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The How To Guide for Getting Field Experience

The Minnesota winter has finally come upon us and time is passing exasperatingly slowly, waiting to hear back from funding sources, plowing through homework, cleaning up data, and mostly daydreaming about heading back to Serengeti. Perhaps the dread of spending the next semester in the cold is stirring undergraduates into action, but I’ve been contacted by numerous students recently inquiring about something near and dear to my heart: field experience and how to get it.

Field work is what makes biology for me – I don’t think I could get by without that glimmer of hope, the promise of going out and getting dirty and experiencing ecology in the raw. The summers of my own undergraduate career and the two years before I entered graduate school were spent almost entirely out in the bush: measuring fishes and catching snakes and doing pretty much whatever kind of work I could come across that would let me mess around doing science in the great outdoors.

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“Doing Science” in the Great Outdoors

I lived for that work, but I can’t claim that it’s entirely glamorous. You won’t be picking up a brand new Ferrari any time soon, that’s for sure. My first field jobs could barely be called sustenance living, but after a few years of experience, I was picking up jobs that came with fancy, real-person benefits (oooh, like Dental).

And then there’s that whole “in the field” thing to consider — in all its glorious, treacherous, beautiful and exhausting majesty. I’ve been on field jobs where people have suffered through dengue and malaria, contracted parasites, twisted limbs, narrowly avoided encounters with venous snakes (on an almost daily basis), and quite literally passed out from exhaustion in the middle of the wilderness. “Sweat, blood, and tears” sums it up quite nicely. You’re stuck with the same old crew for weeks, or even months, on end, often with limited amenities. If isolation is not your thing, perhaps second thoughts may be in order. Also take into account the facilities you’ll be living in. I’ve been overwhelmed by the relative “luxury” of some field stations (electricity! food that isn’t rice and beans!), and enjoyed the struggle of situations at the opposite end of the spectrum (cold showers are good for you, and you didn’t need to check that Facebook this month anyway…).

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Just another day at work

 

Which isn’t to sell any aspect of fieldwork short. Doing fieldwork is an absolutely wonderful way to get your butt outdoors, see the world, enjoy nature, and it does wonders preparing you for a career in science. Techniques I’ve learned and people I’ve met along the way have been invaluable when it came to getting new jobs and heading back to school. I feel far more prepared to do my own research after having participated in such a diversity of projects. Plus, you get to be your down David Attenborough and live the things you’ve only ever seen on Nature documentaries or in the zoo. It’s a well worth-while experience.

So, the important part: where to find the job.

THE UNDERGRADUATE

For those still in an undergrad program looking for a summer position, the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) are definitely the first place to hit up (NSF REU; NSF for BIOLOGY). These are great paying positions that are geared specifically towards getting you involved in your own research. I completed two REUs during my undergrad, spending one summer working in Panama studying developmental plasticity in Red-eyed tree frogs and another on the island of Puerto Rico filming the territorial behaviors of Anolis lizards. These experiences are wonderful because you are highly involved with the lab you work in, you get to meet and interact with a large body of scientists from various disciplines, and if you’re designing your own project, get invaluable input into the process of constructing an experiment. For me, both of my REU projects resulted in publications – an important factor for applying for graduate school.

LIST SERVS

List servs are beautiful, beautiful things, because job applications find their own way into your inbox and sit there waiting for you to read them. They’re also a great place to join in on scientific discussion and share ideas, articles, and even research equipment. Some of my favorite list-servs are:

  • ECOLOG-L: Run by the Ecological Society of America
  • MARMAM: For researchers working with marine mammals
  • MAMMAL-L: I believe this was set up by the American Society of Mammologists?

You can probably tell that I’m a bit biased towards mammal work, but ECOLOG runs job advertisements from everything ranging from forest ecology to herps and fishes through to hyena biology in Kenya.

 

WEBSITES

Biology job boards are the next place I turn when looking for the next field position. These update fairly regularly, so keep checking up on them:

  • Texas A&M biology: My absolute favorite – there are some really fantastic research opportunities that make their way to the Texas A&M job board
  • ConBio: Run by the Society for Conservation Biology
  • Primates: For those interested specifically in primates
  • AZA (Zoos):  If the field isn’t quite for you, but you’re still gung ho about working with animals, be sure to check out what’s going on at the zoos
  • USAjobs: Government jobs are some of the better-paying gigs in the biology business

Find the job applications is, like most things in life, just the first step in a Process. Next come the cover letters, the applications themselves, scrounging up enough references and actually getting them to submit letters for you on time (often, the most difficult part). But hopefully this provides as starting point for those ready to get out there and do some science.

Groovin’

Just for fun. I was hanging around on Talk today and stumbled across this grooving Kori Bustard. Kind of makes me want to dance…

dancin' kori bustard

dancin’ kori bustard

Cheetahs rocking the boat…again!

Cheetahs, it seems, just can’t stop shattering everything we believed to be true about them.

Scientists have long believed that lions (and hyenas to some extent) threaten cheetah conservation efforts —  in large part because they kill so many cheetah cubs. But last year, researchers from South Africa revealed that lions probably don’t kill as many cheetah cubs as folks previously believed. And shortly after that, our research showed that regardless of the amount of lion-inflicted cheetah cub mortality, cheetahs do just fine around large lion populations.

Just last month, another story broke that shakes up how we think about cheetahs. It turns out that not only are cheetahs not as vulnerable to killing by lions, but they cheetahs aren’t nearly as vulnerable to non-lethal bullying either. It was thought that because cheetahs couldn’t fight back against lions – or hyenas – they lost a lot of their hard-earned kills to these ruthless scavengers. (Yes, both lions and hyenas do steal food from each other and from cheetahs.) We knew that wild dogs expend so much energy hunting that they can’t afford to lose even moderate levels of food, and assumed that cheetahs were similarly vulnerable. But, as a recent study from Bostwana and South Africa found out, they aren’t.  It turns out that despite being super fast, cheetahs don’t expend all that much energy chasing down their prey. Researchers estimate that cheetahs could lose a full 50% of their kills to lions and hyenas, and still get all the calories they need!

All in all, it’s beginning to look a lot like the biggest threats to cheetahs aren’t lions and hyenas. Instead, availability of denning sites (as suggested by our research) and human destruction of habitat that forces cheetahs to travel far and wide in search of prey (suggested by this most recent study) are probably much, much greater threats to their survival.

 

Tidbits on wild dogs

One of our long-time Snapshot Serengeti members (thanks Reid!) sent me this NY Times article on African wild dogs. As you know, we don’t have wild dogs in the study area (though keep your eyes peeled! TANAPA did reintroduce them into the western corridor the other year, and I keep hoping we’ll catch one traveling through our grid).

But I am very interested in how dogs interact with the larger carnivore community. And these animals are just *so* cool – incredibly energetic and full of nerve. Watching a small group of dogs defend their kill against a hunting party of hyenas was one of the highlights of my trip to South Africa in June.

Photo by Ingela Jansson

Photo by Ingela Jansson

The article points out that wild dogs may fare better when lions fare worse (which I’ve reported on here) — and that raises some questions about questions about how to target conservation efforts. Do we have to choose between which species to protect? I’d say “not necessarily.” My dissertation research suggests that although dogs fare worse in small reserves with lions, there are places where wild dogs seem to do just fine. Selous Game Reserve (TZ) and Kruger National Park (SA), for example – big areas that have complex habitat structures. So the answer to protecting the entire carnivore guild may lie in larger, diverse reserves.

There are currently efforts in place to do create a protected area the size of Sweden that spans five southern & east African countries. If successful, according to the NY Times, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area will be the largest terrestrial protected area in the world. Now that’s something to celebrate.

Caught in the act

I am sure you were all enthralled by the recent shots of a male lion with a hyena clamped in his jaw. A truly awesome capture. The reality is that action shots like that are few and far between. Snapshot Serengeti has had only a handful in the millions of images that have been classified to date.

So when Karen and Deon Scheepers caught the following action on camera trap on the nature reserve in South Africa where I used to live I just had to share it with you;

Wildebeest

Wildebeest

 

uh oh.. look behind you!

 

leopard on the hunt

 

 

What a capture… a leopard on the hunt. The out come was unknown, reserve staff looked for a carcass but didn’t find anything. To think I used to walk those trails every day, I wonder how many times a leopard walked out behind me!

Thanks Karen and Deon Scheepers for sharing these shots.

Africa on my door step

So those of you who have read my blogs are probably used to hearing me bemoaning the fact that I am no longer in Africa but am back in France whilst I am studying towards a degree. I can’t really complain, life is still good, but the European wildlife feels a bit lacking when you have been used to the mega fauna of Africa.
I have however continued to put out my camera traps in order to survey my property and the surrounding countryside and it’s busier than you would think. Badgers, foxes, hares, otters, roe deer, squirrels, stone martens and wild boar make regular contact with my paltry two cameras. Not really enough camera power to base a study on but interesting all the same.
The highlight has been the discovery that one little favourite of mine from Africa has followed me to France; the genet. Yes the common genet (Genetta genetta) lives in France and I am ecstatic to say right by my house too.
It seems no-one really knows how they got here but it was probably something to do with the Romans centuries ago being brought over from the Magreb region of North Africa. They are now naturalised animals in Spain, Portugal and France. Refreshingly for an introduced animal they are not invasive and have little impact if any on the native wildlife, so I can go on loving them with a clear conscience.
Here are a couple of shots of genets in France for your enjoyment!

 

Common genetCommon genetCommon genet

I am…

Dr. Swanson!

I have to admit that the defense was way easier than I had anticipated. In fact, I got to spend much of the two hour question session talking about possibilities for future citizen science projects and the cool things that could be done with camera trap surveys. Once things settle down on my end, I’m looking forward to sharing some of my most recent results here on this blog.

…But it might be a few weeks. Right now I’m in Brazil, crewing for my boyfriend in the world hot-air balloon championship. We are centered in Rio Clara, and this place is beautiful. Although more cultivated than some of the places we are used to flying (e.g. Serengeti), we have still managed to find some wildlife. When we (the chase vehicle) managed to find the landed balloon past a maze of 12-foot-tall sugar cane fields, the co-pilot looked at me nervously and said, “there are no hyenas in South America….right?” Because apparently they had seen a rather large canid ripping into some carcass on some abandoned hillside on the flight. And it turns out that there are maned wolves here, which is probably what they saw. Maned wolves actually vaguely resemble giant red foxes (~ 3 ft tall at the shoulder), and are in a genus all their own (Chrysocyon), and are considered “vulnerable” (as a species) by the Brazilian government. They are pretty cool.

Maned wolf; credit Mario Pineda flickr cc

Maned wolf; credit Mario Pineda flickr cc

Funny story. When I was applying to graduate school, long before I decided to work with Craig at the University of Minnesota, I had wanted to study maned wolves in the Brazilian cerrado (tropical savanna). And, in the end, I turned down an offer to do so in favor of coming to UMN. But wouldn’t you know it, 6 years later, here I was – right in the middle of maned-wolf country! Granted, *I* still haven’t seen a maned wolf here, as is usually the case. The balloon pilots, with their birds-eye view, always see the most spectacular things. We on the ground just hear about them.

But I’ve got nearly two more weeks here…and I’m on a mission to find me a maned wolf!

 

Almost there…

I’ve been a bit remiss in blog posts lately.  I’ve just recovered  from a whirlwind trip through South Africa (so much exciting data!!!),  a visit to the Zooniverse team in Oxford, and, not least, my 31st birthday — and now I am rapidly approaching the end of my dissertation, and it is pretty much the only thing on my mind. I’ve already got a date – July 11th – on which I’ll give an hour long public presentation (anyone local is welcome to come) followed by 2 hours of inquisition by my committee members behind closed doors.  But to make it there, I first need to hand in my dissertation and have them all agree that I’m ready to defend. I need to hand it in by Friday, and still have a *lot* of work to do!

So, I may have posted this before, but figured it was a good time to (re) share this clip of baby elephants learning to use their trunks. They remind me a little bit of me trying to learn how to do science…

 

The no armed monkey

I am being consumed by envy. Ali is in South Africa and Meredith is in Tanzania. I am stuck in front of my computer working away on assignments with the prospect of an exam looming fast, in fact days away. I want to be finished with my degree and get back out there where the wild things are.
So to distract myself I have been reminiscing about my life in the African bush, it’s been a good exercise as it has reminded me what all the studying is for. Whilst we are waiting for Ali and Meredith’s blogs I thought I would share with you the story of the no armed monkey….

This is actually a true story involving a troop of vervet monkeys whose territory included my house. I would see them at least once a day as they moved from the tall sycamore fig trees along the river, their nightly refuge spot, into the bush to feed. Vervets are fascinating to watch, they are always up to something and that often involved trying to get into my house to steel fruit. I remember one cold winter morning watching a heavily pregnant female on the stoop reclining with her back propped up on a chair leg, her arms and legs spread out warming her swollen belly in the sun. She looked so at home there I thought I may just get to witness a birth, no such luck. So when the troop moved through I would always stop and watch.
It was on one such vervet induced pause that I noticed one sub adult monkey run across the garden on its back legs, almost lemur like. Grabbing the binoculars I got a better look only to discover it was missing both its arms. There didn’t appear to be any sign of trauma nor scarring. The next thing I knew it had run, on its back legs, straight up a smallish tree through its branches and leaped up on to the thatched roof of my house. My eyes could not believe what they had just clearly seen. Obviously having no arms was no impediment for this little monkey.
On subsequent occasions I watched various other members of the group help the no armed monkey by giving it food or just simply waiting for it to catch up. It was able to use its feet to feed itself quite effectively and seemed to get on just fine. My feeling was that it was born this way, I just can’t think of a scenario where it would lose both arms in an accident and recover enough with no scarring. Whatever the truth of the matter, this little monkey was an inspiration.

Photo courtesy of Tammy Keizer

Photo courtesy of Tammy Keizer

Nyala are way prettier than impala

I’m in South Africa, getting a feel for the ongoing Panthera camera trapping surveys, collating data, falling madly in love with the country and South African bush, and scheming for how I need to find a way to come back.

Things are a bit of a whirlwind, but so far I am amazed and excited about the amount of monitoring that many of the small private and state-run reserves have been doing. There is an extraordinary amount of information that has been collected over the last decade on how all of the top predators move and live across these parks. There are parks with and without lions. Parks with and without hyenas. With and without wild dogs. Some parks are big and some are small. Some are very thickly treed, others are somewhat open. (Note that one thing I discovered very quickly is that pretty much all South African habitat, even the grassland, would equate to “woodland” in the Serengeti. So…”open” is a relative term.)

The amount of data here is enough to get any science nerd’s heart a flutter. But I am trying to focus on what is out the window instead of what’s on the computer for now. I’ve only a few days in South Africa, and endless time to analyze the data.

In the meanwhile, I thought I’d share one of my new favorite animals: the nyala.

These cousins to the waterbuck we capture in camera on Serengeti, and you can see it a bit in their pretty faces. But these animals are far more stunning than anything I’ve ever seen in Serengeti. The females are small and sport bright white stripes on their red fur, and the males have these  incredible “manes” that run down the undersides of their necks and to their bellies. They are pretty awesome. As is everything I’ve experienced in South Africa so far. Yep, definitely need to find a way back!

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