Notes From the Zookeeper: Field Work

You guys! Guess what! Go on, guess! No, I’m not pregnant. Thanks for that, though, sj. Guess again! No, I am not getting a pony. My surprise is NOT as good as a pony. Now I’m disappointed. Thanks. Oh, now I’m supposed to just tell you? Fine. Whatever.

Today, maybe even as you read this, I am going to do a little field work! I haven’t had a ton of opportunities yet. I have been to the bog a couple of times to check nests for the zoo’s ongoing bog turtle project, but that one started years before I joined the zoo (or even graduated college!). I came in just as the actual field work was winding down, so there was not much point in training me. Today, though, I have been invited to travel along with my lead keeper, Stephen, as he pulls and checks traps for his big project. He’s studying mudpuppies, and we’re going to catch some. Hopefully.

what is a mudpuppy

If you’re thinking we’re out to catch one of these, you might be a little incorrect. Just a little. We’re looking for salamanders.

He believes he has found a new species, so after filling out mountains of paperwork to get permission, he has been setting live traps for the animals in many different places. He sets traps and checks them daily for a week or so out of each month. He is hoping to determine that this is indeed a new species, or a previously described species that has never been found in the current range, which will yield information about stream ecology. Any animals that are captured will surrender a tiny bit of DNA for gene sequencing before they are fitted with a PIT tag. Basically, a tiny little transponder that is the same kind of microchip inserted into a dog or cat for identification should they get lost, is inserted under the animal’s skin. This chip will let him know if the animal is a new individual, or if it is a recapture. The Hiawasee is a pretty big place, so finding a recapture is like looking for a needle in a haystack, but Stephen has already recaptured one. This could shed some light on movement within a territory at some point, so a recapture is still a win.

So tomorrow, I meet him at an undisclosed, top-secret secret meeting location. Like maybe the Bat Cave. Or the zoo.  I am not at liberty to say.

Oh, man! The only thing that could make fieldwork cooler is if we could meet at the Bat Cave! Maybe Stephen really IS Batman. But even if he were, I couldn't tell you.

Oh, man! The only thing that could make fieldwork cooler is if we could meet at the Bat Cave! Maybe Stephen really IS Batman. But even if he were, I couldn’t tell you.

Then we’re going to drive to his trapping site, which is about an hour away. We’ll jump in his boat and paddle out to pull the traps. If there are mudpuppies in them (please, oh, please!), he’ll show me how to take genetic samples, record weights and measurements, and how to insert a PIT tag. Then we’ll let the little rascal go and move on to the next trap. A good time will be had by all.

I won’t have my camera because water + clumsy = disaster. So I will draw pictures for you next week to show you what I saw. In the meantime, I pack. What do real scientists take on trips into the field?

  • Snacks – We’ll be gone several hours, and no food makes one zookeeper very cranky.
  • A change of clothes – we don’t want to expose our captive zoo animals to diseases and parasites they may have poor resistance to, so we will change clothes from head to toe before returning to care for our animals. You’d be surprised what kind of yuck can be carried in on shoes.
  • A second change of clothes – for when I drop the first set in the water
  • Cool tunes – we have an hour of driving each way, and we need something to listen to. I’m thinking “Hamilton,” or maybe “Les Mis.” Anybody know the official soundtrack of field work?
  • Book or e-reader – again, an hour drive each way. I have to do something, right?
  • Barf bag – I get sick when I read in the car. But 2 hours seems like a lot of time to NOT read.
  • Water shoes – we’re going to be on the river, and maybe IN it. Most likely in it. Because it’s me.
  • Water-proof notebook – who knew they made such a thing, but they do.
  • Towel – Because if when I fall in the water, it would be nice to be able to dry off a bit. 50 degrees is chilly even when you’re DRY!
  • Water wings – Field work is sink or swim, and I am allergic to sinking to the bottom of the river and dying.
  • Plastic-coated form of ID – Because when I get swept away in the current, hit my head on a rock, and forget who I am, the authorities will know whom to call.
  • Adult diaper – The sound of running water + a bladder the size of a Lego brick+ the sheer terror of being in a boat (I had red beans and rice for dinner. What if I lean over to quietly relieve a little, um, pressure, and capsize the canoe?)
  • Rubber duckie- all work and no play, ya’ll

What’s exciting in your world this week?

 

 

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