by Kirsten Crandall
Strange looks, weird exclamations, tiny squeals, and questions about being aliens – these are the reactions we would receive when the public would see us emerge from the woods in our protective fieldwork gear (see picture below for full impact). This would normally be followed by looks of relief or curious questions as I began to explain my project and the reasons for wearing what I aptly named our “biohazard suits”. My answer: I am trying to protect myself from tiny blood-sucking monsters (i.e., ticks).
My fieldwork was conducted in the deciduous and mixedwood forests of Ontario and Quebec, otherwise known as prime tick habitat. In these forests, I studied mammal populations to determine if biodiversity and abundance have an impact on disease risk. I mainly used two techniques to study these populations: 1) small mammal trapping and 2) trail cameras. Both techniques were utilized at 16 field sites in Ontario and Quebec. Although this research seems quite straightforward, I can safely say that it is far from that. It was my first field season and I definitely learned a lot throughout the entire process.
Let’s rewind back to mid-May – the pre-fieldwork planning stage. Every field ecologist must go through this step, but the specific requirements are tailored to each person’s research. For myself, I had planned to start my fieldwork in July. Here’s the problem, the permit process does not care about your timeline. When researchers say to submit these applications in advance, do it. By mid-May, I was still awaiting approval for my Animal Use Protocol (AUP). Without this approval, I could not receive my provincial permits in Quebec from the Ministre des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs or in Ontario from the Ministry of Natural Resources. I had also just been told by the Ontario Provincial Parks permitting office that there were certain issues with my application, which led to completing a new application for an entirely different permit. I was also still missing half my field sites not because of disorganization, but because of strict limitations of potential locations for my sampling design. Not the kind of situation that you want to be in less than two months from the start of fieldwork. Once fieldwork finally began, the obstacles continued to arise here and there, some major and some minor.
July 2nd arrived – the start of fieldwork. By some miracle, I obtain my AUP and Ontario permit just on time, so off we go with my car packed to the brim with equipment for the Ontario field sites. Now the hard part, putting my theoretical experimental design into practice. That first week was a huge learning curve filled with frustration. It was the first time I had used any of my equipment and the first time I had to put my AUP into action, but my field assistant and I made it through! It was a good sampling week and we moved forward to the next field sites.
Week 2 was a tough one. My field assistant advised me that they could no longer help me with fieldwork in August. I had tried to plan for multiple fieldwork situations in advance, but had not prepared for something like this. I took it in stride and continued the next weeks of research thankful for the help they were providing me, but worried for the second month of work. I knew that somehow this problem would have to be resolved.
We moved onto week 3 where I had the great idea of placing field site locations in areas with tough terrain in hopes of being in more mammal-friendly habitat. The plan worked! The one site resulted in a higher abundance of small mammals and the other captured tons of pictures of larger mammals including wild turkeys, deer, and raccoons. Week 3 and 4 presented me with my biggest challenge yet: families of raccoons. You do not realize their impact at a location until you arrive the next day to check your traps and find them thrown in every direction up to 6 feet from their original location. I finally found the solution after multiple nights battling it out with my furry friends and some great advice from a fellow Ph.D. student! Raccoons LOVE marshmallows, so we baited around the trapping grids with this junk food while also changing the bait for the small mammals (i.e., removing the peanut butter).
Month two arrives and so we begin the last few weeks of fieldwork. At this point, my body is aching to stop, but I know there are only four weeks left and I must simply push through. At the beginning of week 5, I finally get the approval from the last Quebec field site. My four weeks left now turn into five weeks. My moral hits an all-time low after thinking I had hit the halfway point, which is no longer the case. Week 5 was also the most intense. A bad case of poison ivy for my field assistant in conjunction with getting stuck in a strong thunderstorm made for a tough week. Side note: never get stuck in a strong thunderstorm. I have never been more terrified in my life. I had been listening and watching the storm’s movement, but it quickly was upon us without warning. The 10-minute walk to the field site quickly became a sprint back to the car with heavy trail cameras on our backs. Seeing lightning strike in the corn fields less than a kilometer away is frightening. After this incident, I paid even closer attention to storm movements and the projected weather.
Week 6 is when the organizational trouble began, I was not able to find a regular field assistant for the month of August, so my solution was to plead for people to help me for shorter periods of time whenever they could for even a couple of days or a week. Without their help, my fieldwork would have been cut short. For them, I am forever grateful. Week 6 also brought with it my most unnerving experience. For the first time, I found a tick attached to me on my arm. Yikes. Precisely why my field assistants and I performed tick checks after every fieldwork session. This tick had been on me a maximum of 5 hours, making it unlikely to pose a risk of contracting disease. However, this situation could have been a lot worse had I not performed a tick check, resulting in an embedded tick from a region with known Lyme disease presence. Lucky for me, it happened on a day my supervisor was helping me in the field, so she helped me calmly remove the tick despite me being frazzled.
Week 7 was fun! A lab mate helped me and it was a week with no fieldwork-related issues, equipment or site-wise. Note to self, when camping during fieldwork, always make sure to check the nightly minimum temperatures for the week. Yes, we woke up shivering in our cold weather sleeping bags as it had dropped to 7°C and were not prepared.
Week 8 and 9 were the funniest. If you ever get the chance, you should take family to help you with fieldwork – yes, that is exactly what I did. They might not be biologists, but I can never thank my family members enough for helping me the last couple of weeks when I was so emotionally and physically exhausted. We made some memories that will last a lifetime including an incident with a “dancing trap”. That morning was like any other, we were checking the traps when suddenly, I hear my mother yelling from a distance to come quickly because of a visibly rambunctious trap. I was of course skeptical, but I tell her it is okay and that I will check it out. Well low and behold, she was right! I walk up to the trap and it is literally shaking side to side and jumping up and down off the ground. My problem was I had to somehow let out the culprit. After finally removing a part of the trap, the inhabitant was screaming and yelping as it ran up a tree without me seeing it. I quickly ran after it to determine what mammal species it is – I still needed that information for my research! I was then face to face looking up at a red squirrel who has now turned to try and charge at me down the tree stopping abruptly when it realized it was too close. I moved away from the tree once I was finished identifying the squirrel to let it calm down and walked away continuing to laugh about the experience with my mom. The next and final day of fieldwork while checking traps in that area, we heard the same alarm cues coming from the tree above and I already knew my fluffy friend was keeping a watchful eye on me.
That final day, I felt a huge sigh of relief and pride knowing I had completed my first field season despite all the ups and downs. I had lots of fun working with all my field assistants and am very appreciative of all their efforts because without them there would have been no field season. At each field site, my interactions with the different stakeholders and the public solidified why I am doing this work and helped me get through some of those tougher moments. Next year’s field season will be different and probably more organized. But as for this year, I would not change a thing and am grateful for every experience and all the skills I gained.
Kirsten Crandall is a Ph.D. Cotutelle student in Biology under the supervision of Dr. Virginie Millien from McGill University and Dr. Jeremy Kerr at the University of Ottawa. She is interested in the connections between the abundance, biodiversity, and community composition of mammal populations with disease risk at large spatial scales. You can keep up to date on her research on Twitter (@kcrandall_bio).