It only took one run

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Scott Lynch, a Master’s Candidate at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, to share how his love for field biology (with sharks!) started.

There are few experiences more unnerving than being told you have to run off a boat, up a ramp, and through a parking lot while carrying a 3-foot shark in your arms. I peered through the hot August Virginian sun, eyeing the obstacles along the boat, not quite believing that this was actually happening.

Just a few days beforehand I had been a newly hired undergraduate intern, working for a month optimizing my supervisor’s western blot protocol. Although I had said I wanted to work in the field when I was hired, I understood the importance of paying my dues. I worked hard at the tasks my supervisor gave me, until one day he asked to see me in his office. When I walked in he had one simple question for me: “How do you feel about Virginia?”

small town signWithin a few short days I was landing in Norfolk, Virginia, headed to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science Eastern Shore Lab in Wachapreague. As a new undergraduate researcher I had no idea what to expect. What I found was a sleepy little town of 400 people, characterized by its charter fishing fleet, one large restaurant, and the research lab. As I approached the research lab I found it to be a small complex of buildings, including offices, staff housing, an under-construction dry lab, and a newly opened, state-of-the-art, wet lab. The newly opened building was a concrete hulk nestled on the edge of the salt marsh, the home of the animals studied there. It was accompanied by a set of docks and bobbing boats.

As I got out of the car I was immediately met by a rush of activity. A fresh set of oysters had been brought in for study. The boat was being unloaded and the huge clumps of mud containing oysters along with whatever else happened to get caught up in the shovel were being cleaned and separated. I immediately jumped in and learned just how frenzied and tiring life at a field station can be.

view of the salt marsh

The next morning I was up bright and early for my first encounter with sharks. The salt marsh around the lab is a common place to find juvenile sandbar sharks that time of year. I went out with the senior fish scientists at the lab and learned a great deal, very quickly about fishing and shark handling.

I also learned a great deal about the brutality of bugs on the Virginian Eastern Shore. They have these bugs that look like houseflies with green heads, earning them the creative nickname of “greenheads”. However, unlike houseflies, when they land on you, their bite draws blood – even straight through jeans sometimes. This leaves you with a hard choice: wear jeans, melt to death in the 100 degree (when you include the brutal humidity) weather, and still get bitten occasionally, or wear shorts, keep cooler, but get home with blood running down your legs?

Later that afternoon when we got back to the lab, it came time for that run with a shark in my arms to deposit it into the large outdoor holding tank. I have been asked time and again why we would transport the sharks in such a way and the simplest explanation is to minimize time in between breaths for the sharks. These animals are obligatory ram ventilators, meaning that they need to swim forward to be able to breath. In other words, they can breathe in the tank on the boat and in the holding tank, but still wouldn’t be able to breath in a tub small enough to also be able to carry or wheel around. Therefore, covering their eyes and gills with a wet cloth to protect them and simply running them between locations means that they have the smallest possible window between breaths.

I eyed the path I had to take to get off the boat: up the floating dock, around the corner, through the water tables (being careful not to trip on the pipes running along the ground), and up some stairs. Once at the top, I could carefully slide the shark into the water. Easy, right?

I wrapped the shark’s head in a soaked towel, held its jaw shut with my hands, and went for it. Now I’m a big guy (6’3”, around 300 lbs) so running is not my strong suit, but there is no motivator quite like having a shark in your arms and being responsible for its safety. Especially when a big part of that safety includes getting it back in the water as quickly as possible. I jumped off the boat, ran up the ramp, through the water tables, up the stairs, and with great relief deposited the shark into the water. As the shark slipped out of my hands and took off, I was immediately hooked.

taking some measurementsFrom that point on, working 17 hour days dealing with the heat, the bugs, and the danger of handling live sharks was nothing but exhilarating to me. I worked through meals, woke up in the middle of the night to check on my sharks, and was happy for every minute of the work. I had absolutely caught the shark bug, and the field work bug too.

From those summers working with juvenile sandbars in remote Virginia I have stories of near shark bites, drowning scares out on the mud flats, and so many stories of evil salt marsh bugs. While I love telling all of these stories, and gladly will if you give me a minute of your time, nothing since has ever affected me as much as that first day at the field station, and that first time running a shark.

 

Scott on a boatScott Lynch is a Master’s Candidate at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he studies white shark movement and also works full time as the Technical Services Coordinator for Campus Services. He holds his BS in Marine Biology from University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he conducted work on the effects of satellite telemetry tags on juvenile sandbar sharks. Twitter: @savindafishies

Why I fell in love with #fieldwork?

In my third year of Undergrad I took a population ecology course that involved a weekend long trip to the Queen’s University Biological Station. We were doing a study about patterns in size and abundance with one of my favourite plants, milkweed (Asclepsias syriaca). We had worked in a disturbance or no disturbance component to the study and as such needed to choose the proper habitats. We hiked out down the road leading to QUBS to the edge of the main road and set up some plots along a mowed fence line. We stood there discussing methodology and sampling methods for the first several minutes. From the east corner of the field three beautiful horses started trotting towards us. Of course, the data collection was derailed at that point so everyone could get a chance to pet the horses. While this took time away from our data collection, everyone was enjoying themselves so the TA just rolled with it.

milkweed

Milkweed – A. syriaca

When we got back to work, we needed to set up a random plot and measure the height of each milkweed that was in our plot and record the abundance. I measured the plants and my partner recorded the measurements and counts. I knelt down on the damp September grass and placed the metre stick at the base of the plant. As my eyes followed the numbers up the stick, it went dark…almost as if a giant black cloud rolled over the sky.  My eyes quickly glanced up and there was the head of one of those giant horses staring right down at me.

qubs horse 3

The culprit

Our eyes met and before I realized the horse’s intentions, it was gone. The milkweed was uprooted from the ground and hanging from the horse’s mouth. I stood up and stared amusingly into the horses eyes. She just stared back at me with the milkweed hanging out of her mouth. And then just as quick as she tore it up she bit it in two and then spit it at my feet.

I patted her head and mentioned to the horse that I didn’t think horses liked milkweed and that was a lesson learned. I crouched back down, picked up and measured the two slobbery pieces of the milkweed and moved on to the next tallest milkweed, and before I could even place the ruler at the base of the plant *snap*. This time it wasn’t uprooted but just snapped in half.

She stood there for a split second with that milkweed in her mouth and then “pfft, spat!” spitting it out this time, on her side of the fence.

I stood up and looked her in the eyes with a “so this is how it’s gonna be, eh?” glare. She stared back. Tail swaying in the wind swatting deer flies left and right.

I knelt down by the next plant. And just like the rest…gone. Eventually, we just had to retreat. This horse wanted nothing, and yet absolutely everything to do with our data collection. We moved our experiment to the other side of the road, where it was still a disturbed fence line, but there were no horses to munch on our data.

Of course this experience was frustrating, but it was equally entertaining and was my first fieldwork experience. It remains one of those capstone experiences that likely played a huge role in shaping my interests in ecology and fieldwork today.

I have visited these same horses every year since 2008.