Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pandas are much harder to study than monkeys

"Anybody who has experienced our work knows it is not that glamorous. It is sometimes boring and lonely," Panda researcher Yang Yi

The LA Times has an interesting article on censusing pandas, and what struck me is that while the challenges and frustrations of panda research are similar to my own, the rewards are much fewer and far between.

Yi's statement would apply to most fieldwork. It definitely applied to some parts of mine. However, the work of censusing and studying pandas makes my research look easy, and far more rewarding. When censusing unhabituated animals, you have to look for traces, such as feces, prints, scratches, or nests, depending on the type of animal you are studying. For example, if you are censusing great apes, you look for nests. If you are censusing panda droppings, you look for panda feces. And while fecals are rewarding as both data points and assurances that the pandas are still there, they are not as rewarding as seeing the animal itself. And pandas sightings are rare. I've heard that dedicated panda biologists consider it a highlight to see one in the wild just a few times in their career. Dai Bo, a wildlife biologist quoted in the LA Times articles, has worked in the mountainous Sichuan province for 20 years without seeing a single panda.

This really reminds me how lucky I am to study animals that I could regularly observe, and increases my respect and appreciation for everyone who studies animals who are far more cryptic. I have learned from past field experiences that while I can put up with much of the loneliness, tedium, and frustrations of fieldwork, I need to regularly see the animals I am studying to stay motivated. And while I love the forest, and am fascinated by the research questions I am exploring, for me, the main reward is the joy of getting to know individual personalities, watching infants and juveniles grow, and peering into the daily lives and dramas of the animals I study. While I definitely have stretches in which I can't find the monkeys, or am constantly losing the monkeys as I get stuck in the swamp, I have the lucky moments in which I get to watch and enjoy the monkeys. And every once in a while, I get the opportunity to see other, more elusive animals, such as tayra, sloth, tamandua, jaguarundi, agouti, and tapir.

There are many times that I've wished I had chosen to study terrestrial, easy-to-see primates, such as baboons or macaques. But thinking about the panda census makes me realize how lucky I am to see my spider monkeys as often as I did.

However, for those of us sitting at our computers, it's much easier to see pandas, because the San Diego Zoo, the National Zoo, and Zoo Atlanta all have panda cams. Thus far, I have yet to find a spider monkey cam!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Field Notes on Science and Nature

I absolutely loved most of this book, and wish I had read it before doing my dissertation fieldwork. I HIGHLY recommend it for anyone going off to do fieldwork in the near or distant future, because it makes you think a lot about how you want to organize your data collection, as well as methods for identifying individuals, recording anecdotal information, and preparing for analysis and writing. Besides that, it also shows excerpts from the various researchers own field notes. My favorite chapter was “The Pleasure of Observing” by George Schaller, but I highly recommend at least skimming through all the chapters to see if there’s helpful or relevant information to you. The book contains chapters written by different field researchers in a variety of fields, from entomology to paleontology to biosocial anthropology, and covers a variety of different types of field recording systems… from the old-fashioned 19th century naturalists field journals to the standardized Grinnell system to utilizing sketching in field notes. While many of the authors feel strongly that there is something essential to having an old-fashioned, paper-and-pencil field notebook and lament replacing them with computers and hand-held recording devices, one author, Piotr Nasrecki, has a chapter entitled “Note-taking for Pencilophobes,” describes his experience developing an online database manager to create an entirely digital version of a field notebook.

Reading this has made me reflect a lot on how I record data, and what I do, (and don’t do) with my field notebooks. Back when I was in Cameroon, I kept a field journal that was similar to what I imagined old-fashioned naturalists’ field notebooks were like—a mix of journaling, recording field stories and experiences, and sketching butterflies that I’ve seen. But our data was recorded on separate checksheets, so this field journal was completely separate from data collection. In doing my masters research, I recorded data in checksheets in rite-in-rain notebooks, and then recopied them into another notebook, and then entered them into Excel spreadsheets. Notes and anecdotes were either noted in the notes section of my focal spreadsheets, or written in a Word field I kept for anecdotes and more detailed notes and descriptions. I kept the field notebooks in plastic baggies so that I could refer to them in the future, but that’s meant that they just sat festering in a moldy state in Ziplocs for quite a long time--if you do this, make sure you put some silica in with your notebooks, or they will get DISGUSTING!

For my dissertation data collection, I’ve been given conflicting advice. One of the reviewers of my NSF DDIG proposal seemed shocked that I would collect data in field notebooks (he/she said it was because paper can be eaten by termites, but I suspect he/she just thought it was a completely outdated practice), and advocated using a hand-held digital recorder. However, I think that in a rainforest environment, using technology in the field increases the risks of losing data—there’s always a risk of electronics malfunctioning in the humid environment, and if you drop it in a stream or swamp, there goes expensive equipment AND your data. But since I have dropped my field notebooks in swamps on multiple occasions, I know that you can just wipe the mud off the pages and still be able to see your data and notes. My advisor also did not like the idea of collecting data in field notebooks, and instead though that I should print out checksheets on rite-in-the-rain paper. However, this would require periodically printing in the field, which I didn’t know if it would be a possibility (the field station does now have both electricity and a printer, but the printer was not there at the beginning of my fieldwork, and until we were hooked up to the electrical grid about 10-11 months into my fieldwork, we only had generator power for a few hours in the evening). So instead I decided to stick with checksheets in my field notebook. Initially during my masters research I would spend a lot of time meticulously organizing neat checksheets in my notebooks, this was replaced by a messier, less time consuming version of the checksheet system that worked for me. I continued to stick with this method during my dissertation, because I already had my own system and shorthand down. Recordings for fecal collections also went down into my field notebook, and if there was something of interest I’d usually jot down very quick, abbreviated notes, and then expand on that in the evening when I was entering data.

During my dissertation research I also skipped the step of copying into a separate notebook, and instead went straight into entering data into my excel files. While I like having a separate written record, it’s very time-consuming, and I preferred being able to enter my data more quickly and I would back up my records on an external hard drive. Entering in data the evening it was collected gave me a chance to check over data, and expand on any observations that were only briefly noted in my notebooks. Notes on individual identification and any expanded notes or anecdotes went into word documents.

I also am very diligent about keeping my computer and hard drive safe from the humidity. While I do know of one person’s computer that molded to death at the field station, I suspect it was because she was not taking good care of it. To protect computers and other electronics from constant humidity, you need to run them regularly—the heat generated helps keep them dry. Since I used my computer nearly every evening, it was always in regular use. When not in use, its best to store them in some sort of dry box or bag. There are dry boxes/closets at the field station, but the heat from the lamps obviously only works when there was electricity. Instead, for both my masters and dissertation fieldwork, I kept a large plastic storage container with silica as my drybox, and it seems to have worked out quite well. The silica was wrapped in old socks, which are porous enough to allow the silica to absorb moisture while preventing silica beads from getting in everything.