Field Notes: It takes a village

After last year’s field season was canceled because of the pandemic followed by a full year of virtual meetings, conferences, socializing, and the never-ending pinging of emails in my inbox, sitting at my laptop was about the very last place I wanted to be at the start of summer. Contrarily, being in the fog of the Marin Headlands, amongst the sounds, smells, and sights of seals in rehabilitation replenished my depleted energy stores after an isolated year inside. Alas, the stranding season is now over; all of the little harbor seal pups who came to The Marine Mammal Center this spring have grown healthy, added a nice layer of blubber to their rotund frame, and returned to their ocean home. This means I am back behind a screen, trying to muster the energy to begin sifting through copious amounts of videos, quantifying different seal behaviors, and beginning the first analysis phase of my research project.

Who would want to be behind a computer when this is your field site and you get to watch harbor seals all day?

Normally, after long data collection days and lots of human interactions, my introverted self would relish coming home in the evening to organize my excel spreadsheets and enter in data from the day. However, this season I was surprised by the amount of energy that was exchanged with the people who worked alongside me, volunteering their time, support, and resources even amidst an ongoing global crisis. Scientists in the media can often be portrayed as socially inept introverts that spend their days alone in a lab or hiding in the forest spying on their study species. While I am not completely denying that portrayal (I do feel a bit inept in social interactions after a year of virtual parties), research is not done by one person; it takes a village. Research from start-to-finish is a collaborative experience, so I wanted to highlight appreciation for collaborators of all kinds.

The knowledge and logistics collaborators

My research focuses on providing seals who are ill or injured in a wildlife rehabilitation hospital with behavioral tools (such as enrichment) that will help them be successful once they are released back into the ocean (read more about my research here and here). I combine knowledge of behavioral ecology, animal welfare, conservation, psychology, and veterinary sciences all together to create the best research design that will have the strongest impact for rehabilitating seals. However, I don’t claim to know all things from all of these fields, I have a community of knowledge and logistics collaborators to provide wisdom and information. 

My lead knowledge & logistics collaborator is my advisor, who encourages me to collect as much information on all these different topics and use that knowledge to be creative and innovative with a) what research questions I want to answer and b) how to collect the best data to answer them. My committee (several faculty members with differing specialties who provide guidance to graduate students) provides insight about seals or conservation that may help me design enrichment devices or ways to troubleshoot issues as they come up in the data collection process (because science rarely goes as planned). 

Left: When crews are taking care of 200 animals and you are asking them to help you with research, it is important to be organized, such as color coding everything! Center & right: It was awesome to see some of the puzzle designs I had in my head come to life!

There is also The Marine Mammal Center veterinary team. These folks are with the seals every day and understand the importance of scientific integrity but also, the numerous logistics of simultaneously caring for 200 seals and sea lions with varying illnesses and injuries. Some of the veterinarians help me with big picture questions, such as how many seals I need in my study for a good sample size (which can be important in generalizing findings), or how much help and cooperation I will need from the volunteer crews. The animal husbandry manager (who makes sure the seals have everything they need while in the hospital) and the veterinary technicians help me navigate schedules and keep me updated on the seals’ health and behavioral progression. This is important since I collect information about the seals at certain time points in their development. If I wanted the seal to participate in a cognitive task to see how much they have learned on a certain day, coordinating with the veterinary team and the volunteer crews is imperative to getting good data. 

The support collaborators

I love the research that I do, and if you came to my house, you would see that my pinniped (i.e. seals, sea lions, and walruses) obsession extends well beyond my professional life. However, even the most beloved, exciting research projects come with highs and lows. Inevitably, there were days where the seals just didn’t want to participate in tasks or other days that cameras weren’t working; when you are in the middle of a field season and just trying to keep up, these bumps in the road can feel colossal. 

When I feel like my project is ruined based on one hiccup during a busy day, support collaborators like my partner, friends, and lab mates, all help me put things back into perspective. On a day where I’ve made decision after decision about what next research step to take, my partner (who works internationally) will order my favorite take-out, calling it in from the other side of the world so I don’t have to decide on dinner. My friends will lend me tools and their crafting expertise to help me build my enrichment devices. My lab mates cheer me on and make my small victories (such as finally getting behavioral coding software to work) feel like huge triumphs. Even my knowledge and logistics collaborators overlap as support collaborators. My advisor helps put things back into perspective and reminds me that what I do is fascinating when I start doubting myself. The husbandry manager I work closely with will make sure I have housing when I have long days in the field and am too tired to drive home. She and others at The Marine Mammal Center give me such positive, enthusiastic feedback that change my outlook on days where I feel nothing is going right.

Upper left: The first time my lab mate and I got to be together in over a year at our lab at the San Francisco Zoo! We enjoyed helping each other brainstorm solutions for our current research woes. Upper middle: Just a few of the wonderful support collaborators who get me out into nature, which is my reset when I am feeling research burnout. Upper right: During a busy period during the field season, the husbandry manager offered to let me house sit so wouldn’t have to commute 1.5hrs to my field site. Lower left, middle, and right: As a result of house-sitting, I got to spend a few weeks in close proximity to the seals and got to take work breaks with Monkey and Pepe hiking around the Marin Headlands!

The in-the-trenches collaborators

During my graduate school journey, I realized that different researchers enjoy different parts of the scientific process. Some enjoy reading the literature and identifying gaps in knowledge, others can’t wait until data collection is completed so they can begin playing in statistical software to create the best visual representation of their data. My favorite part is creating my own research design and then seeing it come to fruition during data collection. For me, the data collection “trenches” include early mornings hauling around enrichment devices and repeatedly going back to the fish kitchen for thawed herring because I can never count the amount I need correctly. The graduate school journey has also taught me that (spoiler alert) when you have trained volunteers or research assistants, you become more removed from the “trenches” because you are managing the entire project behind the scenes. I rely heavily on my “in-the-trenches” collaborators to stick to the data collection schedule, communicate with me should anything go awry, and help me collect all those precious spreadsheet cells of information.

Just a small sample of the dedicated and fun volunteers at The Marine Mammal Center with their favorite enrichment device! Already looking forward to the 2022 field season with them!

The volunteer crews at The Marine Mammal Center can be quite intimidating with their intimate husbandry knowledge as many have been volunteering for decades. They were an integral part of helping me prepare for my project because they know the daily schedule inside and out and were able to provide feedback of what tasks were feasible or would require additional assistance. All season, they lugged around bulky enrichment devices between pools, kept time of how long the devices were in the pens, and put detailed observation notes into the shared spreadsheet that I could access remotely. During cognitive testing days, they enthusiastically volunteered to stay after their shift to help corral the seals in and out of pens, and crouch behind the pools to count how many fish the seals pulled out of a puzzle (i.e. the cognitive task). These collaborators also helped me be a better science communicator with their many great questions about abstract concepts that guided my research and the decisions I made for how I set up the study; It really was a privilege to be able to practice discussing my research in depth and so much fun to be a part of those conversations. The Marine Mammal Center facilities team also came to my rescue throughout the season. These guys helped take my wacky science ideas and make them logistically possible, from enrichment designs to environmental cues (cues that provide information about the environment and influence a seal’s decision-making). They made sure I had access to the camera system JUST in time for data collection, and a time or two let me sleep in my car undisturbed when I had a busy schedule the following day.

While “in-the-trenches” implies collecting data in a physical location, I also have collaborators that help me in the “coding trenches”: my undergraduate research assistants (RAs). I currently have three, wonderfully dedicated RAs who have been so patient and enthusiastic about staring at endless footage of seals eating. They not only have helped me figure out how to master software that is used to quantify animal behaviors, but have also watched videos over and over (and over) to help refine the ethogram (a catalogue of behaviors that are studied in animal behavior reseach) and they have done all of this virtually. COVID restrictions limited them from coming on site to help me in data collection, but they continue to stick around and nerd out about seals with me, always bringing fresh insights, and even showing me (the old fart) how to use Discord. 

The flippered collaborators

Last (but certainly most important), are my flippered collaborators. While my entire dissertation could not be done without the humans listed above, my research would not even exist without these seals! They constantly keep me on my toes. I expect them to interact with an enrichment device one way and they do something completely different! I try to throw a complex challenge at them and they solve it within minutes! Being in the thick of a research project, I can lose site of the real goal, which is to stop and pay attention to how these seals use their behavior to tell us about how they feel, how they approach challenges, and how they learn new things. In addition to these seals being unbelievably charismatic cooperative science partners, watching them day in and day out brings me a deep joy! 

Upper left: Sometimes my flippered collaborators don’t feel like participating in a cognitive test (as seen by this seal not wanting to explore the device I built). The lack of participation can provide me with important information about how the animal may be feeling. Upper right: This feeding box, designed by UC Davis engineering students, requires seals to open flaps to get fish out. At first, the seals showed no interest in the enrichment (as seen by them sleeping amongst the blue “kelp”) but I walked by later to see them diving for a fishie snack! Lower left: On cognitive testing days, the seals sometimes get this device filled with fish! Perhaps you notice the Go-Pro secured to the back of the device- I can’t wait to see what my flippered collaborators are doing underwater! Lower right: Two of my flippered collaborators right after they were released back into the ocean! Hopefully the interventions we provided them with this season are helping them in the wild!

Now that I have procrastinated by reminiscing about this field season, it is time to get back to my screens of data, so I can figure out what the seals are telling me!

Karli Chudeau is a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group and a part of the UC Davis Coastal Marine Sciences Institute. She is interested in conservation management and assessing animal welfare in wildlife rehabilitation settings. Her current research examines how we can use behavioral management interventions, such as environmental enrichment, to improve reintroduction success with seals. She is also an avid ocean nerd.

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