Field Fiasco: Adversity in the Arctic

A white-crowned sparrow, the focal study organism of Jesse and the Wingfield lab
Photo credit: Jonathan Perez

Many field fiascos recount the terrors of tropical clines, from bugs frightening in both size and number, to the various forms “Rain” can take.  This week, our stories come from the opposite end of the earth: the snow-covered Arctic circle.

Jesse’s field site at the top of the world.
Source: Google Maps

Dr. Jesse Krause, a post-doctoral scholar in the lab of Dr. John Wingfield, has spent many a summer on field season in the bone-chilling weather of the Arctic.  There, he and a team of researchers chase down migratory songbirds – such as the white crowned sparrow and Lapland longspur – at their summer breeding grounds around Toolik, Alaska. Their research focuses on the effects of climate change on the reproductive success and stress response of these birds, coming at these questions from both the ecological and physiological levels.  Collecting their data requires long treks across snow-covered valleys (yes, even in May) bundled up in snow gear to measure snow depth, bug biodiversity data, and bird nestling growth rates.  In the midst of all that science, here are some of Jesse’s field fiascos, many of them reminiscent of Jack London’s tales.

Close calls with “wolves”:

One day, Jesse trekked out with a coworker to the “middle of nowhere” to take snow depth measurements, which would give them proxies for precipitation and snow cover during the breeding season. They headed out on a snowmobile, stopping every few meters to stick a probe into the snow pack to get a reading.  Then, on the horizon, Jesse spotted a wolf. Just one wolf was manageable…if they had their bear spray, which Jesse quickly realized all had been left back at the camp. When he looked back, the one wolf had become two, meaning there might be more in the pack nearby.  Jesse felt the panic as the wolves got closer, and when they were about 50 yards away, they heard voices of people shouting… the wolves’ names? What Jesse had thought were “wolves” at a distance were actually someone’s huskies, out on a leisurely trek in the tundra. Luckily for the huskies, Jesse didn’t have his bear spray!

Run-ins with bears:

On another outing that same field season, at a site called Trevor Creek, Jesse and his coworker had set out traps for the sparrows. While working, Jesse noticed two ice trucks, both going in opposite directions, stop on the road. “The trucks never stop for anything,” Jesse thought, before realising that there was a grizzly bear on the side of the road! Both truckers, individually, pull up and tell Jesse “ There’s a really big grizzly on the other side of the road, you gotta get out of here!”. Grizzlies can easily run up to 35 miles per hour when they really get going, so the priority was to get as far away as possible. To do this, Jesse runs as fast as he can alongside the truck to put as much distance between himself and the grizzly, all while shouting at his coworker to run away. Thankfully, he was able to reach his truck safely, but he still had to go back for his traps. He and his coworker returned double-fisting bear spray, recovered the traps, and made his way out of Trevor Creek!

Being locked out … thirty miles from camp. 

After a day of doing transect surveys, an ecological technique for measuring abundance of different species encountered across a set track of land, Jesse and his team prepared to head home…only to find that they had locked themselves out of their field truck! It was around 5 o’clock in the evening, and although the sun doesn’t really set during the Arctic summers, the temperature was quickly threatening to drop below 0 degrees F. They would have to find a way back to camp, in snowshoes, which was easily 30 miles away!  Luckily, one of the other graduate students hitched a ride with an ice trucker passing through in the direction of camp to go and fetch the spare key. While Jesse and the other teammates were waiting, it just kept getting colder, so they decided to also hitch a ride with the next trucker that passed (which led to a hilarious interaction with a guy driving 65 mph with a 60 foot trailer on snow-covered roads) and let their teammate know on the radio to meet them back at camp. They sent him a message over the radio, but he didn’t hear it, and ended up waiting for them for a while back at the field site, probably wondering what happened to his coworkers! (Eaten by bears? Frozen under a snowbank?)  After a bit of waiting, he decided to head back to camp to find the rest of his colleagues there after an unnecessarily long field adventure!

Just a normal summer day in the Arctic circle
Photo credit: Jonathan Perez

Overall, when preparing for a field outing in the Arctic, pack your snowshoes and insulated clothes, but don’t forget the bear spray…and the spare keys!

Jesse Krause and colleague Karen Word processing White-crowned sparrows in the tundra [Source]

Currently, Jesse is working on an NSF-funded project to understand the stress response to seasonal changes in the white crown sparrow, along with collaborators at the Rosalind Institute in Scotland. He also currently teaches Physiological Ecology here at UC Davis.  To read more about Jesse’s research, see his website:  or see his profile at Frontier Scientists:

Author: Victoria Farrar

Featured Photo [Source]

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