Salamanders Aren’t Fish
One of the best things about graduate school is that there is no shortage of people who are in desperate need of willing (and unwilling) volunteers to help them in the field. Walking in the shoes of another biologist can be a great learning experience. I love my fish, and I won’t be trading them out for another animal anytime soon. But, collecting data on another organism can be more exciting because there are so many unknown about the system. With trout, I already have a standard operating procedure. Not much is surprising, not much is overly exciting. Deer? Bats? Mussels? All new to me.
I’ve been the benefactor of gracious volunteers on many occasions, and so when my friend, David, was going door-to-door asking for help I was quick to jump. It took about ten minutes before I realized what I had just volunteered to do-survey salamanders for 12 hours in cold, wet weather. That doesn’t seem so bad, right? What if I told you that it started at 10pm, and you would be crawling around the forest floor all night long?
What was I thinking?
Completing and recovering from the survey has probably been the most interesting thing I did this week. So, for today’s post, I’m giving a play-by-play of what happens when the very sleep-motivated fish biologist volunteers on the salamander crew.
4:00am: My normal wake-up call. As I fall out of bed and think about the day ahead, I remember I volunteered to go salamander-ing tonight. Who am I?
11:00am: Wait, what the hell am I going to the forest to look for tonight? A quick chat with another grad student and I’ve got a search image. A red-backed salamander. They joke that I’ll probably confuse frogs, rocks, and sticks with salamanders. They’re probably not wrong. I am no taxonomist.
2:30pm: I leave the office early with intentions to go home, relax, and catch a few hours of sleep before a harsh 9pm wake-up call. Temptation to nap hits around 3:30, but I fight it off. A 20-minute nap now will surely ruin any chances of catching a few solid hours of sleep later. This turns out to be a stupid decision.
6:30pm: Crap. I’m not tired.
8:00pm: Still not tired.
8:10pm: What does one need for a night of salamander-ing? I find snacks and very optimistically pull out my sleeping bag. We’ll be doing one survey at midnight, and another at 6am. Maybe we’ll finish the first survey early and catch a little sleep.
9:00pm: It’s my normal bedtime and I am so very tired. I make a large pot of coffee, pack some away for tomorrow, and drink the other half now.
9:45pm: I leave my apartment to meet the rest of the midnight crew. We travel about an hour to a camp in Bald Eagle State Park.
12:00am: We’ve unloaded the car, prepared all the supplies, and have been given our marching orders. We need to catch 20 salamanders as fast as possible. As soon as we catch one, we place it in a plastic sandwich bag, record the ground temperature, and give it to David who then takes them back to the cabin for processing. We’re dropped off at the site and basically commence a biological word search. Check tree bases, search through leaves, overturn logs and rocks. The salamanders are most active in the middle of the night, so we shouldn’t have too much problem finding them.
1:00am: We’re having problems finding them. Mostly because the crew is under experienced and has no idea what ideal salamander spots look like. I’ve definitely checked the same tree at least five times, but in the darkness it’s easy to get turned around and have no idea where you are. But, we hit a stride, catch a bunch of salamanders in a row, and things are looking up.
2:15am: We finish catching the salamanders and head back to the cabin thinking that the night is almost over. Ha. Now we have to finish processing them. The objective of the project was to determine how stress hormone levels change throughout the day. As it turns out, collecting stress hormones in a salamander is fairly easy. You simply put the salamander in a jar of water for some amount of time, and then measure the amount of stress hormones in the water. So, back in the cabin, each salamander had been floating in a mason jar for an hour. After time was up, the water was saved in a tube, put in the freezer, and the salamander back in the jar. Now we needed to record length, weight, and sex of each individual, and put them back in their little bag. Shouldn’t take too long, right?
Beating heartbeat from a salamander. Very cool, even when not seen at 3am.
4:00am: It took two hours. The next salamander search starts in two hours, so we try to catch a couple minutes of sleep. But, being as this is my normal wake-up time, I’ve hit a bit of a second wind. Maybe I doze for a few minutes, but I’m actually happy to hear David’s alarm go off at 5:15am to start this all over again. I was getting bored.
6:00am: Salamander search, the sequel. But, now that we know what to do, it goes much faster. The sun is starting to come up, the birds are starting to chirp, but exhaustion is setting in. That thermos of lukewarm coffee has never tasted better.
9:00am: We finish processing the second group, pack up the cabin, release the salamanders back to their homes, and head back to campus. Luckily, we all have meetings on campus that take most of the day, so any thoughts of going home to nap are off the table.
9:00pm: Finally, nearly 41 hours after waking up, I’m home, showered, and in bed. I don’t remember the last time I pulled an all-nighter, but I do know I don’t miss it.
So, what lessons did I learn? Night field work is a blast, but I never want to make it a regular event. I’m actually fairly decent at catching salamanders, but really suck at counting their eggs. And, at this stage of my life, it takes several days to recover from an all-nighter. Still working on that.
My work on the night crew resulted in an invitation to join the day crew for another survey, this time starting at noon. I suspect that daytime searches are going to be harder, but at least I should get home before sunrise this time.
Next week, I promise to get back to the land of trout. Until then, I want to remind you that it is brook trout spawning season, and while the trout are at their prettiest right now, it’s probably not the best time of year to be hitting your favorite watering hole.
Through the Curious Eye
Now that I’m not in the field these updates are getting a little harder to write. I officially have a “desk job,” and there isn’t much exciting about it on a week-to-week basis. For those of you who are wondering, the introgression manuscript continues to make progress. I’m starting to be a little less stingy with some of the results now that the analysis is complete and I’m confident that the numbers are correct. But, I’m not putting anything into writing until the manuscript has been vetted against all the important people that are above me in the academic food chain.
Last week, I did get a chance to get out from behind my computer. But, instead of hitting the streams of Loyalsock, I traded my office chair for a seat in a kindergarten classroom. My advisor, Ty, asked me to help him put on a short demonstration for the kindergarteners at the local elementary school. Having really minimal experience with kids, and a lot of uncertainties about our ability to keep the fish alive and well for a few hours, there was a lot of doubt on how this was going to go off.
But, it was a lot of fun. Kindergarteners make the best amateur fish biologists. They still find slimy things cool, aren’t afraid to touch everything, and ask some of the best questions.
“Do fish have bones?”
“Will it eat my finger?”
“What do fish drink?”
“Why does it have spines?”
“Why is he puffing his cheeks out?”
“Why are those lobsters fighting each other?”
Okay, so maybe we didn’t explain the ID for crayfish all that well. But, these endless questions reminded me of why I got into science in the first place. I can ask a question about this thing I don’t know much about, and someone will have the answer. And, if they don’t have the answer, I can go find it out for myself.
Obviously science gets much complex than kindergarten queries. And, science is down right hard sometimes. Long hours, lots of confusion, lots of times you feel stupid and wrong. But, those hardships only become true burdens when you start asking questions that don’t excite you. It’s easy to hate science when you study something that you, deep down, don’t care to know the answer about. It doesn’t help that the scientific process is sometimes riddled with extraneous steps that can keep you from pursuing your curiosities.
So, deep breath. Step back.
I’m just out here, trying to ask and answer questions that get me excited. To that end, I’m making a new rule. When my face stops looking like that of the girl’s above- sheer excitement, curiosity, and wonder, I’m quitting.
(If you’ve seen me net a large trout, you know I’m nowhere close to quitting.)
Five Inevitable Tasks
We’re so close to submitting our introgression manuscript! This is always one of the most exciting, but also one of the most torturous stages of manuscript preparation. You’re so close to being done (at least until reviews come back), and at this point so tired of working on this one project. But, there are so many tiny little things you have to do before you hit submit- check, recheck, and triple check all your statistics, make sure the format is correct (every journal has their own requirements for what should be bolded, italicized, word counts, etc.), confirm the address of your coauthors, etc. The exciting science is basically over, and now it’s more administrational tasks.
This is part of science and graduate school that I never knew about until I started down this path. I still have my fair share of days spent getting my hands wet, holding fish, analyzing data, and being generally confused. You know, all the things I knew science and research entailed. But, there are some jobs, and some parts of jobs, that I never really knew would be part of my career at this stage.
So, for all those out there feverously preparing their graduate school applications, or just wondering what it’s like to be an early career fish biologists, here’s the top five things I never knew I’d be doing at this phase of my career.
Wrap up from Wild Trout XII
Warning: Sappy post ahead
Yes, I disappeared again. I’ve been traveling the Rockies- a trip that was initiated by the Wild Trout Symposium in Yellowstone, and then quickly got out of hand when I decided to tack on a few vacation days after realizing how close all of the national parks are. I obviously use the term “close” loosely here, and my bright ideas received further encouragement by my inability to look at the scale bar on a map. But, after nearly 3,000 miles, three national parks (Badlands, Yellowstone, and Grand Tetons), a national memorial (Mount Rushmore), a national monument (Craters of the Moon), and eight states, I am officially working my way back towards home. Very slowly I might add- I’m currently overlooking the sunset over Great Salt Lake from Antelope Island State Park (state park #2, for those counting) before catching the red eye back east.
It goes without saying- this was a trip of a lifetime. But, maybe for reasons that aren’t so obvious. Yes, the parks were gorgeous. I’m already planning my trip back. You can’t help but be amazed by the geological and biological wonders of this region. And, I got close enough to pet a bison on multiple occasions (I didn’t…my advisor warned me it would not end well).
But, I kind of expected most of that to happen. What I wasn’t expecting was to walk away from the conference so inspired. The Wild Trout Symposium gave new breath at just the time when a PhD student needs it most. Don’t get me wrong, I love my research. I cannot possibly imagine a better project, and there are very few days where I don’t love coming to the office. But, sometimes you get caught in the weeds, especially as you’re trying to string together the analyses, appease reviewers, write papers, and run the rat race of academia.
And, while I also enjoy larger meetings (like the American Fisheries Society meeting I attended in August, which always has attendance in the thousands), there is something special about speaking to “your people.” The people who love trout, study trout, and work harder then you to protect and conserve trout. It was interesting to hear about the research advances and conservation challenges that others are facing around the world and across all trout species. It really helped put everything into perspective about the more global significance of the work that is happening in my little corner of the trout world.
At the meeting, I also realized more than ever that I’ve grown. A lot. Science education happens very slowly, and there are very few benchmarks for measuring success. You can take tests and get degrees, but those don’t necessarily measure your ability to practice sound science. Soon I’ll be trying to convince my defense committee that I’m worthy of a degree, and the thought of it is panicking- do I really know enough science to deserve a doctorate? Hard to say, and I think the more degrees you get the more you recognize that you’ll always wish you knew more.
But, I was reminded this week that while I still have (and will always have) a long way to go, I’ve also come a long way. At the meeting, I was honored to win the Marty Seldon Scholarship. The person presenting the award was a member of my Master’s committee, and was almost certainly in attendance the first time I presented at a fish conference. He said the traditional mumbo jumbo- my degree, my school, my project, but then went off script to express how proud he was of the scientist I had become. It meant a lot, and reminded me of the knowledge base (or lack thereof) I had when I first started working in fisheries about 10 years ago. I’d sit in the audience at conferences, having no idea what people were talking about and praying no one asked me questions about my own project. Today, I’m winning awards and serving as a source of advice and knowledge. Crazy. I still, and will forever, have a lot to learn. But, I’ve grown. I’m getting better. Something I’m doing is working.
Part of that growth is being able to recognize the significance of a research project. And, there was some great research presented at this meeting. Unfortunately, many of the presentations painted the same dark picture we all know have come to associate with native trout conservation. Habitat is tanking, temperatures are rising, diseases are becoming more common, harvest regulations are inadequate, and hybridization could mean the end to entire species. It would normally be enough to make a trout lover walk away extremely disheartened and hopeless.
But, I didn’t. I walked away more confident about the future of trout populations that I had been before because I realized that there are some amazing people in this field. It’s a group of biologist that work tirelessly and are making some great advances in the ecology of wild trout management. We’re moving away from the emphasis on stocking and towards a more holistic approach to conservation. Everything from genetics to metapopulations, habitat improvements to angler satisfaction. It all needs to considered to get the harmonious balance needed to have a chance of conserving wild trout. And, the group gets that.
The next hard step that many people identified was now getting all of that science into the hands of managers, anglers, and citizen scientists. We can’t keep managing our resources in ways that we know defy science, but we also can’t change our management when the science is unknown or untrusted. So, my only criticism of that meeting was that I wish you, the angler group that I think comprises the majority of my readership, could have bene there. I think one of the missing pieces of the puzzle at this meeting, but also in general management, is the union between scientists and the public. We’re living in separate bubbles to a large extent, and until we close those gaps we’ll continue to struggle to find the happy balance. Nothing is new on that front, but it’s more justification for why things like this blog and other outreach initiatives are so vital.
Even in a perfect world, I don’t expect the fight for native trout to ever get easy. I think one of the lines that echo in my mind was from a presentation from the Yellowstone National Park Superintendent. He talked about their efforts to restore populations of Yellowstone cutthroat trout, which are declining due to habitat loss and invasion by nonnative fishes. At the end, he mentioned some of the hurdles associated with Yellowstone cutthroat trout conservation, and overwhelmingly he noted that he never dreamed that the fight for wild trout conservation would be met with so much resistance. If Yellowstone struggles to restore wild trout, how will all the tiny streams with brook trout possibly fair? I’m not sure, but I have no doubt that we’ll keep putting up a good fight.
Exhaustion has set in, and I’m now sitting in terminal A of the Salt Lake City Airport awaiting my midnight boarding call. I’m tired, I’m behind on work, but my head is clear and drive is restored.
Wild Trout XII was a success.