Field Notes: The highs and lows of technology

The term “fieldwork” can encompass an incredible variety of experiences, and the logistics and technological demands for fieldwork are just as varied as the projects they support. Field scientists regularly conduct their work with a mixture of inexpensive, MacGyver-ed solutions and innovative, “high-tech” equipment.

My field seasons researching the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) had me jumping between both extremes of this technological spectrum. We spend a lot of time jerry-rigging things together (our local hardware store knows us by name) while simultaneously utilizing some of the most cutting-edge technology in the field.

Here, I want to give you an idea about the breadth of “low-” and “high-” tech solutions I’ve used to accomplish my fieldwork.

The Lows

Fieldwork is often an expensive endeavor. The costs of travel, housing, and food can easily eat up an already tight budget. As a result, researchers must often get creative about crafting inexpensive, “low-tech” gear throughout their field season. You’d be surprised how often common, household items get re-purposed for research needs (check out these #reviewsforscience to get an idea).

Need to keep track of baby birds in a nest? Throw some nail polish on their toes.

Need to temporarily hold a snake? Chuck it in a pillowcase.

Need to weigh a squirming duckling? Stick it in a Pringles can.

In my lab, “low-tech” solutions have solved some field-based dilemmas:

Problem: My research aims to understand the impact of the habitat structure on grouse courtship behavior. So, for one of my field seasons, I needed to observe grouse that were displaying in dense sagebrush; we needed to get a camera into the air so we could have a “top-down” view of the action.

Solution: After a few iterations, we came up with a system of telescoping, increasingly smaller PVC pipes that locked in place with some bolts. For the camera housing, we modified some tupperware so that it a) snugly housed our camera and an external battery, b) provided insulation from the cold, and c) could screw to the top of the telescoping poles. The whole shebang was then attached – with zip ties – to a t-post.

A commercial perch deterrent, easily (and cheaply) replicated with zip ties and duck tape!

Unfortunately, this system created our next…

Problem: In crafting our overhead-view camera system, we had introduced a tall, potential perch into an otherwise open landscape. We now need to discourage other birds from perching atop our camera pole.

Solution: Stick some zip ties through duck tape and ta-da! Instant perch deterrent!

A sage-grouse displaying in front of the visual barrier.

Problem: In a different experiment, to investigate how grouse adjust their behavior in an altered environment, we needed to build a barrier across our study site. This barrier needed to hinder the visual field of our birds, but not impede movement or sound. It also had to be temporary, and easy to put up and take down.

Solution: We decided to craft the barrier in sections and stagger them across the site, so the birds could navigate around it. The barrier itself was built by attaching camouflage burlap to rebar [metal poles]….using zip ties.

The Highs

Advancing technology is constantly allowing us to further our research endeavors in natural environments. Below are some examples of how “high-tech” tools have advanced my field-based research.

Cameras

Video cameras are not a new introduction to field research, but they have revolutionized our ability to observe animals in nature. My lab has been using cameras in our field work for over a decade –  we video-record the entire mating season of the bird we study (the greater sage-grouse), through which we can observe most of the breeding events (a useful proxy of male reproductive success; [1]). Additionally, we use camera traps (remote cameras triggered by motion, to learn about which field sites are active, and when), high-speed cameras (to further elucidate the structure of the grouse’s extravagant courtship dance), and wide-angle cameras (to view our study sites from above). Using video cameras allows us to gather far more data about the behavior of sage-grouse than we could ever do through in-person observations. The ability to rewind and re-watch behaviors, track all of the individuals throughout an entire day, and even collect data from previous years’ field seasons have allowed us to answer questions that would be otherwise inaccessible.

Robots

Robotic female sage-grouse. Photo by Gail Patricelli.

Robotic animal models are becoming more prevalent in many fields of research (there’s even a PBS mini-series about it!). Often, these mechanical critters are used as an elaborate camera housing that allows researchers to observe natural behaviors without being physically present; this is critical, as human presence can alter an animal’s natural behaviors [e.g. 2 and 3]. In my lab, we utilize robotic female sage-grouse not just to covertly watch the birds, but as a way to conduct controlled experiments in the wild [4].

Environmental Scanning

As previously stated, my research involves investigating behavioral correlations to habitat structure. An animal’s habitat can influence an animal’s movement patterns as well as what information is available to the animal and, thus, the structure of the habitat can have important impacts on behavioral decisions. In order to quantify this environmental structure, my lab– in collaboration with researchers at Boise State – conducted high-resolution scans of our study sites using a tool called TLS (terrestrial laser scanning). These scans enabled us to create fine-scale, 3-D renderings of our research sites and allow us to gather information about visibility (what you can see) and cover (what can see you) from any position in the area [5]. Tying these scans with behavioral data allows us to investigate how specific behaviors are correlated with varying aspects of the habitat and can help us understand the movement decisions of these birds through their landscape.

(a) A photograph and (b) a 3D rendering created by TLS of the same location. Image from [5].

Science in the media is often portrayed with researchers running around high-tech labs packed with cutting-edge equipment. While it’s true that advancing technology is constantly pushing the boundaries of what is feasible in research, most field scientists are incredibly innovative at crafting low-tech, budget-friendly tools to support their work.

My experience conducting field work has taught me many things but, importantly, I’ve learned:

You can never, ever have too many zip ties.


Ryane Logsdon is a PhD candidate in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis. Her research aims to understand the influence of the social and structural habitats on tactical courtship behaviors. All of the research detailed above was conducted under local government permits and with IACUC approval. All photos were taken by Ryane unless otherwise indicated.


[1] Semple, K., Wayne, R. & Gibson, R. (2001). Microsatellite analysis of female mating behaviour in lek-breeding sage grouse. Molecular Ecology, 10(8).

[2] Isbell, L. A., & Young, T. P. (1993). Human presence reduces predation in a free-ranging vervet monkey population in Kenya. Animal Behaviour, 45(6).

[3] Berger, J. (2007). Fear, human shields and the redistribution of prey and predators in protected areas. Biology Letters, 3(6).

[4] Patricelli, G.L. & Krakauer, A.H. (2009). Tactical allocation of effort among multiple signals in sage grouse: an experiment with a robotic female. Behavioral Ecology, 21(1).

[5] Olsoy, P.J., Forbey, J.S., Rachlow, J.L., Nobler, J.D., Glenn, N.F., & Shipley, L.A. (2015). Fearscapes: Mapping Functional Properties of Cover for Prey with Terrestrial LiDAR, BioScience, 65(1).

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