Four survival tips for the field ecologist

For an ecologist, one important task is to spend time outdoors collecting data. In the depths of field sites around the world it is often beautiful, but there are also many unexpecteds that can make or break a field season. So here it is: the top four lessons I’ve learnt over the years (the hard way), that will hopefully help you have successful field seasons.

Grands Jardins National Park, Quebec, Canada. One of Dalal Hanna’s field sites. Photo by Dalal Hanna

            

 #1 Bring backups

After a long forestry road drive and hike to my isolated field site, my assistant and I put our packs down, pulled out our notepads, and got ready to collect the information we were there for. We decided we’d start off with tree measurements. To get this data we used a special measuring tape.

 

Measuring trees to determine how much carbon they store, using a specialized measuring tape. Filming by Louis-Philippe Robillard

 

One tree, two trees, three trees… and on the fourth, just as I was calling out the tree’s size, I felt a sting on my hand.

I looked down and saw hundreds of wasps coming at me. I had stepped on a nest.

My assistant and I slowly backed away, picking up our gear and trying to make it to a place where the wasps would stop associating us to the recent invasion of their home.

A few minutes passed and tensions seemed to have calmed down. We looked at each other, satisfied that I’m the only one with stings, and that I have had “only” five. I turned to my assistant: “Alright, let’s just move a little upstream and start from there instead”. We started walking, and then it hit me: “I dropped the measuring tape when they stung my hand”. My field assistant looked at me with wide eyes: “Can we go get it?” I pause, “I dropped it in the stream… the current’s pretty strong” … It was gone.

With several hours of distance between us and the nearest place where we might be able to find another measuring tape, this hurt me much harder than all those stings…

The lesson learned: You might think that one piece of equipment is enough if you’re careful, or you justify bringing one of everything to save on space and money, and I get that. But remember, anything can happen, and you always want to have at least two ways to do everything you need to do, just in case something unexpected happens.

#2 Things will probably get wet, so make sure to write on the right paper

It had been several months since I had returned home from my last field season and I was finally getting around to pulling out my samples to check them out under the microscope. Dozens of plastic bottles, filled with ethanol and insects that I had collected at different streams around Canada.

And then… it came time to look at sample numbers MO1.1 and MO1.2.

A blur.

An ecologist’s worst nightmare: field samples with illegible labels. Photo by Dalal Hanna

Ethanol had somehow leaked onto the multiple permanent marker labels I had written on  the samples and I could no longer tell which was which “MO”. It might not sound like a big deal, but the difference between these samples was significant. One was from a stream in a protected area, and the other from a place with dense agriculture. It was really important that I know which was which. But that was no longer possible….

I sucked it up and accepted that these samples, which I had traveled far to collect, had spent multiple days gathering, and which were a key part of my PhD research, would now be very difficult to use. Now, I know that anytime I put a sample in a jar, if possible, I should also include a label inside the jar itself.

Identifying samples on “Rite in the Rain” paper that will be then put into these sample jars to ensure safe identification. Filming by Pablo Velez

The lesson learned: “Rite in the Rain” waterproof paper is a great way to make sure labels stay intact. This paper is also great for field note-taking, where things can get really wet.

A typical rainy evening in the field, and very good reason to always make sure you’ve got good note taking materials. Filming by Dalal Hanna

#3 Always bring “the essentials” with you

I once parked my truck beside a stream I wanted to quickly check out, and was so confident I would find it that my assistant and I walked off into the woods empty handed and wearing slippers. Yes, slippers.

The slippers my field assistant and I wore when we walked off into the woods. They’ve got a fairly rugged bottom, but they are definitely not hiking boots. Photo by Dalal Hanna

 We couldn’t find the stream. The sun was setting and the truck was somewhere… but where?

It wasn’t the part about not knowing where the truck was that bothered me, but rather, the fact that we had been in such a rush that we left our truck without any of what I like to call “the essentials”:

  • Weatherproof coat
  • First aid kit
  • Substantial snack
  • Communication device
  • Lighter and matches
  • Water and water-purification system
  • Knife
  • GPS and a compass
  • Spare batteries
  • Headlamp

For an ecologist, I think these items are the minimum you should have on you at all times. It’s best to pack all these things into a separate bag or container that fits into your backpack, so it is always ready to go.

The lesson learned: Unpredictable things can (and always do) happen in the field. Bring these essentials with you, and put the chances of safely navigating hard situations on your side.

#4 Better to be safe than sorry

We had set up our tents just beside the river and were sitting by the campfire preparing dinner. Then, the dog started to bark. I looked around, and there it was, no more than 30 meters away from our group of six: a big black bear. We all jumped up and yelled loudly, but it just kept coming toward us. It’s not that I don’t like black bears, they are beautiful and majestic animals, but I didn’t really want to find myself any closer to its large, strong, and unpredictable body. We all picked up rocks and starting throwing them, hoping to scare the bear away, but still it kept coming closer. The dog ran up to bear, barking like crazy (and almost colliding with it!), but the bear just kept advancing. Clearly, this bear was curious.

BANG! It wasn’t a gun, but a “bear banger,” a little orange pen-like tool that can shoot ammunition into the air to make large sounds.

A bear-banger pen launcher. Put a cartridge into this little device, and blast off. It will make a sound loud enough to scare most wildlife away. Photo by Dalal Hanna

I’m so happy we had the right equipment to end this encounter peacefully.

The lesson learned: Safety is essential during field work. This isn’t something that can be overstated, and worth carefully considering before you head out to the field. Think through all the the things that can go wrong.

Three key field safety points come to mind:

The first is knowing about the environment you’re heading into. What kinds of plants, animals and weather might you run into? What do you need to do to assure peaceful co-existence? For my work in Canada, it’s critical that I carry bear bangers and/or spray, that I know how to identify Poison Ivy (a plant that can leave you with nasty rashes!), and that I be prepared and equipped for rain, sun, snow and dense clouds of mosquitos (which can literally make you go crazy! …Don’t believe me? Check out this video).

Next, at least one person on a field trip should have wilderness first aid training. A 40-hour course, in which you learn about the difference between critical and non-critical injuries and how to manage a wide range of these, is what I would consider the minimum. The 80-hour wilderness first responder course is an even better precaution.

Third is orientation and communication. Some people might find it fun to get a little lost, but there’s nothing fun about not knowing where you are and how to figure that out. Check out “the essentials” list for related devices.

Dalal Hanna using a GPS to safely navigate from one field site to the next. Jacques Cartier National Park, Québec, Canada. Photo by Louis-Philippe Robillard.

You can find out more about Dalal’s recent field season by checking out her #sciencetelling videos.

Ecologist Dalal Hanna is passionate about helping to solve environmental challenges to foster a more equitable and sustainable future. Currently, she is completing her Ph.D. at McGill University in Canada. She focuses on the diverse ways rivers contribute to human well-being and aims to use her findings to inform river conservation policy. She has also published research on how anthropogenic noise affects bird song, and on mercury contamination in African freshwater fish. Sharing scientific knowledge is another one of Dalal’s great passions. In 2015, she developed the podcast Science Faction. Throughout the show’s 12 episodes she explored unbelievable discoveries in all fields of science. She is also part of an urban beekeeping collective in Montreal that invites community members to visit hives and learn about pollinators. Dalal hopes to move forward by starting an NGO that will allow her to combine her interests in science, outreach, education, and expeditions. Dalal is a 2013 National Geographic Young Explorer grantee and is part of the 2017 Young Explorer Leadership and Development Program.

Changing Planet

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Since as far as I can remember I've spent my time outside attempting to understand and connect with the natural world that surrounds us. When it came time to make a career choice, this lead me toward research in ecology and conservation, topics that are of fundamental importance to me. I completed a Bachelors degree in Environmental Sciences at the University of Ottawa in 2011, during which I studied the effects anthropogenic traffic noise on birdsong; discovering the impacts human activity has on even the most unexpected aspects of animal life! I then completed a cross-Canada canoe journey in partnership with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society & the Ottawa Riverkeeper Alliance raising funds and awareness for watershed conservation. Between 2012 & 2014 I studied mercury contamination in African freshwater fish as part of a Masters degree in Biology at McGill University. (The stories in this blog series are from my field work in Uganda!) Following this, I spent time developing Science Faction, a podcast all about unbelievable discoveries and creating an urban beekeeping collective in Montreal, Canada, with which we teach locals about beekeeping and pollinator gardens. Today, I'm working on a PhD in the department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University, during which I will explore questions related to riverine ecosystem service conservation.