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.