A Greater Appreciation For: Mammalogy
This is Part 2 in my blog ‘mini-series’ on getting better acquainted with the various research units of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ Research & Collections section. Part 1 was Vertebrate Paleontology…this time: Mammalogy!
News of my experience with the Paleo unit has spread through the Museum; people have been reading my blog post about it (is THAT why folks around here point at me and laugh when I walk around the Museum?!?!). DESPITE that, the Museum’s curator of Mammals, Lisa Gatens, courageously invited me to join her, Mammals Collections Manager Ben Hess, and their crew (who, coincidentally, are all mammals!) in their effort to trap and tag small mammals at the Museum’s Prairie Ridge Ecostation. After my stellar performance with the Paleo unit, I suspected that the Mammalogy unit had relatively low expectations for me…indeed, I suspected that ‘grunt work’ was going to figure prominently in my immediate future!
Regardless, the fieldwork was set; we were to meet at the Ecostation at 5:15am. That’s O-Dark-Early for those of you unacquainted with time before sunrise. Calculating backwards: arrive at 5:15am, a 20 minute drive from home, get dressed, brush teeth…that means setting the ol’ alarm for about 4:30am. Wait…WHAT?!?!? Man, oh man…what have I agreed to now?!?
Arriving at the Ecostation’s parking area at the designated time, I was immediately surprised by the number of people involved with this fieldwork. Including myself, there were about 10 researchers, all enthusiastically awake and in good spirits. And what was even more surprising was that many among this crew are volunteers (yes, unpaid!). They were simply happy to be there to assist with this research project without getting a paycheck for it! Remarkable.
So, the goal of this research project is to characterize the small mammal populations in three generalized areas within the Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Although physically adjacent, each of these areas has slightly different micro-habitats…mainly differing in plant community composition. Lisa is interested in tracking differences in small mammal abundance across the three areas, investigating animal movement among the areas, and characterizing other population-level features relating to habitat use. To investigate these questions, they live-trap small mammals, tag each individual with uniquely numbered eartags, record data from each tagged animal (including sex, approximate age, reproductive status, body weight, and various physical measurements), and then release the animals. The majority of small mammal captures at Prairie Ridge are cotton rats (Sigmodon hispidus), but evidently a few other species are occasionally caught, as well.
As I had expected, I was initially asked to serve in — shall we say — an ‘entry level’ position. Basically, I was asked to carry an empty tube that would eventually be filled with flags on wire stakes used to mark the trap locations. I was to be a mule. Well, thought I…I’m not too proud. And mules are important mammals, right?
Before beginning work, each researcher called out a number…“57”, “63”, “74”, “75”; when they noticed my confusion, I was told that each person had to try to predict how many individual mammals would be trapped that day in the style of a “Price Is Right” bid. I was last in line, and thinking myself clever, I guessed one higher than the highest bid thus far…I called out “76”. I wasn’t sure what the winning bidder would get, but I was just happy to be playing!
Without much discussion, the research crew broke up into smaller teams of two or three workers; each team then started off towards different trap lines to start checking for captures. These folks have clearly done this a lot…there was no confusion of roles or responsibilities…each person seemed to already know what was expected and the work began. Seemingly, I was the only one pretending to know what was going on!
I joined the small team of Lisa and Connie, a graduate student working on ticks in NC State’s Department of Entomology…coincidentally, my own alma mater.
Lisa would physically check each trap, handle any captured animals, take the data measurements, and basically do all of the actual work. Connie’s role was as the data recorder…writing down the data points that Lisa would call out. She also was to supply Lisa with the tools (scales, rulers, etc.) that she needed at the time she needed them, and lastly to install an eartag on any animal that had not been previously tagged. It immediately impressed me that Connie knew exactly what Lisa needed at exactly the right time, minimizing the amount of time each captured animal had to be handled. They worked seamlessly together. Impressive. Me? I was a mule (and a largely superfluous one, at that). Being an ambitious mule, however, I quickly looked to increase my responsibilities and value to the team; so, unbidden, I voluntarily took on the dual roles of “ruler-carrier” and “trap picker-upper” (after each trap was emptied of occupant and discarded, the trap had to be picked-up and folded for removal and eventual cleaning). I was moving up in the world!
And so we checked traps! The first few were empty, some with the peanut-butter based bait still inside, some with the bait gone. On the third or fourth trap, however…SUCCESS…somebody was home! Lisa shook the contents of the small trap into a baggie, and out slid a bedraggled little hairball with feet and a tail…my first encounter with a cotton rat! I was immediately struck by how such a small animal could smell so bad! The little critter was soaked in urine and poop (this is, I’m told, exceedingly common when animals are trapped). She wasn’t having a good morning. Lisa deftly handled the little thing, calling out the data points to Connie, who recorded the measurements on the data sheets she carried, meanwhile handing various scales to Lisa at the appropriate times. I got to hand over the ruler I had been carrying, although I’m not sure my timing in doing so was quite as seamless. And I picked up and folded the discarded trap like nobody’s business…I was ALL OVER IT!!!
We, and the other researcher teams, checked traps for the better part of three hours, collectively recording data from 74 captured cotton rats. Oh, man! With my initial ‘bid’ of 76 captures, I was close, but not the winner. Turns out that there really wasn’t a prize…just daily bragging rights! All 74 of these captures were cotton rats…no other species collected today. We found a variety of ages (young, subadults, adults), females and males, a range of body sizes. The cotton rat population looks to be quite healthy there at Prairie Ridge. During the course of the morning, Lisa showed me how to evaluate the animals, determine their sex, age, and reproductive status, and demonstrated her ability to keep the animals calm and relatively docile while being handled (although a few of the males, particularly, were ferocious little dudes, trying to intimidate us by twitching their tails and nipping at Lisa’s gloved fingers). Pretty cool, really.
Nearing the end of the morning’s work, and after performing my duties with what can only be described as consummate professionalism, I received a promotion: I took over the role of data recorder from Connie for a few trap checks. No sweat, fellow mammals…I was up to the task.
Around this time, though, the sun had risen and the fields were relatively dry. I found my attention straying, as it’s liable to do, to the entomo-fauna in the surrounding vegetation. And what do you know…SUCCESS!!! I observed a few species of spittlebugs before being drawn back into the world of vertebrates for more data recording!
And so the experience was resoundingly positive. What did I learn? Two important points:
The first lesson is something that I have learned over and over through my own fieldwork expeditions: biological fieldwork is often not glamorous. When dealing with animals (doesn’t really matter which ones), you get covered with all kinds of nasty substances…excrement, urine, and/or slime of various kinds. It can be dirty, stinky, and gross. It can be tiring, sweaty, and difficult work. But it’s also extremely interesting and even the most routine of fieldwork can be exciting if you keep in mind the scientific questions you’re investigating. Despite all of the negatives one could say about biological fieldwork, the fact that so many people will volunteer to participate says it all…this is important work to do. Every piece of the puzzle allows us to understand the natural world around us that much better.
The second lesson of today is something of a novelty to me, and is something I’ll always carry with me as a potentially life-changing warning. In the course of learning how to determine the reproductive status of an animal, I was told – and this seems to be a lesson exclusive to Mammalogists – that “if it has nipples, it’s gonna get squeezed!” I found myself immensely happy to have been wearing a t-shirt!!!