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September 13, 2015 | by  | in Features |
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Ants and the Art of Land Rover Maintenance

Interviews with Ecologists

Back when I was a university fledgling and still living out of the family nest in Ngaio, my adaptation to student life was eased by one of the biology lecturers at Vic moving in next door.   

At their housewarming, I was introduced to a number of his co-workers and my potential future lecturers. At the time, they were only known to me by the animal they studied—“the deer guy”, “the rhino guy”, “the tropical fish guy” and so forth, like some zoological Justice League. Four years of biology study and a Salient gig later, I decided to ask “what are their stories?”, as well as learn their actual names.

“The Ant Guy”

Phil Lester—Insect Ecology

What does your research group do and where have you travelled?

We work on social insects and primarily invasive social insects, like invasive ants and wasps. We’ve travelled a lot in the Pacific, like Tokelau, Samoa. I’ve got a PhD student in Northern Australia, we’ve got people going to Argentina and Chile, I’ve got another PhD student in Belgium, so we get to travel a chunk.

Using one example of a place you travelled to do field work, where did you live while you were doing field work there, and what was the experience like living there day-to-day?

Probably the most interesting one would be Tokelau. You fly up to Samoa, then from Samoa you get on a boat and travel to Tokelau, a little atoll nation. There’s only about 1000–2000 people on the island itself, it’s very a small place, so going there by boat is interesting on its own. You all pile on a boat, and you take a mattress with you (hopefully). You get a mattress-sized piece of floor there and that’s where you are for the next two to three days. So you lie there, and then three times a day a bowl of food will be passed around. And personally, I get really get really seasick, so I don’t eat much anyway. It used to be my annual weight-loss plan to go to Tokelau and vomit for days on end! [laughs]

When you get there, there’s one hotel you can stay at on one of the atolls, but in the other ones they have houses that they keep for visitors, so you go and stay there and you’ll share food with a family. Sometimes you’ll stay with a family or some separate level of their house.

What was the most interesting thing you learnt about life in Tokelau?

The travel between different islands of Tokelau is family-owned, you need permission to go places. It’s a very religious community—no work on Sundays, so you go to church. It’s an amazing experience to go to their church, lots of singing, but VERY hot. I’ve just about died of heatstroke a couple times just standing in church. You’re not used it, especially coming from Wellington.

What was the most interesting thing your team found in your field work?

We’ve done lots of genetics, we look at how these ant holes in these countries have a resident population of invasive species. But then there’ll be new invasions, new strains moving into these areas and that new strain can just explode, massive populations of these ants, so much that in Tokelau, when we were there, people couldn’t sleep because you’d go to bed at night and just have ants crawling over you. They keep people awake, babies crying, livestock getting acid sprayed in their eyes. We don’t know how lucky we are in New Zealand not to have large numbers of ants like they do, where it’s a massive problem.

But over time those populations might die down too. Last time there was a big tidal wave and wiped out whole populations, or they may have died down themselves from pathogens or something. We’re trying to figure that out.

What can we as humans learn from ants?

Well, we as humans think we’re pretty smart, but well before we started using antibiotics, ants were using antibiotics. Leaf-cutting ants (a species found in the Amazon that are seen carrying bits of leaves) don’t eat those leaves directly, they take them underground and culture fungus on them. The fungus grows and then they harvest the fungus. What those ants do is produce an antibiotic to keep other species of fungus out, so they’re only culturing one specific strain of fungus in the chambers in their nests. So they’re farming it, and they’re applying pesticide and herbicides, essentially, to that “crop” to stop weeds growing in it.

Somehow, those ants have managed to stop resistance development (in the fungus) to those chemicals. For us humans, we’ll go along and go “Hey, we’ve got a new pesticide to control this pest”, but after a few years there’s a resistance developed by the pest and it’s no longer effective. These ants have somehow managed to control that, they’ve managed to stop development of resistance to their defences. For millions of years, they’ve managed to do this. They’re just incredible little things.

Have you committed any #fieldworkfails?

I don’t think we’ve done anything like that. One of my PhD students was in Argentina just a couple months ago when the volcano went off, so their whole research trip was obliterated by a volcano. But in terms of human error, I don’t think we’ve done anything that stupid that I’m willing to admit or that I can think of right now. We’re really competent, or at least that’s the image we’d like to present.

“The Rhino Guy”

Wayne Linklater—Wildlife Biology & Human Dimensions Ecology

What kind of research do you do and where have you travelled to do it?

I have a program working with large mammals in Asia and Africa, and most of that work is with rhinoceros and elephant. Most of that work is conducted with PhD candidates doing their degrees, or with natural resource agencies in those places who have datasets that they’d like interrogated.

The other thing I do is pursue an interest in human dimensions ecology. That’s really the sort of ecology where we ask questions about ecosystems where people are regarded as central and part of those ecosystems and not separate. You talked about interviewing researchers working in “the wild”, but that theme very much sees ecologists and people as separate from “the wild”; there’s a dichotomy. Human dimension ecology tries to reverse that. It regards people as a part of the ecosystem and tries to understand the relationship between people and ecology. It asks questions about the degree to which people depend upon nature, and the degree to which people have to have a relationship with nature. Studies like trying to establish the role of urban greenery in people’s mental health, for example.

Using one example of a place you travelled to do field work, where did you live while you were doing field work there, and what was the experience like living there day-to-day?

I can give you a couple of examples but the one that’s more interesting to you is field work in southern Africa with black rhinoceros translocation. So the objective was to make use of a current conservation translocation strategy, capturing animals from some reserves and putting them in new reserves. Reintroductions, we call them. So in that field work, my sights were distributed from northern Namibia down to the southeast of South Africa, so over a couple thousand miles, and I pretty much lived out of a Land Rover and a tent while we cruised around these 12 different sites, being present for capture and relocation and release and then post-release monitoring for a year afterwards. So an extraordinary amount of travelling over that continent and some very basic living out of a tent and a Land Rover.

What was the most interesting thing you learned about life in southern Africa?

The most interesting thing? Life is pretty fragile. Coming from New Zealand, I’ve found southern Africa a very inhospitable place, for two reasons. First of all, New Zealand’s environment is actually pretty benign. We complain about our weather, and it’s true we have a very changeable oceanic climate and some foreign visitors who go into our outback find that dangerous and challenging, but compared to other places in the world, New Zealand is a very benign environment. We don’t have large predators, our forests are relatively easy to get around, they don’t have very many plants with thorns, we don’t have very many poisonous animals. Compared to southern Africa, this is a really easy place to work and environment to work in, bar a little horizontal rain sometimes.

But the other thing is the social environment in New Zealand is very easy to work in, by comparison. Working in southern Africa, there’s an extraordinary crime rate. Either that or you’re incredibly isolated. It’s actually quite difficult in New Zealand to get well and truly isolated. And anywhere in New Zealand, you’re never really all that far from other people. But there are some places in southern Africa that are very remote. So both socially and environmentally I found it a much more difficult environment to work in.

What was the most interesting thing you have had to learn during your field work?

Professionally, I learned that we could improve rhino survival after release very quickly by following some basic rules about the choices of rhino that government agencies make when capturing rhino for release. So we were able to make some quite major improvements in post-release success.

Personally, I learned how difficult work can be in Africa, and I guess I met my tolerance for it there. Everyone has to discover their limits, and I definitely discovered my limits in southern Africa. I was doing long extended periods of fieldwork at the same time as maintaining professional and personal relationships in North America and New Zealand, and that was just incredibly demanding.

What can we as humans learn from rhinos?

I guess I go back to where we started, life is pretty fragile. Rhino and many other species are very, very close to extinction, and there’s no certainty that my children or my grandchildren will see rhino, and I think we could learn a great deal from that.

Have you committed any #fieldworkfails?

Choosing the wrong tyres for my Land Rover when I first bought it. It meant that, for example, in one trip across northwestern Namibia in one day, a trip that was just meant to take me the whole day, took me three days ‘cause I went through tyres on the really hard, sharp rocky ground. And that was a really debilitating day, so I learnt a lot about tyre suitability that day.

“The Deer Guy”

Heiko Wittmer—Conservation and Restoration Ecology

What’s your area of research, and where have you travelled to carry it out?

I’m interested in trying to understand population dynamics, so basically I’m trying to look at what determines population size of these species (deer and puma). Because of my research, I realised that predation can have a very big impact on these guys—I ended up studying both predators and prey populations. So I study deer, caribou, that sort of stuff, simultaneously with their most important predators. Because I focus on ungulates, I’ve worked mostly in North America and South America. The predator that I’m mostly interested in is pumas. They’re distributed all the way up from Alaska all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, the widest distribution of any terrestrial predator.

Where did you live while doing field work, and what was the day-to-day experience like?

I have another research program that is in Borneo. I work with a colleague of mine to look at understanding the distribution of a variety of species with respect to differences in habitat productivity. There’s a few ungulates in that system, like mouse deer, and there’s also predators in there like clouded leopard. In June, I went there for three weeks to do field work again.

We fly to Jakarta, which is all good, but then you end up on much smaller planes to try and find your way to Borneo, and then we just stay in a very little town called Ketapung, and we end up in these areas to sort out all the things like permits. The study area is only about an hour’s drive away from Ketapung, but once we get dropped by taxi, we have to hike 20 kilometres with all our luggage for two or three weeks into our study site. My colleague, Andy Marshall from the University of Michigan, he’s built a field station there, but as it tends to get a bit crowded with all the research assistants, I end up mostly pitching a tent close by.

[It’s a] very remote area—you have to hike in quite a bit, but because it’s a third world country, the costs for people working for you are very low and so we have maybe six or seven field assistants working for us, helping with data collection, and they’re all locals. We have a field manager there that we pay. We have a cook, who prepares food for everyone, and there’s a porter every second day who comes and bring fresh vegetables. And that for us is really neat because it takes away all the organisation of what we need on a day-to-day level to get organised. What we can then do is go into the field and completely focus on getting field work done. I really like that set-up.

What was the most interesting thing you learned about life in Borneo?

Borneo is the best example, because what it made me realise was that everywhere you go, you will see the majority of people being kids and young adults. We end up having one or two kids most of the time, and then you go there and you see some really large families with lots and lots of kids, and so you start realising that it’s continuing to be an issue. Populations are just growing at very fast rates. And then of course from a conservation perspective, you start to realise that every single person there, they want the same standard of living that we already have. The kids, they run around in Chelsea shirts, the big soccer clubs, and the reality is they just want the exact same lifestyle that they do. And then, of course, with an increase in population, puts pressure on the natural resources, and that’s why they end up logging rainforests and developing palm oil plantations because you can make more money off them, and that makes a lot of sense, from that perspective.

And yet, my own work there, it focuses on trying to maintain these pristine rainforests because that’s where we see these species that we’re interested in such as orangs or gibbons, and they can’t live in a palm oil plantation. And so for me, travelling there has given me a new perspective of conservation. A top down approach that is suggested by Westerners as a one-size-fits-all solution to loss of biodiversity doesn’t work in countries like that, simply because there’s such a bottom-up demand for resources that they just can’t afford to set aside national parks. That has virtually no income for them, because it doesn’t help them to actually improve their standard of living. So that is one of the most interesting social experiences I’ve had there. And it enforces, to Andy Marshall and myself, how important it is to hire these locals into our field camps because that is the only source of revenue that we bring back, our research, into the community. We’re helping them have a way of making a living.

What was the most interesting thing you learned in your field work?

I always viewed predator-prey interactions as simply having to understand the predator side of things and the prey side of things. And through the research in North America, for example, we learnt that we’d been missing one really important determinant of these interactions, and that is scavenging. So basically a lot of our research has shown that bears, black bears in our case, they find these kill sites of puma, so where a puma has killed a deer and eats from that deer once or twice, and then that is being found by a bear and completely eats the entire carcass over a short period of time.

So all of a sudden, a puma needs to go hunting much more often because it cannot defend the deer it killed against such a big scavenger like a bear, so what I found really interesting about that was that it’s not enough to understand pumas killing deer, you actually need to understand how that kill rate also depends on other species that might come to those carcasses and steal energy from the puma, forcing him to kill more often. And actually that understanding, I think, has profound implications for both conservation and management, because I think most studies in the past may have underestimated the number of deer that puma might have to kill over an entire year.

Is there anything that we as humans could learn from deer/puma/predator-prey relations?

Maybe just that the upper limit of populations are being set by the natural resources available, as well as limiting factors like predation. There is going to be some form of an upper limit of a population size that can be supported, and we are currently still increasing exponentially, even though clearly resources are already an issue for half of the human population. What I sometimes take away from it is, when I study animal populations, that we have such a clear understanding of the upper limits of population sizes, and yet we refuse to accept the same is actually true for humans as well. We’re just completely ignorant.

Have you committed any #fieldworkfails?

My students in California would regularly stumble onto marijuana plantations while monitoring our deer and pumas. It’s quite common to grow pot on federal lands (such as National Forests) and plantations range from very small with just a few plants, to some with as many as 100,000 plants that are even guarded to prevent theft. The plantations are often watered using sophisticated hydroponic systems. So the rule was that if students came across a hydroponic system, they would lift it and if it was full of water (in use), they had to turn around. The same rule applied to running into actual plantations. Just turn around and leave.

What is a #fieldworkfail?

To scientists, Twitter is not just a sound heard in the forest. Over the last few months, field researchers, conservation workers and other biologists working out in the wilds have been sharing their mishaps and mistakes through the hashtag #fieldworkfail. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • “Accidentally glued myself to a crocodile while attaching a radio transmitter”
  • “Butterflies that failed to show up for my elaborate experiment flew by my window while I was doing dishes at home”
  • “Discovering secret granola stash in field station—realising later ‘flax seeds’ actually weevils”
  • “Accidentally pee on a jaguar’s marked tree. Get chased by the jaguar for three weeks”
  • “Set padded leghold trap near house for jackal. Caught lion”
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