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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.

Made it to Tanzania!

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I arrived in Kilimajaro airport last week, disembarking in the foothills of the famous peak itself. As you can see, by the time we finally touched down, you could hardly make out the mountain in the darkness. It was a long day (3 connections, 35+ hours) of air travel, followed by a final hour of bus-ride before I made it to Arusha and was picked up by the delightful Susan (of the Savannas Forever organization), whose home I have invaded for the time being.

My luggage, of course, was lost – all of it. Mechanical issues on one of my first flights made the resulting connections more than a bit close (I counted those airport sprints as my daily exercise), so I image my bags were sitting neglected in some corner of the Amsterdam airport for a few days before they eventually made it back to me. Poor Susan had to put up with me smelling pretty ripe in the meantime!

Arusha itself if a fairly busy town, and I’ve spent most of the last week plugging away at my permits and catching up on some reading and writing that has been neglected over the last semester. The permitting is, as anticipated, a fairly slow process. There have been a few almost ridiculous set-backs: the wildlife institution had misspelled my email address, so I was completely unaware that Permit #1 had even been granted (!) and I’m experiencing a few snags getting my fees transferred to the right people. C’est la vie, thankfully, nothing insurmountable as of yet. I’m optimistically hoping to get things sorted out before the next two weeks are up, as I’m dying to get out of civilization and into the real outdoors.

However, it would be a lie to make it seem like completely drudgery out here! I did allow myself to take a short break this weekend and headed up to a nearby reptile park with a Maasai friend I met through Susan. I have a soft spot for the scaly critters and greatly enjoyed the opportunity to handle these gorgeous sand boas:

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(My friend, Lemmy, was not as enthusiastic)

I’m posting mid-week not only to report that my travels ended well, but also for a bit of a self-plug: today is my 24th birthday! Couldn’t ask for a better place to spend it in!

Heading out

Sitting in the airport with my field gear all packed, waiting to embark on the 30+ hours of travel that await as I hop over to Europe and then down to Tanzania! My suitcases are stuffed with everything from duct tape – so much duct tape, it’s not even funny – to pruning shears, sleeping bags to mosquito netting. And snacks, plenty of those. I had to delved into the depths of my closet to dig out some of of my equipment, where it has been languishing since I got back from Guam last year. And I have to confess – I did use this trip as an excuse to splurge on some fancy new gadgets as well. Hello, multitool. How’s it going, camp stove I’ve always wanted!

I believe I’ve mentioned before that this will be my first time in Tanzania. My prior experience in Africa has taken place primarily in South Africa and Namibia – cold, deserty places where I spent almost a year on projects ranging from large herbivore and cheetah conservation to the social behavior of mice. Entering into the “unknown” is giving me a few butterflies, but I’m excited to get out of the office and do some actual hands-on research again. Ali and Margaret have been extremely helpful in my preparations for this trip, especially so with advice on how to navigate the process of obtaining the rest of my field permits. It sounds like my first few weeks will be a distressingly uneventful time in which I hang around the cities filling out paperwork, paperwork, and if I’m lucky, more paperwork. But after that, I hope to have a slew of decent stories to report back on the progress of our project and the the goings-on out in the Serengeti! Wish me luck on my travels, hopefully my next post will be from Tanzania.

Fieldwork on the horizon

In news not quite as exciting as Ali’s (congratulations again!), I have just gotten word from the Tanzanian research institute that the proposal I submitted for summer research have been approved! It looks like I’ll be heading out to Dar es Salaam and Arusha in the next  three weeks to get the rest of my permits sorted out, and then head into the field immediately afterward. Definitely looking forward to seeing this amazing system first-hand — I’m sure it will be a surreal experience, after becoming so familiar with the animals and landscape through the camera trap images. Added bonus: I get to leave Minnesota, where it is still snowing. Hurrah!

The lost lions of the Transect Steady pride

### Today we’ve got a guest post by our very own Daniel Rosengren, lion tracker (& photographer) extraordinaire. ###

It started with some mysterious footprints around the Loliondo Kopjes. There were a lot of fresh paw marks in the mud following the road. I could tell it was a big pride but the only big pride with a territory nearby was the Young Transects. But I could not hear their collar. Neither could I hear any of our other prides. I drove around for a while looking for lions, especially on the rocks and under trees. I didn’t find any and guessed it could have been the Young Transect lions anyway, only without the collared female.

A couple of weeks later I was headed out east when I soon caught eye on a big group of lions. As I drove closer I realized they weren’t any lions I knew. I tried to get photos of all of them but it wasn’t easy knowing who you’d already got in a group of 17 lions. Luckily they all started walking along the track. All I had to do was park ahead of them and take photos as they passed one by one. Once I had photos of all their left sides I went home to try to figure out who they were.

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I concentrated on the older females as the youngster probably never had been seen before by the Lion Project. After a while I found a couple of matches. It was TR86 and TSF from the Transect Steady pride, not seen since December 2009, almost three and a half years earlier. But the last time they were seen regularly in our study area was in 2008.

Now I contacted TANAPA and the vets to organize a collaring of one of the females. They were coming. I drove back to the place where I’d seen the lions and hoped they hadn’t walked too far. I found them in the shade of a tree. Then a long wait started for the vets to organize themselves and drive all the way from Fort Ikoma. Once they came, the collaring went smoothly, the rest of the pride watching from a distance.

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All of the lions of the TS pride, watching us warily as we try and create enough space to safely collar our lion.

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Daniel fitting the collar.

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TANAPA vet preparing to take samples.

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It’s pretty exciting to to be this close to a lion. Their paws are BIG.

About a week later I found the pride just outside the northern edge of our study area along the Pipeline track. Two more old females known since before had joined them, TR93 and TR106. Then they disappeared. So two weeks later I decided to search for them and drove along the Pipeline track north. But instead of driving on the actual track, which in many places was disappearing because of little use, I drove parallel to it, hitting all hilltops to be able to pick up the radio signal from a greater distance. The drive was terrible as the hills in the area are specked with large rocks and I had to drive dead slow. I held on the the steering wheel as little as possible. Having no power steering means that every time I hit a rock I risk breaking thumbs or worse.

I picked up the signal after a while but I still had to pass several hills before finally finding them, right by the track at a river confluence. That was quite far north of our study area and too far to go and see them on a weekly basis. The future will have to show where they finally settle.

Why does the zebra have stripes?

While procrastinating on this lovely Sunday afternoon, I stumbled across this incredible video of a octopus camouflage in action:

Now, we don’t have anything quite that camouflaged in the Serengeti, but in watching that video my thoughts turned to one of our more strikingly colored species: the zebra. Their starkly contrasting black and white stripes have puzzled researchers and naturalists for a long time.

For starters, the stripes seem like they would be terrible camouflage. I mean, how much more could you stand out from the open plains of waving gold grass? But at dawn and dusk, especially from a distance, the stripes seem to bleed into gray, making them look a surprising lot like elephants (no joke), or rocks, or even nothing at all. Still, up close they still look like bright black-on-white zebras, and it’s hard to imagine that any lion lurking in the thickets nearby would be fooled.

Some researchers have mused that the bold patterns disrupt the perception of predators, and that when the zebras run en masse from an attacking lion, they become a confusing jumble of stripes into which the initial target disappears. Others have pointed out that every zebra has a unique set of stripes, and that these stocky equids  might use these patterns to identify herd members, mates, or even mothers (if you’re a hungry foal).

One of the my favorite explanations has always been that the stripes protect against the savanna’s most fearsome creature: the tsetse fly.  These blood-sucking insects are not only vectors for some nasty diseases (such as sleeping sickness), but also hurt. A lot. (Having spent more time than I care to remember in the woodlands where these terrible, terrible creatures thrive, just the thought of tsetses makes me shudder. I have spent many hours hurling expletives (fruitlessly) at the tiny terrors.) Tsetse flies suck. A lot. And if wearing stripes were a way to fend them off, I’d have gone out in a zebra suit every day. There are in fact stories of one intrepid researcher back in the day dressing up in a stripey suit and attempting to test whether zebra stripes deter tsetses. But there’s only so much that one man in a zebra outfit can do, and field experiments are notoriously difficult…and so this remained a buried rumor until last year.

Last year, Swedish researchers discovered that horseflies (a close cousin to the terrible tsetse) don’t like stripes. And they tested this on an experiment useing  number of fake, plastic zebras painted solid black, solid white, and various things in between. Turns out that the flies really like dark colors over light colors, but still like solid light colors over stripes. And while in the real world, there are things (such as smells) that may attract tsetses to stripey animals despite their off-putting pattern, this study is pretty exciting. And next time I have to venture into the savannah woodlands? You can bet I’m wearing that zebra-striped shirt.

Human, 1, dancing

Seriously, this was too good not to share!

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The life of a lion isn’t easy

Hopefully you’ve been enjoying the adventures of the lions that David Quammen has been writing about in this month’s National Geographic. David writes about the dramatic lives of C-boy and Hildur, two very good-looking male lions that roam the Serengeti, and the challenges that they face as male lions trying to survive in the Serengeti. I was in the car with Ingela that day that the Killers nearly destroyed C-boy — it was one of my first days in Serengeti, and one of the many moments that I fell in love with the dramatic lives of the animals there.

There’s a good chance you’ve seen C-boy and Hildur and Killers, as well as all the ladies they’ve been fighting over, in the camera traps. Below is a map of the pride territories overlaid on the Snapshot Serengeti cameras. There are a lot more prides than this, but these are the ones that Nick Nichols and Davide Quammen followed.

SnapshotSerengeti cameras and the lions that David wrote about in NatGeo

SnapshotSerengeti cameras and the lions that David writes about in NatGeo

Jua Kali, where Hildur and C-boy resided in 2009, control just a tiny patch of land in the center of the study area where the Seronera river begins. They spend most of their time in a marshy lowland where those two small tributaries, converge. The marsh has lush grass and standing water, but is just a tiny oasis in the otherwise dry and desolate grassland. It is not the best territory that a lion can have.

After C-boy and Hildure were deposed from Jua Kali, they eventually took over the Vumbi pride. It worked out pretty well for them in the end – the Vumbi’s are not only a bigger pride, but maintain control over the Zebra Kopjes, a suite of rocky outcroppings that provide shade, water, and a vantage point to watch for prey across the open plains. Despite C-boy’s brush with death and his inelegant retreat from power, C-boy and Hildur really haven’t done too badly for themselves.

North of Vumbi, the Kibumbu pride ranges along the Ngare Nanyuki river. When David was writing about our lions, the Killers had recently taken over the Kibumbu pride. Unfortunately, the Kibumbu females had had young cubs fathered by the previous coalition; the Killers would have killed these cubs to bring the Kibumbu females into sexual receptivity. Infanticide is a brutal, but natural part of a lion’s life.

So there it is. The lions that are gracing the pages of this month’s National Geographic magazine are the same ones that you see yawning, sleeping, and stretching in front of the Snapshot Serengeti camera traps. David’s story, and Nick Nichols’ photos, provide an amazing and detailed dive into their lives.

We’re currently raising funds to keep Snapshot Serengeti and the long-term Lion Research Project afloat. Thanks to everyone who has donated so far!

Stuck. Part 2.

##### Today’s post is a continuation of last week’s adventure, written by Patrik Dousa. #####

When we left off the story from last week, all of us in the Serengeti team were out deep in the sour tern range of the Serengeti trying to free a land rover from thick mud. All we accomplished was securing the range rover even deeper in the mud. From 1/4 of the wheel being submerged to a half, with the bumper touching the ground. Good going. A beautiful sunset was going to occur in an hour or so and the last place to be at that point was in the middle of a hazardous plain with a large pride of lions waking up for their nighttime prowls.

This is actually muddier than it looks...

This is actually muddier than it looks…

The lions are still watching us from their mesas to the north and Ali is figuring out the next move. I thought it was a clear decision. Leave. Now. Have I described to you the fortitude and diligence of a lion researcher? A job that requires you to spend most of your time in the dry plains with the only the basic minimum requirements to sustain you doesn’t attract individuals who give up too easily. No, Ali and George see the sunken rover as a challenge that must be faced. We aren’t leaving, not without a fight.

Just then a tourist vehicle pulls up along a road about a half-mile from our area on the other side of the uncrossable mud plains. The guide is in the process taking them back home to one of the southern lodges and apparently decided to stop, having spied the magnificent example of male lion that was observing our vehicle. The new arrival attracted King Simba’s attention and the powerful elegant beast starts walking towards the tourists. I can see their excitement mount through my binoculars — this moment is going to be the highlight of their trip. George and Ali are laboring through shovelfuls of the thickest, reddest, peatiest mud you can imagine and only a short distance away, well-scrubbed observers are preparing themselves for the the apex of their Serengeti experience. Such is life.

I see a bold cub follow his master lion and play around his feet incurring his wrath for a moment. The king playfully swats back and raises his head to the heavens letting out an immense roar to the delight of the tourists. The greatest show on earth — with our little car-trouble side-show of going on right in the background. “Who are those crazy people back there?” they must have asked their guide. “Well, they’re professionals, so they must know what their doing.” the guide is certain to have responded.

The lion’s roar triggered a slow migration of the lionesses and their cubs from the low mesas to the area closer to the tourist vehicle where the male lion had settled. As the single file procession began, we felt a wave of relief since the pride was now headed away from our rover. A few more attempts to drag out the stuck vehicle failed. By now the sun is steadily growing larger and more rosy as it begins its decent. The sky eventually reaches the particular hue that Ali reads as our signal to leave.

We secured the vehicle and took all the valuables and began a slow retreat back thinking, “please don’t get stuck” on repeat until we got back on the main road. The pink sun blossomed into a deep red bloom that backlit the acacia tree line creating the beautiful silhouetted postcard image that the Serengeti is so well know for. The mood in the car was impervious to these romantic supplications. Exhausted and temporarily defeated, the crew made the long journey back toward the research house.

And all we've done is get ourselves in even deeper.

And all we’ve done is get ourselves in even deeper.

Being the visitor who expended the least amount of sweat that day, I suggested that we stop at the local canteen Seronera and that I’d treat everyone to a chicken and rice dinner and a Stoney Tangawizi (the extra spicy ginger ale that is everybody’s favorite drink in Tanzania). This turned out to be a very cost effective way to turn the sour mood sweet — just a few bucks per plate and brew to get everyone back to their happy place. Soon the team was back to the bantering with the locals and planning tomorrow’s adventure. That was my last night at the Serengeti, the next day I was back on the road to Arusha. Ali messaged me later and mentioned that they were able to round up a crew to go back and successfully drag out the rover the next day. This did not surprise me since I had well learned: you can’t keep a lion research team down for long.

Stuck. Part 1.

Stuck. Surrounded by lions. Please come.

This is not a text message that you’d necessarily expect to get on your cell phone…unless you work as a lion researcher in the Serengeti like Ali does.  Receiving this text in the early afternoon, she takes the news in stride as a necessary task that needed to be finished before dark. I on the other hand, as a visitor, am charged up and nonplussed with the drama of it all. George, one of the field research assistants on a lion tracking expedition, obviously needs help and pronto, so we are on our way out within a few minutes. In the wild Serengeti, a few minutes can separate success from tragedy — the research team has an exceptional awareness of this and also the discipline to do what it needs to be done in a methodical and prompt manner as Ali is demonstrating to me at this moment.

We track George and his land rover down just like we do lions. Each rover is outfitted with the same tracking unit that is on the collar of each radio-tracked lioness. So we chase the rover’s signature signal deep into the southern range, driving on the dirt roads as fast as we can safely afford. As the day draws towards a close, the animals become restless. Elephants trumpet in the distance. A serval — a beautiful African wild cat one doesn’t see everyday– trots across the road and disappears in the brush. Normally such a sighting would warrant an immediate stop, but not today.

Finally, we go as far as the roads can take us and we must venture in the unmarked grassy plains that are a minefield of axle-breaking holes and mud-traps. Driving off road is risky business in the daytime –as George was just reminded of — and completely a fool’s errand in the nighttime. Ali looks for the tell-tale signs in grass patch coloration that indicate a possible hole as she swerves deftly through the treacherous terrain in a labored crawl.

Finally on the horizon, we sight George and his rover axle deep in a seemingly stable area. The dry cracked surface, however, masks a vast mud hole created by the recent rains. This is the worst kind of environmental trap  that even a seasoned veteran like George can fall prey too. With a lighthearted smile that belies any frustration, George explains how he tracked a pride of lions into this area and was surprised by the sudden drop into the mud. Luckily, our rover remains in the solid area just short of George’s rover. We check the area and see that the lions have moved off to a series of small mesas to the north. It’s safe enough to exit the vehicles as long as one of us keeps a 360 degree lookout.

How we found George.

How we found George.

Our cellphones at that point record no bars, so as Ali readies a tow line, she inquires how George was able to get a message out.

The calm exterior and wry banter of every lion researcher I’ve met is always the counterpoint to the fierce passion and iron discipline at their core. George is all smiles and laughs a bit as he recounts the sinking feeling he had when he saw that he had no bars on his cellphone and lions surrounding three sides of the vehicle. A thickly maned adult male lion stood watch right outside the drivers side as if he sensed George’s desperation.

A good scientist, when faced with a problem, puts together an experiment to test its boundaries. Perhaps the cell phone could be made to transmit somehow? As George raised his hand up and out of the vehicle he noticed to a single bar flicker on and off. This observation made him hatch a plan that he reflected on as he eyed the attentive dark-maned sentinel waiting outside along with the multiple groups of lionesses and cubs surrounding him.

The day was not going to get any longer so George, did exactly what he contemplated: he composed his terse message on his phone, climbed out the window onto the roof rack, and jumped up several times pressing the send key until the signal caught and the phone indicated the message was sent. Then he waited for the animals realize that he was still out of their range and relax back down to their lazy poses and before slipping back into the car to await rescue.
By the end of the story, the tow cable is fastened and mud traction ladders are in position under the rear wheels of the rover. Ali is ready to begin the first effort to pull the car. The gears lock in, the engine strains, the wheels spin, and…Georges car slips off of the ladders and deeper into the mud.

Step 1. Let's see if we can tow George out...

Step 1. Let’s see if we can tow George out…

To be continued

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