The Bug Geek

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Field season in the Yukon – part 2 (the fine art of collaboration)

Now that the “oooh, aaaah” part of my field work is out of the way, let’s talk a bit about doing research, shall we?

My PhD work is a component of a research program called the Northern Biodiversity Program. It involves several professors from several universities, about a dozen grad students, a postdoctoral researcher, and a multitude of private and public partners. The word that must best describe a project of this scope is: “collaborative”.

col·lab·o·rate intr.v. col·lab·o·rat·ed, col·lab·o·rat·ing, col·lab·o·rates

1.To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.

Although we all share the same overarching objective, our personal research goals and areas of specialization are quite different. On this trip to the Yukon, I traveled with: an arachnologist studying spider population genetics; a hymenopterist doing biodiversity inventories of wasps using molecular techniques; another arachnologist interested in the distribution and life history of a species of pseudoscorpion; and another hymenopterist working on parasitic wasps and their leaf-mining caterpillar prey. Me – I study beetles and am interested in functional ecology and food webs.

Our research questions essentially had zero overlap, with the exception of the locality: it’s what brought us together for this particular field trip. In a nutshell, it meant five different types of critters being targeted for collection using five completely different methods in five different habitat/terrain types.

Hm.

This is the kind of situation that has serious potential to turn a group of nice, sane, rational adults into cranky, snarly, whiny ass-pains. It’s true. I’ve seen it happen. It’s very easy to get all “ME ME ME” in the field, wanting nothing more than to spend all your time basking in the glow of your own beloved study subjects, and getting royally snarky over any time “wasted” on other people’s work.

Happily, this is not what happened on my trip. I have proof:

Happy campers, L-R: Barb (wasps), Katie (spiders), me (beetles), Laura (wasps and prey), Chris (pseudoscorpions). Photo by Chris Buddle.

The smiling faces you see there belong to a group of people who understand how to collaborate. We took turns, helped each other out when our own work was finished or on hold, made concessions, compromised. We chatted about research ideas, approaches, and troubleshot. It was awesome.

My beetle collection techniques are primarily “passive”: I stick traps in the ground them come back later to collect the contents. Since I had a lot of waiting time between setting and collection (which everybody helped me do), I thoroughly enjoyed myself working with the others.

Yellow pan trap, with contents after a few days

We helped Katie catch wolf spiders by marching over the tundra and scooping them into a cupped hand or net as they scurried out from underfoot.

Laura and Chris help Katie search for wolf spiders

We picked caterpillars out of the “umbrella of science” after Laura whacked the bejeezus out of willow tree branches, catching critters as they fell into the umbrella held below.

Katie, Laura and Chris pick caterpillars out of Laura’s “umbrella of science”

We turned over hundred of rocks along creeks and found lovely little pseudoscorpions, helped Barb set up and take down her wasp traps, and I took photos of some of my teammate’s fascinating finds (always handy for papers or talks!).

A jumping spider – species yet to be determined!

One of Laura’s leaf-mining caterpillars (left), killed by a parasitic wasp larva (right). Two eggs laid (can you spot them?) indicate hyperparasitism.

Our willingness to collaborate made the trip enjoyable, the work smooth, and the inevitable challenges of field work less challenging. Although academic research seems to be an inherently competitive business most of the time, the benefits of working with others effectively and collegially make the extra effort, patience and open-mindedness very worthwhile.

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Field season in the Yukon – part 1 (the Yukon is ridiculously pretty)

Yours truly at the Arctic Circle – km 405.5 of the Dempster Highway

Now that the Moth Week wrap-up is finished, I wanted to share some pics from my adventures in the breathtakingly beautiful Yukon territory.  I can now proudly claim to have survived a trek up and down the infamous Dempster Highway!

The science was awesome and the the team I worked with was incredible, but first I just want to share the tourist-ey bits of my trip.

We landed in Whitehorse late on on Sunday evening; by noon the next day we were equipped with an SUV, RV (i.e., transportable lab space), groceries and protective gear (it’s bear country after all!) and were on the road with Tombstone Territorial Park as our goal for the first night’s camp.

The caravan heading north from Whitehorse on the Klondike Highway

We arrived at Mile Zero of the Dempster Highway about 500 km later. This is where the pavement stops. We made it to Tombstone after another 75 km on the dusty, slick gravel road. It was a long drive, but well worth it: I have never experienced anything quite like sleeping in a tent surrounded by mountains on all sides. I was very glad to have brought extra long underwear and sleeping bag liners: it was a chilly night, and we awoke to low-hanging clouds and fresh snow on the mountaintops. The weather wasn’t ideal for bug hunting, but it sure was awesome to look at!

Waking up to snow on the mountains at Tombstone Mountain Campground – km 71.1

A view of the mountains on a clear evening later that week made it evident how “Tombstone” got its name:

Tombstone Mountain Range – km 74.0

I was blown away by the beauty of the landscape throughout our journey, and the way the ecosystems changed from boreal forest to alpine tundra to lush fields of pink post-forest fire fireweed as the miles piled on. Here’s a look at a few lovely spots on the drive:

Windy Pass – km 152.8

“Elephant Rock” – km 224.7

Ogilvie Mountains (a view from my tent!) – km 259.0

Fireweed blankets the landscape after a forest fire – km 302

The Dempster eventually crosses both the Arctic Circle (you can see my silly self-portrait at that point at the top of the post), and then moves into the Northwest Territories.

Crossing into the Northwest Territories – km “0”

Field of Cottongrass – NWT km 22.9

Our travels took us as far as the Peel River, but we were forced to stop there: the ferry was out of commission.

The tantalizingly close northern shore of Peel River – NWT km 74

While we were mainly focused on finding small, six- and eight-legged critters, we were also every bit the “road biologists”, often slowing our vehicles to delight in occasional sightings of larger wildlife. We saw all kinds of caribou tracks, spotted a couple of moose, a rather tame fox, many species of birds including these wonderful Sandhill Cranes

and got very excited to finally catch a glimpse of the most impressive “charismatic megafauna” of the region: a grizzy bear! It was from quite a distance, and from the safety of our SUV, but watching it stride confidently across the tundra was an unforgettable experience.

There’s a bear beyond those shrubs, honest!

The drive back down to civilization was filled with great camping, cooperative weather and, of course, scads of science – which I’ll talk about later this week. Stay tuned!

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This article was originally posted at: http://blogs.mcgill.ca/gradlife/2012/07/30/field-season-report-1-the-beauty/

The Howler Monkey Story

So I just enjoyed a good laugh over some DAMN, NATURE, YOU SCARY-type stories.  (It’s always funny when it happens to someone else.)

I’ve been super-lucky so far with my bug-collecting…other than the praying mantis incident, I’ve escaped relatively unscathed, mainly because I try to stay away from bugs with stingy-looking bits. 

That’s not to say I haven’t had run-ins with nature.    I have, as a matter of fact, been bitten by a pretty good portion of the larger mammals of the province of Ontario: fox, raccoon, skunk, squirrel (both red and grey), groundhog (ohhhh, that one HURT), porcupine, otter, bat…  when one is an intern at a wildlife rehabilitation centre, one’s #1 workplace hazard tends to be “wildlife”.

I’ve been nipped by a handful of snakes (non-venomous thankyouverymuch) and numerous times by one particularly cantankerous bullfrog…did you know frogs have teeth?  They totes do.  It’s WEIRD.

Oh, and my left pointer finger once got slashed by the incisors of a very pissed-off vampire bat (I had it in a bag so I could weigh and examine it).  The wound bled and bled and bled (thank you, anticoagulants) – which was cool because it allowed me to go around to everyone within earshot going, “DUDE, I totes got bit by a vampire bat!!!”  for hours and everyone was like, “OMG no way!”,  and I was all like, “Way!”, and they were all like, “Whooooaaa.”   Yeah, that was cool.   Trying to explain the situation to an ER doc back in Canada after deciding I should probably get a rabies booster was not so cool.  It’s very obnoxious to have to say, “Yes, doctor, it was a vampire bat.  Yes I’m sure.  Desmotus rotundusROTUNDUSWill you stop looking at your flow charts and just give me the damn shot?!?!?!”  Honest to god, doctors have big text books with flow charts about bat bites to determine whether a rabies shot is warranted.   Yeesh.

Although many of these experiences made me uncomfortable (in the ow ow owie ow sense) none really scared me much.

I think my only truly DAMN, NATURE, YOU SCARY moment was in Belize.  I was there with a small group of undergrads for a three-week crash course of the ecology of tropical bats; we were in the heart of the small Central American country, nestled along a freshwater lagoon and surrounded by largely unexplored Mayan ruins.  It was our first night in the rainforest.   It was remote and dark as hell.  There were three of us (me and two other students) stationed next to a mist net we’d set up along a clearing in the jungle.  Our head lamps were off.   Leaving them on would mean scaring the bats, which would be bad for bat research-type activities. 

Picture if you will: three completely green city kids with combined field experience of  “zero” .  It is nearing midnight.  Pitch black except for the bazillion stars that blanket the sky all the way down to the flat horizon.  Deafeningly noisy from all the jungle critters that don’t sleep.  We cannot sit down because there are tarantulas and scorpions and poisonous snakes and ants the size of my head.  Plus jaguars.  If you sit down you waste about 2 seconds of perfectly good running-away-from-jaguars time by having to stand back up.   We are pretty much scared shitless.  

Then, nearby, we start to hear a troup of howler monkeys talking amongst themselves.  And by “talking” I mean “making otherwordly freaky utterings and moans and roars”.   We’d seen and heard quite a few monkeys earlier, during daylight, and although they were unnerving they were more interesting than anything.    At night it’s a whole different story. 

The monkeys noisily made their way over to our net station and parked themselves directly overhead.  They chattered and rummaged and banged around up in the canopy while we held our breaths and waited for them to move on.    After about ten minutes, they did, roaring as they went.  We started to relax.

What we didn’t know was that one bastard monkey had stayed behind.  And that he had quietly snuck down a tree until he was a mere few feet from the ground.  And the tree in which he was hiding was about 5 feet behind me and my nervous compatriots.   And what did that bastard monkey do?

That. 

And we screamed.  Literally shrieked and clutched eachother in the pitch blackness and screamed our fool heads off, convinced we were about to be eaten or at the very least messily rent limb from limb.

Our PI (who was neither young nor sleek nor athletically inclined in the slightest)  came “running” over from our main base about 1 mile down a narrow jungle path.   He stopped, doubled over into a near-fetal position with his hands on his knees, and managed to gasp out, “What happened?”   

Our story was met with a withering look that screamed “EPIC TROPICAL FIELD WORK FAIL” and he stomped back down the path to his own station.

It’s funny now.  We quickly got quite used to monkey visitors and even mustered up the nerve to sit on the forest floor at night (just keep your pant legs tucked into your socks and you’re good to go).   The PI eventually forgave me for being such a wuss; he took to calling me “Jungle Jane” by the end of the trip and even shared his carefully guarded bottle of scotch with me on our last night there – a truly memorable evening of geekery, tasty drinkables, sitting on a rickety dock that stretched out over the lagoon and basking in the light of a million stars which twinkled off the still, black waters where they mingled with the red glint of crocodile eyeshine.   

A life-changing experience  to be sure (and totally worth the  thinking I was going to die for a few minutes).    I kind of hope there will be other opportunities to experience the sublime terror of DAMN, NATURE, YOU SCARY in the future.  Hm.  I’m pretty sure there’s a line item in my new research budget for “guys with guns to keep polar bears from eating PhD student”, so a Geek can dream, yes?

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