Establishing New Field Sites

As I mentioned in a previous post, I feel that studies of natural systems are a really important component of ecological research. My research relies heavily on studies of natural populations of Daphnia. As a grad student, finding these populations was easy. With 50 years of aquatic ecology research at the Kellogg Biological Station, there was a lot of background information on the local lakes. Now, after needing to set up my own set of field sites in two places (Atlanta and SE Michigan), I realize just how lucky I was as a grad student. Finding field sites that are safe, accessible, and interesting takes work!

How have I gone about setting up new field sites in the Ann Arbor area? Let’s consider my three criteria (safety, accessibility, interest). Fortunately, the safety one is pretty easy. The biggest safety concern we have is that, in my opinion, it is not safe to sample during deer gun hunting season. That starts November 15th, so our last day of fieldwork is November 14th. That’s pretty easy to deal with. (Actually, it’s kind of welcome. The weather is usually far from ideal in Michigan at this time of year!) There are other hunting seasons that overlap with our field season (e.g., duck season, deer bow season), but those seem like much less of a safety risk. I do have concerns with sampling some of these lakes alone at night, though — more on that below.

I next considered accessibility and interest jointly. I was only interested in lakes that are deep enough to stratify, since the main species I work on require stratification (to avoid fish predation). Fortunately, I am lucky in that the bathymetric maps for most lakes in Michigan have been digitized and are available online. I could use those to make sure the lake was deep enough to stratify. I also was able to find a list of lakes with public boat launches (pdf link). Public launches mean that these lakes are accessible to us without needing to make friends with a landowner. (More on that below, too.) I also wanted lakes that we could sample frequently, so I wanted ones that were a maximum of about a 45 minute drive from campus.  Comparing the lists of lakes that were within ~45 minutes driving distance, deep enough to stratify, and had public access left us with about 20 lakes, which was enough for my needs. (Fortunately, Michigan has lots of lakes to choose from!) If it hadn’t been, I would have gone back to relax one or more of the criteria (most likely, increasing the driving distance).

We then spent last fall (my first field season at the University of Michigan) doing a quick survey of each of these 20 lakes. We wanted to make sure the lakes had enough Daphnia to be worth sampling, and also were hoping to get a sense for what parasites might be in the lakes. A few of the lakes ended up being pretty hard to access (e.g., a locked gate blocking access to the launch) or had essentially no Daphnia, so those lakes were cut from our sampling this year. This left us with 15 lakes that we’re sampling regularly. And, as I’ve said before, some of these sites are beautiful, even if they aren’t typically considered glamorous field locales.

Sullivan c
(Sullivan Lake, one of our study lakes. Photo by Bella Oleksy, used with permission)

While this has been a great start, we still have two major tasks related to establishing field sites. The first is probably the simpler one to deal with: we need to find some non-publicly accessible lakes. We sometimes do field experiments or deploy valuable equipment for extended periods of time. This work is very hard to do in lakes with public access. The odds are much greater that something bad will happen to your experiment/equipment in a publicly accessible lake. As a grad student, there were a set of lakes that we sampled that were only accessible from private property. This included my favorite lake, Warner Lake, which we accessed via a sheep farm that had a llama guarding the sheep. (A guard llama!) These lakes were really valuable, since we could set up experiments in them. I also generally feel safe sampling these lakes alone at night — they have less boat traffic, and it’s much less likely that there will be someone lurking at the launch area.

I knew that we worked hard to maintain these relationships with the homeowners who allowed us access to private lakes (including by giving them maple syrup from the Kellogg Forest), but I didn’t know how the relationships were established in the first place. It turns out that some of them were established by Don Hall and Earl Werner when they first started at KBS. They spent time driving around with a map, looking for farm houses near lakes that looked interesting. Don says that he always made Earl knock on the door to ask if they could use their property to access the lake, since he claims that the homeowners responded better to requests from Earl. I wonder how well this sort of approach would work today – I suspect a lot of people would think we were a little crazy. But, since my efforts to find out who might have a cottage on a lake haven’t been successful so far, we may resort to this approach in the future.

The second thing that remains to be done is to establish all the baseline information we need on our new study populations. This will take much longer. Another common theme of the talks at the KBS Aquatic Ecology Celebration was that there is tremendous value in long-term study sites. If I wanted to know about the nutrient levels, fish predation, food quality, etc. in the lakes I studied as a grad student, I could simply pull a reprint or dissertation (or Wetzel’s textbook!) off the shelf to get that information. My hope is that we will eventually develop this wealth of knowledge on the lakes near Ann Arbor, but, of course, this will take a lot of time and effort.

All of the time and effort that goes into selecting new study sites and getting enough background data on them is one of the reasons why I’m a fan of system-based research. Of course, we’ll add on new field sites as needed, but I very much hope that some of our current lake emerge as workhorses for us, and that we’ll still be working on them 10-20 years from now.

Have you established your own field sites? How did you find them? What criteria did you use when selecting them? Are there things you overlooked that you now wish you had considered?

In Praise of Boring, Local Field Sites

When people discuss where they do their research, there can be a certain amount of field site envy (much as there can be system envy, as I’ve discussed before). Who, when hearing about field sites in Fiji, or Lake Baikal, or Costa Rica, doesn’t get a little jealous of people who work there? My favored study system – small inland lakes in the Midwestern US – does not generally elicit field site envy, on the other hand. But I love working on these little local lakes, and think there is much to praise about field sites that initially seem boring – and, particularly, about field sites that seem boring because they are close to home.

Why do I love working on local field sites? Well, for starters, they’re local. That means that I can spend a day out collecting samples, yet still be home for dinner with my family. My grad students, postdocs, and technicians can do the same. This is not trivial. As this recent post covers, leaving one’s baby to go off to do fieldwork is really, really hard. Terry McGlynn has touched on the difficulties of doing remote fieldwork with a family, too. Local fieldwork also means that, even if a grad student is supported on a TA, they can still do field work during that semester.

Another reason is that, when it comes down to it, those field sites that initially seem so glamorous in theory are often not always so glamorous in practice. When we hear about field work in Fiji, we may envision this:


(Photo credit: Joshua Drew)

and this:


(Photo credit: Joshua Drew)

What we don’t generally also consider is that doing field work in Fiji can mean sleeping on the floor of a rat-infested room. One grad student I know reported waking up with a rat’s foot in his mouth. I don’t know about you, but when I first heard about people doing fieldwork in Fiji, having rats crawl over me while sleeping was not the mental image I had in mind. More importantly, in some cases, travel to far-off field sites can involve very serious risks, both in terms of personal safety and infectious diseases. (Sadly, it is entirely possible for bad things to happen while doing local fieldwork, too, but, anecdotally, these things seem more likely while working abroad.) Concerns about personal safety at remote field sites can be particularly strong for some groups of ecologists, including women and LGBT ecologists.

On a less serious note: that picture of a Fijian reef above? Undoubtedly beautiful. But, in my opinion, so is this:


and this:


and this:


Those are all little lakes in Southwest Michigan that I worked on for my dissertation research.

Finally, it’s (often) easier logistically to do field work close to home. There is no need to worry about visas, political unrest, export permits, and the like. If you wrote a blog about your field research, you probably wouldn’t need to have a “red tape” label. Your field site is less likely to blow up. You are less likely to be unable to finish your research because of a coup. . . or to need to thank the Royal Navy for retrieving your samples from a war-torn region. (ht on that last example goes to Alex Bond) When permits are necessary, it’s generally easier to navigate the system to obtain them. And there isn’t a need to pack up the lab and move it somewhere else. If something breaks while we’re out sampling, it’s usually pretty easily replaced. And, if someone gets hurt while sampling, a trip to a local doctor or hospital is also much more straightforward when working close to home. (Fortunately, this hasn’t happened to anyone in my lab yet, though I did once drive a student to urgent care after she sliced her foot open while walking barefoot in a lake. Not fun, but not a major crisis.)

Am I saying that people shouldn’t continue to work in Madagascar, Tanzania, and the Arctic? No, of course not. There is very important work to be done there, and I’m very glad that there are people who do that work. But there is also important work to be done near home, and I think it’s worth singing the praises of boring, local field sites, too.