It comes full circle

Well, here I am again. Suspended in the air at 28,000 feet strapped to a giant flying metal box on the last leg of my very, very long journey from Antananarivo, Madagascar to Durham, North Carolina. Thirty-four hours and counting. Wow. Home. What am I looking forward to the most? Spewing the contents of my backpack all over my living room and promptly tossing everything I just unpacked into the washing machine to remove the layers of perma-filth that have accumulated over the past five weeks. Oh, that and eating a giant salad. And cereal.

It was a weird field season full of weird weather patterns (insert loud obnoxious grumble here…rain), weird skin rashes (hand models beware: Madagascar’s forests are lurking with stinging poison sumac-esque plants just waiting to make unsuspecting hands feel the burn…and the blisters!), and weird inexplicable noted absences of chameleons and frogs (many an unsuccessful chameleon hunt occurred, although I did make two very special chameleon friends named “Pickles” and “Signpost”).

This is Pickles. We bonded nightly as I was brushing my teeth by his branch.

This is Pickles. We bonded nightly as I was brushing my teeth by his branch.

"Are we on the right trail? Oh yeah, there is Signpost...reliably always there!"

“Are we on the right trail? Oh yeah, there is Signpost…reliably present!”

But, despite the weirdness, I’m chalking up July of 2013 to be an incredibly successful field season. Our extremely prolific research team collected loads of excellent data. Peter and Andrew got multi-day EEG recordings from animals in deep hibernation, including some spontaneous interbout arousal recordings (that is, when an animal periodically rewarms every 7-14 days during hibernation for reasons that continue to evade and perplex hibernation researchers. Our question is: Do these animals arouse in order to fill a sleep debt? To be determined!) Kathrin got crazy-good metabolic rate data from our fuzzies, and Marina was able to collect blood samples, morphometric measurements, and replace the temperature-sensitive radio-collars so we can continue to monitor their whereabouts and skin temperature profiles until November. Me? I am proud to state here that I was able to obtain my highly sought after white adipose tissue samples from our very cooperative focal animals. Through brilliant use of a digital outdoor thermometer probe and some ingenuity, we were able to determine that core body temperature was around 16°C when I took my tissue samples. That’s true hibernation if I ever saw it, folks! These animals are exhibiting body temperatures that are approximating the soil temperature that they are surrounded by in their burrows, even though air temperature often dips way below that (Soil, it turns out, is quite an effective buffer from ambient temperature fluctuations). My samples are now safely stored in a freezer in Madagascar awaiting shipment back to my eager, itching to get “all molecular biology” on them, hands. Permits have been issued and fingers are tightly crossed they will be heading my way very soon. My phalanges are so tightly crossed, in fact, that I fear I am losing circulation to my fingertips.

With the accomplishment of all the tasks that we set out to do, we packed up our wet tents and muddy hiking boots and once again challenged the “road” less traveled (Trust me, we showed it no mercy). After a quick pit stop in the capital city we headed southeast, this time to the lush rainforest of Ranomafana National Park for the 2013 International Prosimian Congress.

Ranomafana National Park!

Ranomafana National Park!

The word “prosimian” is fancy science speak for the group of primates that encompasses lemurs, lorises, bushbabies, and tarsiers. Full of intellectually stimulating conversations and novel research programs discussed by the preeminent researchers in prosimian biology and conservation, this was a conference not to be missed. Stay tuned for the exciting details including, but not limited to, a rare sighting of the most elusive lemur that exists today! The highlight of my conference experience, however, was having to politely excuse myself as I was “talking science” with one of my science idols before I tossed my cookies all over his shoes. Well, I guess that’s one way to get noticed. I bet he won’t be forgetting me anytime soon! (“Oh yeah, you’re that graduate student who almost projectile vomited all over me back in ’13”). Do you think he’ll offer me a post-doc position in his lab? In my defense, I was one of the many fortunate enough to catch the 24-hour bug that was making its rounds at the conference. This bug rendered me completely useless and banished to my bed, subjected to violent shakes and extreme repulsion at the thought of any ingestible food or drink item. You’re never safe in Madagascar.

As my journey finally draws to a close, I can’t help but reflect on this culminating season and share some insider secrets to life in the field. Field work is challenging. It is physically challenging. It is mentally challenging. It is emotionally challenging. Sometimes it feels as though every fiber of my being is stretched to the max. So why do self-proclaimed field biologists do it? Although I can’t speak for others on this matter, I can say that for myself scientific curiosity is the driving force behind purposefully placing myself in uncomfortable situations like primitive camping for weeks or months at a time (who likes running water and electricity, anyway?), living with the omnipresent threat of the many gastrointestinal complications that hang over my head like an ultra-saturated raincloud just waiting to burst (Go away, giardia. You’re not welcome here!), and incessantly wondering if this trail is the one that is finally going to break clumsy my leg. It’s the “why” and “how” questions that keep me chugging away even when I want to throw up my hands and quit. By doing this type of work in a natural setting, we can begin to dissect both the mechanism and evolution of how and why animals do what they do. This type of work just can’t be completed in a lab. Plus, it’s an adventure and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Field work also provides a plethora of time to be introspective and ponder said “how” and “why” questions, and if you’re lucky enough like me, to be with a gaggle of equally inquisitive and exceedingly brilliant people who’s vast knowledge makes me strive to always do and be better. This exposure to genius minds offers budding young scientists like myself rare opportunities to discuss such questions over a plate of rice and beans in an environment that, in my humble opinion, promotes learning and independent critical thinking better than any classroom ever could. And, despite all of its challenges, field work does get easier with each passing season under my belt. I now have packing for the field down to an exact science. Maybe I should publish that for my dissertation!

So what’s next for this jungle queen? Well, if you’re worried that my blog posts will dry up and cease to exist, fear not, dear reader! In nineteen short days I’ll be hopping on another flight to head back to my jungle home. Yup! Bring it on, Madagascar, I’m ready for Round 4. This time my goal at hand will be to collect samples from animals that have recently emerged from hibernation, ideally trapping them as they dig themselves out of their underground burials searching for some yummy banana waiting for them in the trap. Uber-tempting for a hungry lemur that hasn’t eaten for the last 6 months! Most of our study animals begin to emerge in early September and, depending on the species, sex, and age, can emerge as late as late-October. Here is the brilliance of my research program (and please forgive my blatant, er, modesty): I will be collecting samples from the same animals as I did in March and July of this year, providing me a dynamic picture of the transcriptome as it changes in accordance with changes in physiology! (Remember your buzz word, “transcriptome”? The transcriptome is all the genes that are being expressed at the time point in question.) I repeat. The same individuals. To my knowledge, this is the first study that has attempted this. Most other studies like this need to…ummm…sacrifice the animal when they collect their samples thus making a longitudinal look at changes in gene expression through time for one individual impossible. Of course, the stats will then tell me if these sampled individuals show alterations in gene expression that are likely occurring in a similar fashion across the entire population. For example, if I see gene “X” expressed during hibernation in the 8 animals I took tissue samples from, is its expression significant enough to suggest that gene “X” is always expressed during hibernation in every member of that species, with 95% or greater confidence? We’ll see! And here’s the epic part. This is also the first study to attempt this in free-ranging animals, as opposed to animals in the lab. And not to mention with endangered primates! Whoa. I’d say I’m pushing some scary boundaries. My mantra regarding my science has apparently become “High risk. High reward”, although I should probably also add to that “High stress”!

Wrapping up: Someone once told me that I’m a reluctant storyteller. That has always stuck with me and I’ve pondered this I am writing and polishing my posts for your weekly “science fix” and enjoyment (and, yes, selfishly for my enjoyment too, I admit).  The reluctance comes from needing to mull deeply over a scenario before putting it into words–the need to use vivid imagery to accurately portray my experiences in question. And that’s what writing this blog has helped me do. It has helped me to express myself in a way that has previously eluded my desperate verbal attempts (and hence, leading to my hesitancy). I hope that you have enjoyed this edition of Chapter One of my tome of “Escapades from the Field”. There is plenty more to follow! I have truly enjoyed writing it and receiving great feedback and encouragement from y’all. And so now, signing off for this field season, I say to you…

It’s a jungle out there!

My blogging spot. Until next time, mountain office!

My blogging spot. Until next time, mountain office!

Update: It’s 4:43 am Eastern time. I made it safely home with my entire luggage in tow. I’m wide-awake thanks to jet lag, my biological timekeeper thinking it’s 11:43 am. But, I am happy to report that I did, indeed, remove the perma-filth from my belongings and eat a giant salad for dinner. In fact, I’m pretty sure I cleared out my local grocery store’s produce section. And my bed? Oh, how I’ve missed thee!

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Field Notes from a Mouse Lemur

Field biologists often times spend an exorbitant amount of time staring at animals, taking tedious notes in their waterproof “Rite in the Rain” notebooks, recording animal behavior in a naturalistic setting. I’ve often wondered if these animals notice us watching them (surely they must as animals are way smarter than we give them credit for) and if they do, what they are thinking as they are watching us watching them. What would they record regarding “human behavior” in their field notes? The following is my interpretation of what “Dave”, the Goodman’s mouse lemur might be writing in his field notes as he is staked out in his guava patch watching events at camp unfold from July 11-August 2, 2013. Although you may think this is crazy, I assure you it is entirely possible. Dave is a primate after all and therefore has the opposable thumbs necessary to hold a writing utensil. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction…

Meet Dave

Meet Dave

11 July 2013
15:04–A new troop of humans have arrived at the encampment, descending from the mountain in a neat, single file line with a seemingly excessive amount of personal gear. The group in question appears to have 12 members, both male and female, widely ranging in age. Closer inspection is needed to determine exact ages and reproductive status of study animals. This also appears to be the same group that camped out at this plot for four weeks in July of 2012, although samples will need to be collected with subsequent genetic analysis to confirm this. The humans spent 124 minutes setting up their nylon roosts in neat, meticulous rows before retiring to the feeding area for a feeding frenzy at 17:33. They retired to their nests shortly after.

15 July 2013
13:11–Study animals have acclimated to their new surroundings rather quickly and have settled into a routine. However, I have noticed that they display some strange behavioral acts that are previously undocumented for this species. For example, after the mid-day feeding ritual, they congregate around what they refer to as a “magical field gadget”, but what appears to my potentially misinformed eye as a hand-held espresso maker. Espresso? In the forest? This is surely a cultured bunch of humans as I have never tracked before!

16:00–The humans expend excessive amounts of energy traipsing back and forth from the forest carrying laptop computer bags loaded with what appears to be expensive computer equipment, cords, and AA batteries. I’ve documented that this behavior occurs at all hours of the day and night, and happens multiple times a day, every day, like clockwork.

17:02–As the sun is setting to the west bathing the hills in an orange glow, nearing feeding time for the humans, they enjoy watching the local population of humans kick around the soccer ball and discussing the day’s events. I notice that the word “hibernation” comes up quite a bit and I can only assume that they are discussing my strange cousin, the dwarf lemur, who spends up to 6 months of the year in deep hibernation during this time.

This local population of humans excels at soccer!

The native population of humans excel at soccer!

20 July 2013
04:45–The humans roused unusually early today. From what I gather, they are venturing into the forest to “hook up an animal for EEG recordings”. It’s a chilly morning, but they appear to be prepared, dressed in many layers, buffered against the cold. I bet they wish they had a nice fur coat, like myself.

10:23–I’ve noticed a lot of strange noises being emitted camp this AM. For example, two of the females do an awful lot of singing and repeat the same words over and over. “Mr. Sun. Sun. Mr. Golden Sun. Please shine down on me.” I wonder if this is a strange mating call of some sort? In addition, they enjoy giving the domestic chickens running around strange names as if they are naming a previously unnamed species. Two of the chickens especially stand out: Lord “Bald”ermort and Sir “Vulture”mort. I wonder if the human brains are big enough to realize that these chickens are, in fact, female…

14:31–Two of the humans are obsessed with three big silver boxes they call the “OxBoxes”. They can’t seem to make up their minds about where to stash their cache of silver in the forest. After a decision is finally reached, they continually return to their cache, depositing motorcycle batteries. This behavior occurs quite often, as with the computer equipment previously documented, and happens multiple times per day, every day.

19:01–After an impressive display of feeding, the humans have gathered around the dinner table with the native population for what they refer to as “movie night”. After the movie commenced, some humans sauntered off into the forest, while the others lumbered to their nylon night roosts.

23 July 2013
09:03–I’ve noticed more strange behavior from two of the young females in the group. Every day they complete a series of push-ups and keep talking about “rehabilitating a busted shoulder”. From what I can tell, they add one push-up onto their count each day. By my calculations, that would account to 31 push-ups by the end of their time here. In contrast, some of the young males can often be seen playing with a thin, saucer-shaped disc that flies through the air when thrown.

14:10–The majority of the group consistently assembles on sunny days for what looks to me like art class with watercolor paints. Each class time they’ve chosen a different subject (as I’ve noticed from previous gatherings) ranging from a calf grazing near the rice paddies, to a sprig of a peach blossom. The artistic talent in my focal group is unbelievable.

What a cultured bunch of humans!

What a cultured bunch of humans!

16:23–I’ve tracked the humans into the forest today and watched as they located a hibernating dwarf lemur, dug her up, and completed routine animal health checks and re-collaring before carefully placing her back in her underground hibernacula to finish out the winter season.

18:47–Some of the humans dispersed from the group after feeding time to go “chameleon hunting” in the forest. Upon their return, they talked excitedly about an up-close encounter with a Scops owl, who apparently “scared the bejeezes” out of one of them. They then assembled with the others in an apparent celebratory event including a large drink they shared amongst themselves called the “Tsinjoarivo Stinger”, which they made out of rum, water, honey, and fresh lemon and lime juices. This was accompanied by a rousing game of cards with seemingly made-up and thoroughly confusing rules.

I know, scary, right?

I know, scary, right?

28 July 2013
14:51–There is a flurry of excitement today as the humans are excitedly running around chattering about an “Art Exhibition”. It seems as though they’ve gathered all their work from their art classes and put it on display in a strange fashion. Is this behavior normal for Homo sapiens? They’ve even created “hors d’oeuvres” of tiny little banana slices topped with Nutella and a giant platter of dense rice cake. Classical music was even playing in the background. There seems to be a judging of the paintings by the dominant male in the group.

The fancy hors d'oeuvres

The fancy hors d’oeuvres. Nutella bananas and rice cake!

The 2013 graduating class

The 2013 Graduating Class

Tsinjoarivo Art Exhibition 2013

Tsinjoarivo Art Exhibition 2013

17:03–One of the young females appears to obsessively carry around a journal, frequently writes in it, and talks non-stop about something called “blogging”. The others in the group often times exhibit risk-taking behavior, placing 100 ariary bets (the equivalent of about 5 cents, USD) on things like who can find the largest stone in their rice, or what type of animal “Scrat” from the movie Ice Age was. This topic is still highly debated. It is very clear from my studies of this focal group of humans that I’ve stumbled upon a very rare and unique bunch. Maybe they are a new species? Their obsession with hibernation is particularly odd. However, they seem to be good-natured and cooperative with each other, an apparent lack of hierarchy among the ranks noted. I’ll continue to monitor this troop in order to tease apart the genetic and environmental factors driving human behavior in this focal group.

It’s a jungle out there!