Ecology is a Dirty Practice

The fieldwork for my PhD took place on tropical islands off the north-west coast of Australia. I was researching seabirds. As each field trip approached, there was one particular sentence frequently uttered by friend and acquaintance alike. ‘If you need a volunteer, I’d be happy to help out’. Without fail, word for word. I knew that some would be able to hack it, but I doubted very much whether most would cope. You may have heard that ecology is not a dirty word, but it certainly can be a dirty research field to practice. When people offered me their assistance, I knew that most were envisioning warm, blue water lapping up a white, sandy beach, and all the colours of the surrounding coral reef. One of my study sites was exactly like these conjured visions. But I wasn’t there for leisure. My other study site had a healthy population of saltwater crocodiles that put paid to any notion of lazing on the beach after indulging in a snorkel. When I think of my study sites, three things come to mind: sleep deprivation, inescapable sun, and bird poo and vomit.

Invariably, ecological fieldwork involves long days in the field. At one point of a PhD field trip, I had slept for just four hours in a three-day period; another, I caught and processed seabirds for twenty six and a half hours straight. Unusual sleep patterns are a common feature in ecology. My past research experience has been on woodland birds in Victoria and most bird surveys require you to be collecting data at dawn when the birds are frequently calling and the cool, morning temperatures favour maximum activity. I have had alarms set for 2:30am to ensure I made it to particularly remote survey sites for sunrise. But it’s not just bird research that disrupts ecologists’ sleep patterns. Working on mammals may require night-time spotlighting, or a schedule of late night and early morning setting and checking of traps that leaves no chance for any sustained block of sleep.

Completely exhausted after working long into the night catching seabirds. Sleep is welcome wherever you can get it. Image: Rowan Mott

Completely exhausted after working long into the night catching seabirds. Sleep is welcome wherever you can get it. Image: Rowan Mott

There were four islands at one of my PhD study sites and a single island at the other. Across all five islands, there were only two trees. Just two palm trees that provided non-existent shade. The tropical sun belted down, drawing the sweat out like you were a sponge being squeezed. This meant carrying lots of water, but this meant moving around the islands required more effort. The heat and humidity were suffocating. Then there was the tangle of Ipomea vines that would snare your ankles and bring you to your knees. These were challenging conditions to say the least and heat exhaustion was a very real prospect. Fast-forward to last week, and I was atop Falls Creek doing plant surveys. It was uncharacteristically cold for mid-November. I had woollen gloves, but had to keep taking them off to tie a succession of knots in string marking the survey quadrats. The cold stung my fingers and with each knot, my capacity for fine motor skills decreased further, thereby lengthening the time my fingers needed to be exposed. As the sleety rain and strong wind bit into my face, I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two fieldwork experiences. Ecologists may try to control for a lot of variables in their experimental design, but we certainly cannot control the weather.

You know you are approaching a seabird island long before the dinghy has made it to shore. There is the distant hum of countless squawking seabirds, and then there is the smell. It’s unmistakable and indescribable at the same time. It emanates from the combination of years and years of accumulated seabird poo, prey remains, and corpses of seabirds that have died on the island (mortality of nestling seabirds can be quite high). You quickly become desensitised to it, though. Catching these birds often required me to crawl along on my belly, my face centimetres above generations-worth of seabird poo, while maintaining focus on the target bird. Just to ensure that you were adequately poo-dowsed, each bird I caught made a point of defecating and/or regurgitating a fishy meal on me. To make matters worse, my study species were not small birds.

I have also found myself in other places I would prefer not to be while doing ecology fieldwork. I spent several nights in a mouse-infested hut in the mallee of north-west Victoria during a stint of bird surveys. As soon as the sun set, mice were everywhere. I was not looking forward to going to sleep, so I took the precaution of pulling the bed away from the wall. Obviously, I didn’t pull it far enough away because I woke up with a mouse tugging hairs from my head. I went home at the end of that field trip with fewer hairs and red, circular marks on my back that signified a case of ringworm that must have been the mouse’s idea of a fair exchange for some hair.

My back covered in seabird ticks. It took three people a very long time to pull all of these out and even then some were missed, only to turn up several days later. Image: Rowan Mott

My back covered in seabird ticks. It took three people a very long time to pull all of these out and even then some were missed, only to turn up several days later. Image: Rowan Mott

As that anecdote indicates, ecology fieldwork can put you in contact with some animals that you would rather not meet. When offers for volunteers were flooding in, I doubt many had considered the prospect of an animal encounter that would make their skin crawl. And when I say skin crawl, this is about as literal as it comes. I once had to swap the battery on some equipment left at one of my study islands. The vegetation surrounding it was swathed in a mass of seabird ticks. Within seconds of commencing, I had ticks crawling on me. Within minutes I had given up trying to brush them off and focused on finishing what needed to be done so I could make a quick break for the beach. I was covered. There were too many to count and, despite the best efforts to remove them all, I was finding them for days to come.

Here in Victoria, I have had dangerous wildlife encounters while doing ecology research. It is difficult to look where you are treading when counting birds in the canopy. My pulse certainly races whenever I look down and find a snake at my feet. In every instance that this has occurred, the snake and I have parted ways on amicable terms. Every instance except one, that is. On this occasion, it was a cool morning; no doubt the snake I had unknowingly approached was lethargic due to the cool conditions and couldn’t muster the energy to move out of my way. I caught sight of a tiny section of its body nestled in the streamside grass, but before I could spot its head, it had struck at me. I jumped and narrowly avoided being bitten on the knee. Another quick side-step later and we were heading in opposite directions. The next time I went back to that site, there was a snake skin at the exact place that this near miss occurred. I collected it and have it on my bookcase as a reminder of how close looking at birds had taken me to danger.

My hands at the end of a field trip catching seabirds. Image: Rowan Mott

My hands at the end of a field trip catching seabirds. Image: Rowan Mott

Sometimes it is the animals you do want to come in contact with that are the cause of pain. Many a seabird biologist will tell you just how much damage their study species is capable of inflicting on a carelessly placed hand. Even tiny marsupials, such as Mulgara, are treated with reverence for the painful bite they can inflict. And there are botanists who are allergic to the very species they are doing research on. Worse still, sometimes it’s not wildlife that is the major concern, but people. Twice now, I have been doing a bird survey in farm paddocks when gunshots have broken the background of birdsong. The farmers, having forgotten that I had asked permission to be on their property a day or so earlier, had decided to do some pest control in the very same paddock I was standing in. One step beyond the risk of being mistakenly shot is the outright, face-to-face, verbal threat that you will be shot unless you vacate the property. Thankfully, this has only happened to me once when communication between two business partners broke down, resulting in one thinking that I was trespassing.

The romantic notions people have of what field ecologists do are often very far from the truth. Yet, despite all of the tribulations I’ve encountered during the course of my research, I still enjoy what I do immensely. I hope that this article gives you an appreciation for research that isn’t always glamorous. So, next time you hear about some important ecology research that furthers our understanding of the natural world and helps us to better conserve it, spare a thought for the researchers who collected the data. Chances are, there was a certain amount of suffering that went along with the euphoric highs of fieldwork.

Rowan Mott

Rowan is a PhD student studying seabird ecology. When he's not thinking about the ocean, he likes to think about woodland birds. 

You can find him on Twitter at @roamingmoth

Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott: 'I found a snake skin at the exact place I narrowly avoided being bitten on the previous visit to the site.'