work resume look like?

This week Dispatches from the Field is happy to welcome back Emily Williams, who polled some of her friends and colleagues on what their real fieldwork resume would say. Read more about Emily at the end of her post!

While every career on the planet probably has its own idiosyncrasies and oddities, some careers have more than most. I’d wager that many people in the science field could easily give Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs a run for his money. From negotiating with a monkey over jungle space to place invertebrate light traps, to diving several meters through a slurry of whale poop, the pursuit of scientific knowledge doesn’t always occur in a shiny and bright ivory tower.

Many of the routine tasks we do and techniques we employ as field biologists would give pause to and cause discomfort for many. A majority of those same tasks and techniques, because of their nature, are not included in the carefully crafted methods sections of manuscripts, or the protocols of field manuals. Moreover, they are also usually not fit to appear on professional resumes or be discussed in detail during an interview.

I’ve often wondered what a field work resume would really look like, if we were to be completely honest about the skills we’ve gained from the myriad experiences we’ve had as field biologists. Most of us are well versed in eloquently stating our know-how working in “adverse conditions” such as extreme heat or cold, along with biting or stinging insects, alone and in remote conditions. Most of us, however, are not as versed in honestly detailing the unique skillsets we learn on the job.

In a scientifically inquisitive spirit, I posed this question to many of my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances:  if you were to write your resume without having to be professional and could be completely honest about the tasks you did and conditions you lived in, what would you say?

I have compiled their answers here, written in traditional resume fashion.

THE REAL FIELD WORK RESUME

  • Excels at three-dimensional tetris, most notably in small vehicles
  • Demonstrated ability to use bandannas in a multitude of ways and for various purposes
  • Ability to control levels of teeth chattering when sitting for hours in blinds at -30°C
  • Ability to live in harmony with various groups of black flies and mosquitoes constantly in face and near body

    full body bug suit

    Wrench in one hand, bucket in the other, topped off with a head-to-toe bug suit and muck boots. Just another day in detritus–filled, smelly, muddy paradise.

  • Ability to play beer hockey using water instead of beer
  • Ability to build drones out of foam, hot glue, bamboo skewers, and paint sticks, then proceed to fly them at large flocks of blackbirds on crop fields
  • Adaptable to fluctuating levels and availability of caffeine
  • Fondness for early mornings, late evenings, working at all hours of the day, and overtime
  • Skilled at pooping outdoors (you wouldn’t believe how many times this was listed!)
  • Skilled at peeing off of wooden platforms/boats/planes
  • Adept at constructing mist-net poles out of bamboo and liana vines

Our kitchen and food supply for 5 months. Getting crafty with potatoes, beans, and rice is a necessary on-the-job skill.

  • Inventive when coming up with >10 ways to eat lentils and beans
  • Demonstrated ability using gorilla tape to keep capuchins from accessing food stores
  • Demonstrated ability problem solving with ridding housing of resident bats without causing harm to anyone involved
  • Skilled at intuitively cutting onions to crew’s preferences
  • Fluent in sweet-talking foxes who have taken up residence on archaeological sites
  • Have perfected excavation of the 30 cm diameter multi-utility hole
  • Well versed in the art of extracting ticks from myself and others

    Home for 5 months. No running water, no electricity, no soft, comfy bed.

  • Competent at estimating the size of mouse population adjacent to field cot using 5-gallon peanut butter traps. Reduction in population estimates were used to determine the likelihood of contracting Hanta Virus or risk of rattlesnake bites
  • Adept at turning PB & J into three months of delicious cuisine
  • Knows exactly what sending electricity through water feels like going through the human body (e.g., too many falls in streams when electrofishing)
  • Skilled at identifying animals on dark forested roads using eye shine (i.e., whip-poor-will lifeguard certification)
  • Amateur tight-rope (downed slash pine) walker
  • Skilled at handling animals under various amounts of fecal matter
  • Skilled at rolling up broken tape measures
  • Adept at maintaining top hiking pace while removing and stowing jacket with backpack still attached
  • Used to being damp 24/7

    The nature of field work is that often, things do not go as planned. In this case, not only did the main field site burn down (not on purpose), but the second main field site then did, and then the ALTERNATE field site (third time’s a charm, right?!) also went ablaze. Bye bye, data! How does this translate to a transferable skill? –Skilled at having no expectations and being adaptable to anything goes.

  • Adept at sharing living quarters with rodents, both living and deceased
  • Adept at dealing with exposure to permanent fish smell
  • Possesses indestructible gut biota due to frequent consumption of unrefrigerated leftovers
  • Development of diverse and unique personal hygiene techniques
  • Demonstrated ability to work under pressure while being excreted upon and repeatedly smacked in the head by thousands of screaming birds
  • Demonstrated ability to extract a variety of broken down or barely-running trucks from remote locations, in all weather conditions
  • Adept at splinting the legs of songbirds injured in mist-nets
  • Adept at getting chainsaw stuck, then guarding stuck chainsaw through the night, while waiting for back up
  • Skilled at getting stuck chainsaws unstuck
  • Skilled at coordinated movement through tall, stabby marsh vegetation, as well as extrication from potholes in said marsh
  • Skilled at running towards mist-nets in tall vegetation while waving long sticks
  • Proficient at hurling profanities at butterflies and their predators
  • Experienced at doing public outreach activities in youth hostels while feeding butterflies in the common areas
  • Skilled at shaving fox necks (may be transferable to human haircuts)
  • Adept at advanced choreography in tussock habitat
  • Proficient at scaring eagles from landfills
  • Well versed in identifying birds at 40 mph
  • Proficient at endurance swabbing of goose throats and cloacas
  • Skilled at chasing cattle from camp and study sites

    Devising a plan to avert an imminent cow invasion of unsuspecting and innocent grassland bird nests .

  • Adept at persuading police officers to not perform arrest while searching for injured birds
  • Well versed at rendering human fat tissue for stable isotope analysis
  • Experienced at playing cat and mouse around a tree with a pissed off moose that wants nothing more than to squash you into humanoid jelly
  • Skilled at running from one end of boat to the other to remove stuck boat from underwater stump
  • Adept at removing rotting fish from net and eating lunch immediately thereafter
  • Proficient of walking 10+ miles on the beach trying to outrun a thunderstorm (while noting as many birds as possible)
  • Skilled at writing legible numbers on mammals with a small paint brush and black hair dye
  • Inventive in turning found trash into boat identification symbols
  • Experience accidentally tasting what digested fish Long Island Sound had to offer Common Terns at least once for four summers
  • Well versed in using ice cream to prevent field crew mutinies
  • Experienced at at politely nodding while listening to wide-ranging, uncomfortably long diatribes about “the government” from every hiker/commercial fisherman/rancher you meet
  • Proficient at staying zen through thousands of insect bites

    Ah, the joys of field work: insect bites on every part of your body.

  • Skilled at spotting road-killed hummingbirds at ~65 mph
  • Highly adept at avoiding trampling by large bovines
  • Skilled at tracking down falcon pellets from ~20 m away
  • Skilled at wrestling and wrangling 30 lb condors in pitch black, cramped enclosures with minimal personal bloodshed
  • Effective at removal of multiple rigs stuck in sand pits, snow banks, and mud hollows, both independently and with a partner
  • Adept at securing >50 lb carcasses to the ground in under 2 min per body, under cover of night in all weather conditions
  • Experienced at piercing wings and attaching “wing-bling” ID tags to patagials of >300 vultures with a flinch reaction of <5%

I give huge thanks to all of the people who contributed to the above list, which is not exhaustive. These bullet points do not even scratch the surface of the unique and varied skillsets field biologists acquire over their careers.

Job recruiting websites always stress how resumes must showcase maximum wow factor. If any of the above were included on a resume, they would do more than drop a few jaws.

If you were to be completely honest, what would your resume look like?

Emily Williams works as an Avian Ecologist at Denali National Park and Preserve. Emily’s Emily Williamsresearch focuses on the behavior, migration, and ecology of birds. While she now works among the boreal forests of Alaska chasing Gray Jays, she has been lucky to work with many taxa among different ecosystems worldwide.

Twitter: @wayfaringwilly

Website: emilyjwilliams.weebly.com

contact: ffyngau@gmail.com

 

The things we do…

My advisor has always maintained that a field crew runs on its stomach.  In other words, well-fed field assistants are much happier and much more productive – not to mention much less likely to mutiny.

There is no doubt that this is true.  Trying to run a field crew without an adequate supply of coffee, chocolate, or wine is an enterprise doomed to failure.  But – at the risk of disagreeing with my advisor – I would argue that food alone is not enough.

Spending time in the field often leads to awe-inspiring experiences, like the moment when you come face to face with a lynx or watch a fierce lightning storm at sea from the safety of a remote island.  But in between those moments, if we’re being honest, field work can be pretty tedious.

And if it’s tedious as a graduate student – when your entire thesis depends on the data you collect – it’s a hundred times more tedious for your assistants.  Field assistants are expected to work long hours, rain or shine, for weeks on end without a break.  So as a boss, keeping morale up can be a huge challenge, and when you have a chance to provide some fun for your assistants, you really have to take it.

And that, in a nutshell, is how I ended up lugging a dead beaver up a mountain.

 

Let’s back up a step, so I can set the scene.  It was the first field season of my PhD, and my field assistant and I had spent half of January driving across a large chunk of the continent, ending up at an old, somewhat isolated house in the southern Okanagan Valley.  The house was large, drafty, and empty, and our days were spent trekking through the snow and waiting around in the cold in a (largely futile) attempt to catch bluebirds.  Every night, we came home, made dinner, and then went to sleep.  It was not the kind of field work you write home about.

Our cozy field home in the Okanagan.

But my field assistant – being a nature-loving type – was prepared to make his own fun.  He had brought with him a game camera, which he intended to mount on a tree to take automatic motion capture pictures of the local wildlife.  During our first week in BC, he trekked up the mountain behind our house and spent hours looking for the perfect spot to leave it – hoping to capture a black bear or maybe even an elusive mountain lion.

Unfortunately, when he went back a week later, the camera had not taken a single photo.  Undaunted, he decided that the logical course of action was to use bait.  At first, he contented himself with scraps from our kitchen, hiking up the mountain regularly to drop them in front of the camera.  And indeed, the camera did capture photos of the occasional crow or raven checking out his offerings.  But no bear or cougar appeared, much to his disappointment.  He started talking about finding something better to bait the camera with.

And then – lo and behold – as we returned home one grey winter afternoon, he spotted the ‘perfect’ bait.  A dead beaver lay at the side of the road right beside our driveway, the clear victim of a fast-moving vehicle.

My field assistant was completely ecstatic, but I wasn’t entirely convinced: I couldn’t help but wonder if the sudden appearance of a beaver halfway up a mountain, several kilometers away from any water, might be more puzzling than enticing for any lurking bears or cougars.

But then I thought about how limited opportunities for fun had been so far.  And I thought about how excited he was.  And – against my better judgement – I found myself offering to help him lug the beaver up to his camera.

The first step was to wrestle the body into a garbage bag, to facilitate transport.  But this was not a small beaver, and coaxing it into the bag was…challenging.  By the time all of its limbs had been stuffed inside, I was sweating – and starting to regret my offer.

Then we started up the hill, each grasping one end of the bag.  It rapidly became apparent that beavers are not particularly light animals.  We staggered along, panting, the thin plastic slipping out of our awkward grasp frequently.

We hadn’t made it more than a few hundred yards before we concluded that another approach was required.  We decided the best approach was to take turns dragging the beaver.  Of course, the side of a mountain isn’t known for smooth passage, and the garbage bag – never particularly sturdy – became progressively more torn and tattered as we struggled towards our destination.  A paw appeared out one corner; a glimpse of tail was visible through another rip.

In the end, our gruesome task took us almost two hours.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to drop something as I was to let go of that bag when we finally reached the camera.

And the result of all this work?  Well, as far as I can remember (although to be honest, I’ve tried pretty hard to block the memory out), the camera failed to capture a single animal coming to check out the beaver; indeed, when my assistant climbed the mountain a week later, the body was still completely undisturbed.

But hey.  At least I got to feel like a good boss.

Oversized survival suit

At the end of this summer, one of my supervisors said he was coming to town and

Double-crested cormorants on perches on an island.

asked if I wanted to help him collect cormorant eggs on small islands in Lake Ontario. Since the double-crested cormorant is a species that I spend a lot of time studying in the lab, I jumped at the chance to get out in the field again.

Despite it being August, the depth and breadth of Lake Ontario results in the water still being very chilly. So for safety and comfort, the field team donned survival suits. These are essentially bright orange onesies that are meant to keep you both dry and warm, especially if you were immersed in cold water. If you google “survival suit” you will see what I mean. Unfortunately, I do not have any pictures because I could hardly move, let alone take out a camera.

two survival suits

Survival suit hanging to dry after a boat ride in the Pacific Ocean.

I am no stranger to survival suits, having worn them when I was looking for seabirds in Haida Gwaii. Based on my few experiences, I am convinced that survival suits only come in size Large and Extra-Large. I understand they are designed to be large enough to fit over your warm field clothes. However, when I met my supervisor this time, it seemed that all the large survival suits were taken and all that was left was an extra-extra-large one. The boot was so large that I could fit my foot in with hiking shoes, and I still had room to move around! Survival suits normally do not allow you much movement, but this one was bunched so much around my body and neck that I could hardly turn left or right (good thing I wasn’t driving!). I even had to use my arms to pick up my feet to step over field gear on the boat!

Trying to stay in good spirits and not embarrass myself, I volunteered to get off the boat to collect the eggs on the island. You can probably imagine this was not an easy task! Have you ever jumped into a big puddle with rain boots on?

One of the islands we visited.

To me, it feels like how I would imagine walking on the moon feels like – the extra air in the boots prevent you from actually touching the ground making balance very tricky.

 

The boat could only drift in a few meters from shore so after a couple wobbly steps on uneven rocks trying not to fall into the water, I was relieved to make it onto land. For more mobility, I unzipped the top half of my survival suit and attempted to tie the arms around my waste. Carrying the heavy pelican case to hold the eggs in one hand, and holding onto the survival suit with the other, I managed to drag my feet to waddle across the island to the cormorant nests.

juvenile cormorant asking for food

“Who are you?!”

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.

20161005_164110

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.

DSC_0895.JPG

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.

 

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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!

Yes, those boring safety training sessions are important

Dispatches from the field is happy to welcome Katie Grogan, a postdoctoral fellow to share a post this week about a scary field safety lesson! Check out the end of the post for more about Katie.

The second scariest moment of field work I ever experienced happened basically on campus, exactly one mile from our lab and office.

Caught in the mist net. Photo by JRM.

Some people may argue that catching sparrows in downtown Atlanta in the morning, spending a few hours working in the lab in the afternoon, and sleeping in your own bed every night doesn’t qualify as “true” field work – no airplanes, hours in a truck, or having to sleep in tents. But I completely disagree. Any activity that forces you to get out of bed at 3 am in December, and sit staring at a mist-net in a cold field for at least 6 hours, freezing and exhausted, is absolutely field work*.

White-throated sparrow. Photo by JRM.

The reason for this field work is one of the major projects in my postdoctoral lab at Emory University, studying how genetic variation underlies variation in behaviors like aggression or parenting. To do this, we catch wild white-throated sparrows during their fall migration south and bring them into the lab for behavioral testing. The white-throated sparrow, common throughout North America, is an incredibly interesting bird (See this Nature News Feature!) and uniquely suited for this kind of study because of its two behavioral phenotypes: the more aggressive white morph and the less aggressive tan morph.

We catch the birds using mist-nets set up in a field near campus in November and December, an activity that seems fairly low risk apart from some occasional frostbite. However, in order to set up the mist-nets, ‘lanes’ must be cleared through the field so that tree branches and brush don’t snag the nets. We clear these lanes using a machete, and therein lies my story.

The field site.

There are typically no ‘rules’ for doing field work, except to collect your samples without doing anything too dangerous or illegal. But doing local field work a mile from our lab, rather than traveling to Costa Rica or Madagascar, obviously lulled me into complacency, because a safety briefing was the last thing on my mind that sunny afternoon in early November.

For starters, although I have accumulated months of field work in multiple countries, I was relatively new in the lab and I had never caught birds before. Marmots, howler monkeys, and lemurs, yes, but not birds. So who was I to speak up? Like in so many of my previous field experiences, I was the one in training, not the one training other people. Also, this was Atlanta! In the Rocky Mountains, we worried about bears and lightning strikes; in Costa Rica it was heat stroke (or having a monkey fall on you); and in Madagascar it was rocks in the food and stomach problems from ingesting any unfiltered water. But in Atlanta, what was there really to worry about? Basically, I was worried about bugs, twisting an ankle, and being hungry, but not about potential trips to the emergency room. Big mistake.

Grad student with a machete. Photo by KEG.

I realized the severity of this mistake when I looked up from moving freshly cut branches out of the lane to see our machete swinging with wild abandon less than a foot from the head and torso of our newest graduate student, whose back was turned.

I froze in horror, visions of dismemberment flashing before my eyes. Then I sprang into action. Yelling at the machete swinger, I leaped forward to pull the student away from their peril. No one was hurt, nothing happened…but the potential danger of that situation made my heart virtually stop in terror.

I made everyone drop what they were doing for a quick crash course in field safety and awareness. In this instance, the most important lesson was to always be aware of your surroundings, and know where your team members are located and what they are doing. This included keeping at least a 10 foot clearance around anyone doing anything dangerous such as swinging a machete or an ax. I also instituted a personal policy that dangerous tasks should be saved for the postdocs and older grad students – we try not to maim the undergrads or new grad students during their first field experience because it sets a bad precedent for recruiting more help the following year. (I’m absolutely kidding! We don’t maim anyone at all).

This incident was less than 30 seconds long, but was a defining moment in my realization that all field work, whether far away or on campus, should be accompanied by a thorough safety plan, and everyone should be briefed on this plan before work begins. (See here for a good example of how to do this!)

*Just to clarify: I never actually had to endure this hardship for this particular project. By the time I started in this lab, I was a postdoctoral fellow and had already paid my dues years earlier, following marmots in the Rocky Mountains. The graduate students needed the samples and so they got to suffer through this one!

Katie Grogan is interested in the intersection of genetic diversity, fitness, and environmental change, especially for endangered species. She is currently studying the epigenetics of growth and stature in human hunter-gatherers as a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State University. Prior to moving to State College, she worked on gene expression in white-throated sparrows as an IRACDA postdoctoral fellow (a GREAT fellowship for postdocs also interested in teaching). She did her PhD at Duke University, studying the relationship between genetic diversity of the immune system and survival and reproduction in ring-tailed lemurs. When not in the lab or the field, she can be found playing with her dog and reading novels. Photos by KEG (Kathleen Grogan) and JRM (Jennifer R. Merritt, a graduate student in her former lab).