Saturday, September 5, 2015

Fairy-wren tour of Australia, Phase I

Fairy-wrens are among the most charismatic and well-studied of Australia's birds. They are mostly known for having scandalous mating systems (lots of fooling around between neighbours) and gorgeously colored males.
However, though folks have been studying these birds for decades, they have mostly been focused on the males and very little has been done looking at the females. But the females are interesting too. Some a very brown and drab, some are a gorgeous blue, and all of them sing. And the best thing, is we have no idea why they differ so much. And that is where we come in.
Two female fairy-wrens, a superb (left) and a lovely (right)

I'm currently working on a large comparative project that involves traveling to 7 different field sites across Australia. We're working on determining the function of female song and female ornamentation and why there is such variation among species.

I've just finished phase I, which focused on the lovely fairy-wren, the gorgeous blue one above. The lovelies live in tropical Northern Australia, in and around mangrove forests.

I'm now embarking on phase II, focusing on red-backed and variegated fairy-wrens a little further south. These females are perhaps the dullest, but are still singing their little heads off.

Excited for the next adventure!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Dirty Jobs

Exploiting some young volunteers
This is a great job I have. Sure, it has problems, but overall I love it, and am not surprised that lots of other people think they would love it to. That is part of the reason why I write this blog, to give others some insight into what its's really like.
Through this blog, I often receive emails from aspiring young field biologists asking for advice in pursuing their dream to become a professional field biologist. Most frequently, they are looking for help getting started, what courses to take, majors to choose, and skills to acquire. 
One of the most important things, is to get some real experience actually doing field biology. You can do this a number of ways: high quality university courses, working with a local citizen scientist group, volunteering for conservation organisations, or through the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program.

Students learning how to determine sex in salamanders
One of the most common ways to get experience is by assisting a field biologist doing their research. This a great way to get hands on experiences, and the one-on-one training that helps you develop some of the actual skills that you need to do the job. Another added perk, these positions often involve traveling to beautiful and exotic locations, and working with fascinating or rare plants and animals. Given all of these advantages, it is perhaps not so surprising that there are a lot of people who want these positions. When the supply of people willing to do a job is a lot greater than the number of jobs that are available, that job is going to be pretty hard to get. It's even harder when you are lacking useful experience or skills.

But just wait. The story gets even bleaker. 
I've written before about how how important it is to fund basic research, and how bad the funding situation is for biologists like me. It is very, very difficult to get research funds, and even when you get them, you almost never get the full amount your propose. This means you have to stretch each research dollar as far as you can. Also, many research grants don't allow you to pay assistants a salary. 

So, what does it all mean? It means that most positions doing field research (unless it is your own) are volunteer positions. Some of them will pay your housing and food, some will pay your travel expenses, some will give you a small stipend to live on. But virtually none of them actually pay. And the few that actually do pay are usually given to folks with YEARS of experience. For the average young biologist, the only way to get experience is to exchange your hard work and time for this kind of training. 

This situation has recently been drawing some criticism in the form a new tumblr called Crap Wildlife "Jobs". This tumblr posts advertisements to unpaid research positions that the contributors find to be "unprofessional, exploitative, limit diversity, immoral, and in some jurisdictions, illegal". The author argues that work is work and if you work you should be paid, period. They also point out that this biases opportunity to those that can afford to have it, i.e. those that have the luxury of 'working' for no or very little money. The author is trying to effect change by highlighting this practice, and says they have no interest in shaming individuals or university.

I understand the bitterness of this website, having worked such jobs myself while going further into debt (which I do not advise). But imagine you are a student, funding all of your research using small grants that don't allow you to pay an assistant, but your school's safety policies require you to have some one with you in the field (in case of snake bite, etc.). You can't pay for help because you don't have the money and you are not allowed to use it for that even if you did. What can you do? Option 1: give up. Option 2: get a volunteer, Option 3: get bigger and better grants you slacker.
Click to embiggen

I agree with Crap Wildlife Jobs, some of the requests and expectations for volunteers are ridiculous. Further, it is definitely biased against folks that already have the deck stacked against them (hard to work for free when you are broke). But I'm not so sure that attacking us poor field biologists is the best way forward. All of the researchers I know would LOVE to pay people for their help and do everything they can to get them the most money. The problem is this is a symptom of a much bigger problem. Other symptoms include how much we pay teachers and adjunct professors (25% are on food stamps or other public assistance). There is also this pattern that only a small percentage of PhDs can find jobs in their field. Look at this pretty (and depressing) infographic, or this article, or this one.

The root of the problem is how little we value science in general and basic research in particular. Don't believe me? Click on the image to the left to feel the full facepalm effect of how little the US values science and research.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mad field skills

As the subtitle of the blog suggests, I am a field biologist.

Being a field biologist requires a special set of skills and to be a good field biologist or naturalist required years and years of work. However, we as a society are losing those skills because they are not being taught, and all the good ones are retiring.

A few months ago I saw an article in Scientific American entitled "Natural History is Dying, and We Are All the Losers". The article discusses the drop in natural history classes at the university level, and the costs that this might have for science as a whole.

Then just the other day I saw another article in Times Higher Eduction titled "Save field biology skills from extinction risk". This article focuses on the lack of value placed on identification skills in many higher education circles and why.

If you don't think naturalist/field biology is anything more than stamp collecting, remember that Darwin got his big idea (partially) from trying to classify a bunch of finches he collected as a ship's naturalist. That little "I think" and weird looking tree sketch to the right, changed science forever.

I'm glad that this pattern is starting to get more attention, and even more importantly, that other folks see it as a problem. There is a lot of fascinating and important aspects of biology that we would miss if we neglect the field side of things. But just as importantly, these parts of biology are the exciting parts, the parts that get in the general public and youngsters interested. And we need people interested in science, lots of them.

Here's a few links to inspire us all to put a little more value on the skills and knowledge required to understand organisms in the field.

Weird & Wild News

I F#$#ing Love Science

Live Science (weird animal discoveries)

Writings from the most famous gentleman naturalist, Darwin!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Evolution, you are amazing

We all know that evolution does crazy, crazy things.

If I were to ask most students of evolution for an example of how strong selection can lead to ridiculous and extravagant behaviors or appearances, I would probably get an array of sexually-selected traits as an answer.

Peacocks tails, elk antlers, puffer fish dances, stalk-eyed flies. All of these are weird and wonderful examples of how sexual selection can produce some pretty incredible traits.

In contrast, we usually think of natural selection as favoring practical traits. For example, many small birds are streaky brown, all the better to avoid getting munched, but not super exciting to look at. Or, how a fishes mouth works to optimize foraging, pretty important stuff, but not terribly flashy. This makes sense, most of natural selection focuses on not getting eaten while getting enough to eat yourself.

But every once in awhile an example comes along that turns the usual pattern inside out. Meet the Cinereous Mourner from the Amazonian rainforest. It's a pretty boring bird, as far as rainforest birds go, and looks like it does a good job of not getting spotted by being plainly colored. 


But, this is what the chick looks like. If you are a young bird trapped in a nest and unable to fly away, why oh why would you ever want to be so ridiculous? This makes no sense, right? 

The trick is, this chick is a master of disguise. The picture below the chick is a large, hairy, and toxic caterpillar. When the chick puts it's head down, it looks a lot like the caterpillar. Plus, it moves like one. Go here to see the video, but it bobs it's head around just like a caterpillar looking for a leaf to eat. So if you are a hungry predator looking for a delicious nestling to eat, but stumble onto something that looks and acts like a deadly caterpillar, chances are good that you'll give it a pass and move onto something that looks less likely to kill you if you eat it. So in this case, a crazy exaggerated appearance and behavior is all about not getting eaten.
A great example of how strong selection can lead to some pretty amazing things. This is also a great example of something called Batesian mimicry, which is when something that is harmless acts like something that is dangerous, like milk snakes (not dangerous) and coral snakes (deadly).
Nice one evolution!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Duck penises and ice bucket challenges??

So, a duck penis and an ice bucket walk into the bar...
This might be a great start to an awful joke. Duck penises and ice challenges also provide some pretty interesting insights into how the US is investing (or, more often, not investing) in research these days.

Let's start with duck penises. Not to long ago, during all of the budget debates, some lawmakers pointed out that US taxpayers are footing the bill for some research that on the surface might sound silly. These projects have things in the title that sounds frivolous in light of the countries budget woes. In addition to duck penis research, we are also funding research on snail sex, fly genetics and shrimps on a treadmill.
Shrimp on a treadmill
These things are an easy political target for lawmakers that want to reduce investment in science and have constitutes that have little science background. They even give out awards given for the most ridiculous sounding grants, the Golden Fleece Awards.

However, in reality, these projects are anything but silly. Instead, they are great examples of basic research. In this case, basic does mean remedial or simple, quite the opposite really, it just means that it is not specifically designed to solve a practical problem. Instead, it is geared towards trying understanding our crazy world, period.
Duck penis
Just because basic research is not designed to "cure cancer" doesn't mean that it is silly or useless. Basic research is the foundation that all applied science, medical research and technological advances are based on. Cut off basic research and you cut the legs off innovation and progress. To be fair, we scientist aren't very good at teaching the public about this. Just look at the comments below the popular articles about these studies (like here, here or here) and you'll find hundreds of people complaining about how government funding is being wasted on silly research.We need to get better about talking to the public about our science, and fast.

The truth is, there is no telling where the next big advancement will come from. Two examples. There are some weird jellyfish that glow green.
Art done with glowing bacteria. Seriously.
Biologist thought this was interesting and started trying to understand how it works. What they found led to a Nobel prize. The protein responsible for  glowing is now used for all kinds of research and plays a critical role in research on heart disease. Thanks weird jellyfish! Example 2: a group of biologist studying coral figured out that it is an ideal material for bone grafts, better than anything else we know of. Neither of these research groups set out to solve major human health problems; both lines of research started off as basic research that might look silly to the average tax payer. But the outcomes are anything but, as I imagine the families that are benefiting from this work would be happy to tell you. Both projects nominated for the 2014 Golden Goose Awards, which recognize major breakthroughs from federal research grants. 

What does any of this have to do with the ice bucket challenge? It all comes back to research funding. The US is facing some serious decisions about where to allocate limited money, and lawmakers recently decided that research doesn't need so much money. Budgets for research agencies, like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Health, were cut by 5%. All the ice buckets in the world are not going to make a dent in this loss in research funds. And this is just one disease, what about the rest? There is also a huge mismatch between the how deadly a disease is and how much money we donate towards research. And that's just in the US. The number for world-wide diseases would be even more disheartening. Plus, though cutting funding research might save money in the short-term, it is really bad for jobs and economic growth in the long-term, so we all lose.
Ice-buckets are unlikely to have a long-term effect on ALS research and human health, but it is my hope is that these challenges due serve to shock Americans in to appreciating how important research funding is for their everyday lives, even if they could care less about glowing jellyfish and duck penises.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Do you like it spicy?

They say that variety is the spice of life and this summer (Australian summer) I’m testing that idea.

For all of my previous research I’ve focused on one species at a time. Trying to catch all of the adults, find all of their nests, measure as many as possible, and generally become totally obsessed with one single species. 

Top: Superb-fairy wren. Bottom: Friarbird

This has some big advantages. You  become very cued into all of their little noises, what their nests look like, how they act when building or feeding nestlings, and the other little nuances that you need to get the job done. This knowledge provides the edge you need to get a large enough sample size, a tricky thing when working with free-living birds.
  As a result, I am very, very tuned in to two species, the dark-eyed junco and the superb fairy-wren. For both, I know all their little noises, I know their behaviors, I know where they like to nest and have a well-developed search image for their little hidden nests. 

Top: Varied Sittela, Bottom: Leaden Flycatcher
But now the game has changed. This year, in addition to focusing on female fairy-wren aggression and song, I'm also comparing nestlings color and begging calls. As a result, I need to find nests for a bunch of different species I've never worked with before. Most of them I recognize if I see them, some are new, and I am an expert on exactly none of them. This project is riding on me becoming a bit of an expert for a whole list of species, and fast.

Top: White-throated Gerygone, Bottom: Grey fantail
My days are now split between wrens and just about every other bird species living on the study-site (exceptions are parrots, ducks, birds of prey, etc). The result? Lots of fun and exhaustion. I am very much enjoying learning new birds and the challenge of finding their nests, which they try to hide. This also means that the work is never finished. I might find every fairy-wren nest in the area, but that doesn't mean I 'm done, just time to change gears. There is always more to find.  So, here's a little sample of my day to day.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Hurry-up and wait

In the life of a biologist it seems that the days are made up of bursts of hectic activity punctuated by long tedious bouts of waiting: waiting for the animal to show up, waiting for the assay to incubate, waiting for a decision from the granting agency, waiting for a decision from the journal editor. So much waiting, you feel like your brain is rusting.

This can be especially true in the field, where you can spend several hours or days waiting, and then suddenly, within minutes, it's over. In reference to this pattern of events, a colleague of mine once said

"Fieldwork is 80% boredom, 20% sheer terror".

This problem doesn't go away after you've finished the fieldwork, it can also be an issue when you are working on the analysis and writing. There are times when you are really jazzed about a project and don't need any help focusing, just get the heck out of the way and let me work. But, sometimes you find yourself in one of these waiting periods and it can be hard to do anything more than twiddle your thumbs. This doesn't mean there is nothing to do, more likely, there are a thousand things to do, but you are not immediately jazzed about any of them.

Before returning to academia I was not a to-do list kind of person. But lately I have been a list fanatic. Mostly, I use these lists when I'm in one of these waiting periods and don't have a lot of motivation. I've gotten into the habitat of keeping a running list of the many little things that need to be done. Makes me a little bit rust resistant.