Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Innocent bystanders

One of the fun things about field work, besides collecting data for that wily thing called a dissertation, is all the things you see that you’re not studying. Because a lot of what I do is live-trap small animals, we often find things we’re not really looking for in the traps. The two small mammals that we are intentionally trying to catch are mice (Peromyscus) and voles (Microtus). We bait the traps with a peanut butter snack called Bamba, something that is very common in Israel, but not here. Hadas, a former IU post-doc who I collaborated with, used them during her PhD in Israel and has converted me to use them in my trapping. They are the perfect size for the traps and aren’t messy like peanut butter and oatmeal balls (what we used before). 

The tasty treat seems to attract more than just mice and voles! We find an array of insects, spiders and other invertebrates in the traps. Ants have made nests in the traps (not a fan of this), crickets, grasshoppers, and cockroaches like hanging out in there. Snails and slugs like the outsides of the trap, I think because the metal stays cool during the night. Sometimes we even find long, slinky millipedes.

We find some interesting vertebrates too. Box turtles are common in both the open and forested parts of our sites (we usually almost step on them while walking the grids). They make a great “sucking” sound as they close the flap between their front legs and bring their head into the shell. (no pictures now, but will add soon) I often have to slalom down the road to avoid one taking its time crossing.

 Normal turtle above, scared turtle below.

Last week we got two unexpected visitors to our traps. After collecting all traps that had animals in them in the morning, I was peaking in each to see if it had a new or recaptured (with ear tag) individual. I was startled when I looked in one trap and said to my field assistant, “Um, this is a toad.” Toads can look kind of like mice when they’re huddled in the back of the trap (I did the same thing last field season). He probably liked Bamba as much as the rodents!

The second surprise was a chipmunk. I was just talking with my friend, who also studies mammals, about how I’ve always wanted to catch one because they are so cute. My field assistant wasn’t sure if it was totally a good idea to handle the chipmunk, but I was going to try! I put on some thicker leather gloves (in case it was more bitey than the smaller rodents we’re used to) and got a hold of it the same way I do with the other rodents. It was not happy at first, but calmed down quickly. I noticed it had 3 ticks on it’s neck, and while holding it in one hand I got out the forceps and vials I needed to collect them. They can’t really go into our study, but I was still curious to see what kinds of ticks use chipmunks as their hosts. 

 I was so excited about getting the ticks and didn’t want to hold it for too long, I forgot to sex it. I think it was a male (from looking closely at the pictures), but not to offend if it was a female, I’m sticking with “it” for now. I was super excited to get this guy, as you can probably tell from the picture.

We get to know some other animals that I consider more pests than interesting, but that’s for another time. Finding these fun other animals makes an early morning or hot afternoon a little more exiting or fun.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hitching in the field

Today is International Towel Day (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Towel_Day), in honor of the life and works of Douglas Adams. Douglas Adams is probably my favorite author, I read something of his almost every year, if not more. Every time I read one of his books I find something new, and in many cases fall deeper in love with the stories, characters, the universe he created and the integrated commentary on science, art, and human nature. I could expound on some of my favorite bits (Bach’s music being the music life, the joys of flying between Arthur and Fenchurch, the “bistro-drive”) but that would digress a bit from what this blog is supposed to be about.

Adams had great interest in natural history, evolution, and biology in general. He was friends with Richard Dawkins and spent a year traveling around the world looking for severely endangered species with zoologist Mark Carwardine (my favorite book, Last Chance to See, was the result). The idea of “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things” that is integral to the Dirk Gently books has been quite an inspiration for me throughout my scientific career. As a community ecologist, I think it does a great job describing how I think about what I study.

“The term `holistic' refers to my conviction that what we are concerned with here is the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. I do not concern myself with such petty things as fingerprint powder, telltale pieces of pocket fluff and inane footprints. I see the solution to each problem as being detectable in the pattern and web of the whole. The connections between causes and effects are often much more subtle and complex than we with our rough and ready understanding of the physical world might naturally suppose.”

The main thing I take away from it is, what good is looking at each individual piece of the puzzle if you’re not thinking about the whole picture? It is best to learn about each piece, or species,  as well as how they fit together, that’s when you’ll truly understand their role in the environment, how they interact with other, and what happens when a system is perturbed. That is the main goal of my research, trying to quantify the most important aspects of disease in a natural setting, what influences disease prevalence, and what causes differences between habitats, host communities, tick communities, and individuals within a population.

Some great coincidences from this morning’s work:
The animal with the most ticks (44 of them) ended up with ear tag number 542
The phrase “gusty winds may exist” was a good descriptor of the weather
Not quite a coincidence, but “Don’t Panic” is a good phrase to keep in mind while dealing with crazy spring weather!

Uses for a towel while doing field work:
-          Dragging for ticks
-          Wrap around head to protect from horrible biting gnats
-          Wipe bug spray and other things off your glasses (did this one)
-          Sit on it while checking animals for ticks
-          Dry off with it after being rained on, because it seemed clean enough (did this one too) 

     Number 542: top with big tick on his nose, bottom showing ear tag.

Monday, May 23, 2011

And, we're grounded

One of the most stressful parts of doing small mammal field work is the weather. Especially spring weather, the kind that could have a crazy storm or be lovely.

The nature of small mammal trapping makes predicting and being a bit obsessive about the weather hard. We go out to the site in the evening and set the traps. We then come back the next morning to check to see what we captured. These animals are mostly nocturnal, hence having the traps open at night. We are then out at the site very early the next morning, leave the lab at 6:30am to start working at 7:00am, when we check the animals for parasites, do the blood sampling and also drag for ticks around the trapping grids. This means we have to predict the weather for the night (a little rain is ok, storming and flooding not ok) and then the next morning (very difficult to do the animal handling work in the pouring rain. This made me a bit apprehensive around lunchtime:

(Notice the storm making a b-line for Bloomington. Boo!) 

And as its gotten closer to Bloomington, I decided not to go out with my field assistant to set traps and drag tonight. I kind of hope it does rain to justify having to extend the field work into Friday. Ah, spring. How I love and loath you all at the same time.

The first one!

Hello! This is my first blog post ever, so I hope it is ok. I guess I’ll introduce myself. I’m Evie, a PhD student at Indiana University. I am studying disease ecology, specifically tick-borne disease and what makes some hosts carry more ticks or tick-borne pathogens than others. I am interested in how many community properties influence this, such as vector-host interactions, bacterial co-infection and microbial interactions, intra- and inter host population and community differences, and individual physiology, such as immune function. A lot of things to tie together, but I’m working on it! This is the summer of my 4th year, so more than half-way done but still a lot of work to do.

I wanted to start this blog because I think field work is a special, cool, exciting experience that I’d like to share, but also because during the field work, or for that matter lab work or writing as well, there are a lot of things I think about that I’d like a depository for. I hope this can turn in to a fun place to share stories about being a graduate student, ecologist, scientist, and person who is trying to carve out her niche.

My field work started about two weeks ago. (Oh, when I’m not in the field I do a lot of different things in the lab, but I’ll cross that bridge when the season is over.) My field research involved live-trapping small mammals, mainly white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus) and prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster). I take ticks, fleas, and any other ectoparasites off them, take a blood sample, give them an ear tag and release them where they were captured. These samples are processed later for co-infection in the ticks and mammals. The blood serum is also used in immune assays. So, collect all the samples in the course of 2-3 months when the ticks are active, spend the rest of the year processing the samples, analyzing data, and writing papers.

 Pine vole (Microtus pinetorum) that we caught during the 2009 field season.
White-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) that I caught a couple weeks ago. See if you can see the ticks covering its ears.

We do this sampling in southern Indiana at sites that are about 15 miles south of Bloomington. This is kind of nice because we don’t have to spend lots of money traveling to faraway places to do our research. Makes things cheaper and easier, logistically. I do get a bit jealous of friends who do get to go to awesome places over the summer to do their field work, like the rainforest or national parks, but oh well. I have become quite fond of rural Indiana and am happy to be doing what I’m doing. It can seem like exciting things only happen not where you are, in places that seem more exotic or exciting, but in most cases it seems like the same patterns happen everywhere and you may be missing part of the big picture by not exploring them in your backyard.