Field Notes: The Inconvenient Truth (about field work)

Hello Ethogrammers! Maggie and Karli here, your editors who work behind the scenes with all the wonderful Field Notes writers each month. For many of us, field seasons are fast approaching, and while Field Notes gives you the glamorous, adventurous parts of our contributors’ science adventures, there is a lesser-known but equally important part of these adventures: preparation and logistics! So, this month we’re going to take a brief hiatus from the usual format of highlighting one researcher’s stories from the field. Instead, we are going to speak a little bit more broadly about the process of working with animals in field settings and all the preparation that goes into being able to collect data (the real March Madness, am I right?). 

The preparation to-do lists of researchers are never-ending. [Source].

We will be speaking candidly from the first person in each section of the piece to highlight our thought processes behind our research and the hurdles that we have to overcome to complete a study. The Ethogram has a brand new statement of purpose as of this month and we would love to honor that and exemplify what science communication means to us through this very honest and relatable piece about conducting scientific experiments with animal subjects. Let’s get started!

Karli here! I am a third year PhD student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group and, as a result of my interdisciplinary research, consider myself somewhat of a vagabond for science. On campus, you can find me at the Center for Animal Welfare in the Animal Science Department, but my advisor and lab are based out of the San Francisco Zoo. I also teach in the Psychology Department, and I do my research at The Marine Mammal Center (a wildlife rehabilitation hospital in California and Hawaii). I am all over the place, but I combine these disparate fields into my research, which aims to improve behavioral health of pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) in wildlife rehabilitation. In a nutshell, I give wild seals puzzles while they receive veterinary care, and examine how they learn and develop behaviors that they will need to survive once they are released back into the ocean (such as hunting for food).

Forever willing to be a vagabond for science if it means getting to collect data on these little blubber babies. [Credit: Karli Chudeau].

Maggie speaking now! I am a second year PhD student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group and am also a member of the Center for Animal Welfare at UC Davis. I am housed in the Animal Science Department, and my lab specializes in the behavior and cognition of domestic livestock species. My research project involves identifying cattle personality traits and understanding their relationship to where they choose to graze on rangelands (a fancy word for huge expanses of grazeable land – in the U.S., these are found in the western region). Identifying personality traits in animals involves exposing them to a series of behavior tests, some of which require the use of novel objects and startling stimuli. To measure grazing distribution, I will be collecting location data via collars with GPS units that I will attach to cows’ necks (like a large dog collar with a nametag).  The goals of this research are multifaceted: (1) to understand more about personality in beef cattle; (2) to understand the interaction between beef cattle personality and rangeland grazing; and (3) to contribute to the growing research about how to manage cattle on rangeland in an environmentally and economically sustainable way.

These are some cows I have fitted with pilot GPS collars at Sierra Foothills Research and Extension Center (SFREC). You can see the collar fitted on the cow closest to the camera! [Credit: Maggie Creamer].

Now, you may be thinking, “Cows and seals? Personality and survival skills? These research projects have nothing in common!” Au contraire! We both face the challenge of brainstorming how to prepare for the field and the first step is putting ourselves into the flippers, or hooves, of our study species. Past literature helps us consider how our animals perceive their environments – what colors they see, what smells they can detect, what their evolutionary history might indicate about what startles them, what feed items might be novel, etc. Our field seasons start at a desk reading paper after paper about general characteristics of our study species and if we are lucky, we also get the chance to observe our animals directly in order to inform us what the best possible way to collect the data might be. However, reading papers does not a successful study make (although it is an essential part!). There is also creative brainstorming, many, many trial-and-error moments, and the plethora of necessary details to have squared away before going into the field.

Logistical Hurdles

For some of our colleagues, these logistical details include getting appropriate visas and research permits if their field work is abroad. For others, it is flexing construction skills by building devices, technology, or housing for their study species. However, for any researcher working with animals, there is this vitally important logistical hoop to jump through before putting so much as one data point into an excel spreadsheet. That is the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee form, or what we lovingly refer to as an IACUC (otherwise pronounced Eye-ah-cook).The IACUC ensures that research involving any kind of animal is being carried out ethically and with good reason. The IACUC at each institution is made up of five members including a veterinarian, an animal scientist, and a non-scientist to review all research and animal care protocols for each project. IACUCs prioritize animal welfare and ensure that research doesn’t take advantage of our study species. We love IACUCs and are glad they look out for our furry, feathery, or flippered colleagues, but boy-howdy are they long and tedious as they require a very detailed grasp on what every aspect of your research will entail. Each procedure, test, treatment, and number of animals within your experimental design must be accounted for and evaluated.

IACUC’s are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture as a part of the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 [Source].

Maggie:…after sitting at a desk reading all that literature and hours of writing your IACUC and getting it approved, you would think that going out and doing the work is right around the corner! WRONG. So. Wrong. You now need to recruit and schedule a team of diligent interns to help you gather your data, because no one does science in isolation. Interns are a great source of dedicated helpers and mentees that can even go on to publish work with your lab (interns: if you’re reading this, you all rock!); BUT, since they are also balancing many classes, studying, and often other work, it can be extremely hard to schedule them in the amount of time that you likely need them. This is especially difficult for Karli and I since our research is off-campus and relatively far for stealing our interns away on a school day. Let’s just say that Doodle polls and Google calendar become your absolute best friend. 

After all your work submitting IACUCs and scheduling your interns, now you can go out in the field right? Nope; hold your horses there, Skipper. You still have to order supplies (you always need more duct tape and pens than you think) and get yourself organized. I, and many others, would recommend always having a lab notebook with you to take notes during your field work on what is going on that day. If data from that day comes back strange, you can look at your notebook and see if there may have been any confounding variables (e.g. weather, new employees working with the animals, the apocalypse happened, you name it). Ordering supplies and getting organized can be a big headache, but man-oh-man it helps you in the long-term. We would highly recommend sucking it up and getting it done early, because during the field work, you don’t want to be taking on the organization, too. 

I have worked with some absolutely fantastic interns over the years, and we’re always looking for more! [Credit: Maggie Creamer].

Karli: In addition to all the logistics Maggie discussed, another aspect of field work that is essential to plan for but has little to do with data collection is travel and housing! Many of our study species are early-risers, meaning we have to be ready to go before they do. Maggie and I don’t do research close to campus, so this requires setting very early alarms, factoring in commuter traffic, and making sure to pack lots of snacks to last us for the whole day. I had to invest in a more reliable car to make sure I can get from point A to point B so I never miss a data collection day. In the past, I have even resorted to sleeping in my van during data collection to make sure I am awake before the seals are. Luckily, I have leveled-up my housing status and now have a place to stay when I am collecting data, but factoring in just how you are going to get to your study site reliably is an added task to the multitude of other research preparations.  

“Hello, I would like to science please.”

Now let’s say that you have your literature supporting you, your approved IACUC form, a super team of interns, and all organizational tools needed to get started. Hooray, it is finally time for the field! Well, if you work in applied research, there is just one more layer of complexity to collecting data: asserting yourself while also staying out of the way. Applied research can have slightly different meanings depending on who you talk to, but essentially our research aims to address a problem in the real world and come up with practical solutions to manage it. This usually means that instead of a well-controlled laboratory conveniently located on campus, we are out in the world working with people in their element rather than in ours (disclosure: this doesn’t mean lab studies are easier- that research comes with its own logistics, however, the grass always looks greener from the other side).


Karli: In wildlife rehabilitation land, the day-to-day can be organized chaos. During the peak stranding season (where we have the most seals and sea lions coming in that need veterinary treatment), there can be hundreds of animals onsite. Imagine their cackling, barking, and splashing around the pools, and a dedicated group of volunteer crews that manages the daily feedings, pool cleanings, and documentation of each seal’s progress. You then have the core group of compassionate veterinary staff that shuffles between pens doing health examinations, administering medications, and coordinating with volunteers to ensure patient progress. Everyone wants to see a sick, skinny seal pup turn into a plumpy, bouncy rascal that darts right for the ocean when released, so from sunrise until well after dark, everyone is working to ensure these animals are well taken care of. Then there is me (hello, I would like to science please). 

My research involves loads of moving parts including multiple observation times, cognitive tests, and extra husbandry tasks each day. On a good day I call them logistics; on an overwhelming day, I call them constraints (fortunately, today is a good day, so logistics it is!). To conduct my research amongst the flurry of daily animal care tasks, I need to have the full cooperation of all the volunteers and staff, but also I need to avoid being a wrench in the well-oiled rehabilitation machine. This requires being a really effective communicator of my research needs but also an ability to be patient and understanding of my collaborators’ needs so we can work together to find a compromise. Also, presenting baked goods to the crews is never a bad thing (volunteer crews at TMMC, if you are reading this, I promise I am not trying to bribe you… sort of). 

Maggie: Since I am still in the early stages of my fieldwork and pilot testing, I haven’t yet had to deal with balancing being assertive and being a fly on the wall directly, but I know that I will have to. Currently, all my research is being conducted within university research facilities. Eventually, after I have perfected my behavior tests, I will be working with California ranchers and their cattle to make my work more applied and relevant to cattle management. This part of my research is super exciting to me, but it also makes me nervous. Communication and trust between scientists and professionals is something I strive to maintain and uphold, and to be blunt, I do not want to be a thorn in the sides of ranchers. I do not want to hold up their routine management procedures with long and disorganized behavior tests;  rather, I want to collaborate with them seamlessly, so they will believe that what I am doing is important and relevant to their line of work. I respect their time and resources and want desperately to fit into their schedule, which is why I am going to work my butt off with pilot testing and early field work. Karli and I both fit into a larger whole since we do applied work, so finding the right balance between asserting our needs and making sure we are not causing a headache for the animal managers can be a tricky line to walk. 

Majestic cows roaming on oaky California rangeland. These, unfortunately, are not my study cows (I found them on a recent hike), but I aspire to study cows just like them! [Credit: Maggie Creamer].

Managing expectations and getting creative

Remember all those academic papers we were telling you about? Well, despite being full of valuable information, there are no footnotes about weird and wacky tales of how unexpected animal behavior can be and how that influences our research. So despite the best-laid, most organized plans and helpful, cooperative collaborators, field research will inevitably go awry at some point. This requires us to adapt and get creative. 

Maggie: I saw this all play out in my careful considerations of novel objects for my first cattle personality test. The novel object must be something new to cows, something they have never seen before in their daily routine. This consideration is fairly easy, as cattle are not very well traveled. The more difficult considerations are what color, height, and resemblance the novel object should have. I have taken a somewhat different approach than that described in most current literature by choosing a novel object that is species-relevant. The novel object also needs to be one that all cows notice, yet produces varying responses. 

The first novel object I tried to use was carrots. I put the carrots in a feed pan, and some of the cows approached slowly and cautiously to the feed pan, while others kicked at it as they ran past. I was excited! Yes, my first novel object succeeded to produce different and distinct reactions in the cows! But wait: what if they were reacting to just the feed pan and not the carrots? I put the carrots directly onto the ground and they trampled right over them without even noticing. Ugh. So, naturally, I designed a big, complex “tree” that consisted of a large post and “branches” (aka wooden rods) sticking out of the middle of it. I took the design to our wonderful animal science farm crew (shout-out!) that brought my design to life! I hung multi-colored carrots on the branches and anticipated the cow’s reactions. I got absolutely nothing from them, not even a glance! They ran right past it without a hesitation in their hooves. But, I had gathered some information: a response to something on the ground > a response to something at eye-sight. What about an artificial bush or flowers? I chose plants they would never come across while on range (big, colorful flowers and ferns), but that still are relevant to them as herbivores. And it worked! Just like the feed pan, some of them sniffed and some of them ran and kicked.

My failed novel object, isn’t she a beaut! [Credit: Maggie Creamer].

Karli: Similarly (but also different), let’s talk enrichment- my favorite but one of the most challenging parts of research preparation for me. As I mentioned earlier, I give seals puzzles to help them learn and problem-solve, and in the animal biz we call this enrichment (for more see Science and Culture). This involves building devices that can 1) withstand salt water, 2) endure rambunctious animal interactions, 3) be heavy enough to sink to the bottom of the pool, but 4) light enough that volunteers can retrieve the puzzles and clean them, 5) be challenging but solvable, and most importantly 6) teach relevant skills seals will need when they are back in the ocean. Now add in the fact that I know nothing about engineering or construction and you get quite a brain-twister that requires every milliliter of my creativity. Sometimes I find myself doing laundry or getting gas and all of a sudden having a light-bulb moment about how to create a certain enrichment device that checks all the criteria. This results in a feverish scramble to sketch it out before I forget. I even dream about creating enrichment and try to remind my dream-self to remember this blueprint when I wake up (alas, I almost never do). 

Not all field logisitcs are a headache, especially when you get to prep with a view of the ocean and get every enrichment stimulus organized and accounted for. [Credit: Karli Chudeau]. 

Research: Get ready to never be totally ready.

Our stories aren’t our colleagues’ stories, and they may not be yours, but we believe it is important to be open about all aspects of the scientific process – not just the tidy “Intro, Methods, Results, Discussion” format we see in scientific articles, but the nitty-gritty details that culminate into that 4-part format. With a lot of thinking, preparing, and trial-and-error, we are able to eliminate methods that have not worked for us and refine those that work best for our study species and collecting quality data. 

It’s us! Karli and Maggie! In our natural (non-field) habitat

To our fellow colleagues, we hope that you can find some camaraderie in this piece, and know that you are not alone in the endless juggle of all things research. To our families and friends who may not be familiar with our line of work, we hope this helps you understand that we aren’t ignoring you on purpose – it is just that at certain time points, research fills every crevice of our brains with time-sensitive to-do lists that never end. To our future scientists, we hope you aren’t overwhelmed by this piece, but now have insight into some aspects of science that not everyone talks about. 

Next month, we’ll be back to the usual field notes stories of graduate students and young career scientists in amazing locations doing amazing work with animals!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s