Fieldwork Evolution

I had the opportunity for a little “working” vacation back in Ohio. And by working, I of course mean hardcore creeking. For science.

When biologists or naturalists are asked how they got into their field, the stereotype is they spent a lot of time outside as a kid, playing with creepy crawlies on the ground or catching frogs. I certainly fit that stereotype, both the catching insects in our garden and traversing the stream near our house. I lovingly referred to that stream as the “mosquito bites,” where I could catch frogs in “frog heaven” or find “secret hideouts” only accessible by crossing the nearly meter-long banks of the stream. If you were lucky you might see a local legend, a large, disgruntled snapping turtle that was rumored to bite off fingers.

When I was seriously thinking of becoming marine biologist (as serious as any elementary schooler can be), most folks responses with “oh, you must want to go to Florida or work on the beaches!” When I was younger I would just scratch my head; didn’t these adults know that there was way cooler stuff in the deep ocean or rocky tide or even the creeks nearby? Eventually, out of teenage spite, I told folks I disliked heat and planned to work in Alaska.

When I went to William and Mary for my undergrad, I was determined to get into a lab involved in marine science. And I was lucky, I was with the same lab and worked on the same project, for 3.5 years. I even got a publication out of it. During that time, I fell hard into the original claim of working in an aesthetic area. Despite the poor health of the Bay (though it appears some parts are on the uptick), the labs regular field site could be, at times, one of the most beautiful places I have been. And at the time I did not really care about the stereotype, I was incredibly happy.

12743999_10205858309956980_3928703624970481169_nIt is not fieldwork at the Bay without a shovel and bucket. PC: AK

IMG_3319No exaggeration, I was this excited to be there. PC: AK

The particular area I worked at was a rock bed right along the shoreline, where the rocks were fully covered in barnacles. My task; scrap off those barnacles into the bucket and try to collect the flatworms that lived inside. The flatworm, Stylochus ellipticus, also known as the “oyster-leech,” are exactly what you would think a flatworm looks like. Flat, brown, and smallish. I could occasionally get adult worms about the size of my thumbnail, but mostly I would get lots of smaller flatworms that were about a millimeter in length. That is, if I got any at all. As all fieldwork is, collecting is all about the luck of the draw. The only bit of comfort I had when I went out was once I found a few worms in one place, that same rock would likely carry tons of flatworms. It was a sort of coordinated buffet on the barnacles in one area, probably weakened from the extensive predation. Fieldwork often involves creating your own “technique” for the particular task, and eventually I got very good at keeping the bucket balanced against the rock and my legs, and scraping the barnacles directly in, to maximize my capture potential. That is because these flatworms can swim. After they sensed their home was literally being scraped off, they would evacuate immediately. And in the Bay, where visibility is maybe a few inches on a good day on the shore, you had no chance of finding them. Once I had seen a particular large worm try to flee, and in desperation for material tried to capture it with my gloved hands. Imagine my surprise when I found it stuck to my palm. I felt like a total badass.

When I was not doing my own collecting, my lab would be digging holes or collecting traps for other folk’s projects. Or, once a semester, we were just exploring the area. I found plenty of lion’s mane jellies to keep me content when the hermit crabs and hemichordates were not enough. Field work was all mud, tiny creatures, and unexpected finds.

When I graduated and moved to graduate school, I went to the last place that one might expect a jellyfish lab to be: Lawrence, Kansas. My lab mate and I both laugh at the time we spend explaining we are budding marine scientists in the middle of the USA. And it certainly makes the 15 min ride I could take to the Bay 24/7 seem like a long-past dream. But admittedly it does give us an awesome chance to do outreach; who does not love sea shells and critters in jars?

While I am currently spending most of my time on a computer or in the lab, I do want field collecting to be a part of what I do. Between bioinformatics, lab work, and field work, I think my ideal would be a 3:5:2 (I am a lab rat, what can I say). So I lucked out when I got to do some in my home state of Ohio. And I went for it; you might see waders in that first picture but I basically dove right into that lake for about two hours. And got myself two leeches to prove it!

IMG_6189Prepping for an adventure. PC: GF.

IMG_6188Diving right in! By the end, I will be as deep as my waist. PC: GF

And you may ask, what kind of collecting are you collecting in Ohio? That will be a post for another time.

I want to thank Dr. Daly at OSU for providing the equipment and lab space and Dr. Wood at Wright State helping me collect. Science is a team effort!


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