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Fieldwork story: Field methodologies for encounters with Homo Sapiens

This story is one of the winners for our 2017 Fieldwork Story Contest.

by Shaun Turney

of the best parts about field work is meeting people you wouldn’t otherwise
have the opportunity to meet. I’ve met some real characters over the years. As
an undergrad, I was an assistant to a PhD student tracking skunks in
Ontario. Many of her sites were on private property and the landowners often
wanted us to check in with them before checking our traps. One such landowner
was an elderly man living alone in a large, run-down farm house. He wouldn’t
talk to us except under very particular conditions. He would have us shout our
greetings and questions up to him while he stuck his head out the upstairs
window. This requirement to be several meters above us was strange, but stranger
still, he required us to talk only in high-pitch voices. The PhD student would
yell her “hello” up to him, he would yell down, “higher-pitch please”. Without
a trace of a smile or a hint that she was in any way perturbed, she would yell
up another “hello” in a Mickey Mouse voice. I told myself that one day I would
handle helpful strangers’ benign eccentricities with such grace.

I’m a PhD student myself, with my own field assistants. I’ve improved in the
art of nodding my head and accepting strange fieldwork situations. Recently, in
the wilderness of the Yukon, we met a husband and wife. The husband introduced
himself as a “Rock Hound”. He refused to explain further, but we guessed he was
probably a rock collector. One day he came to us with a bug he wanted us to
identify for him. He had found the bug while digging through some bushes,
looking for special rocks. I had just begun my PhD in entomology and the only
bugs I was familiar with from my master’s degree were ticks. To my relief, his
bug was a tick, and I got away with looking more knowledgeable than I truly
was. To thank us, he gave us one of those electrified rackets for zapping
mosquitos. “For your bug-catching research”, he explained.

same summer, we met a man who was delighted to hear we studied insects. He
wanted to tell us about a theory he had developed. He told us he ate any
mosquito that would land on him. “For revenge”, he explained. There are a lot
of mosquitos in the Yukon, so his mosquito consumption must have been substantial.
He said they didn’t taste like much – except for the orange ones. “I think the
orange ones are toxic”, he told us, “so I just squish those ones”. “Interesting
theory”, I replied, without a hint of perturbation. Well, maybe a small hint –
but I’m working on it.

Shaun Turney is a PhD student in McGill’s Department of Natural Resource Sciences. Under the supervision of professors Chris Buddle and Gregor Fussmann, he studies spiders and insects to learn about how predators and prey interact.

Post date: January 19, 2018


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