Cool Jobs: Wild science

Collecting data can be dangerous for scientists who work in the field

Arctic researcher Kathy Young (rear) walks back to her remote research cabin on Canada’s Bathurst Island with her student Valen Steer.

Tarmo Remmel

Discouraging polar bears from joining you for breakfast, avoiding hippos that might bite you in two and learning to bathe in caiman-infested rivers are not part of a scientist’s traditional job description. But if you’re a field researcher — someone who gets out of the lab to collect and analyze data — you may want to master some of these skills.

Of course it’s not all drama, say three field researchers who have roamed far and wide in the name of science. When your workday is done, and you find yourself a long way from civilization and video games, you may just have to take up … knitting.

“You’re going to have downtime,” and plenty of it, says Kathy Young at Toronto’s York University. Her studies of hydrology — how water moves within Earth’s environment, from the air to deep underground — take her to the Arctic. To pass the time, “People have to know how to knit, read for pleasure or play cards,” she says.

But in between dodging boredom and dangerous wildlife is the science — collecting samples, taking measurements and observing fascinating things about the natural world.

Bears? Oh my!

Young is using her degrees in biology and geography to figure out how Arctic wetlands and ponds are responding to climate fluctuations. Are the warmer temperatures associated with climate change drying Arctic sites? Are such temperature increases affecting the amount of snow, or thawing permafrost? Are the types of plants that grow in the Arctic changing? And how do all of these things fit together to create a healthy, or perhaps unhealthy, ecosystem?

Young has discovered that some Arctic ponds and wetlands are indeed drying out, and she worries about what that might mean for the animals and people who rely on such watery habitats. These areas act as grocery stores in a place where food can be scarce. Musk ox, caribou and migrating birds eat the wetlands’ grasses, flowers, herbs and seeds. The Inuit (native peoples) in turn hunt these animals.

When Young works up north, she often stays for months at a time. She shares a small cabin with a few of her students on the otherwise uninhabited Bathurst Island, about 145 kilometers (90 miles) from the closest community.

Because the cabin is so isolated and because she shares the island with polar bears, Young must radio a base camp twice a day. If she misses two calls in a row, people at the camp will fly to the island to check on her.

While she’s never needed rescuing, Young has had enough interaction with the island’s wildlife to be grateful for the backup.

Once while she was cooking breakfast in the cabin, one of her students happened to glance at the open window. “He said, ‘What is that white thing in the window?’” At first, Young didn’t pay much attention. After all, she sees a lot of Arctic foxes and wolves. “But then I saw the polar bear’s head in the window,” she says, “and I saw we’d left the gun right by the window.”

Young reacted instinctively: She ran to the window “and slammed it on his nose.”

The bear backed up enough for her to grab the gun. Good thing, too, because after initially moving away from the cabin, the bear came back. So she stepped outside and fired off a few rounds into the air. After that, he turned tail and ran.

The lesson for field researchers in the far north? Always, always keep your gun with you, and learn how to make the right decision quickly, Young says.

Kathy Young slammed the nose of this polar bear in her cabin window after he stuck his head into her home. Minutes after this shot was taken, he turned around and started back toward the cabin. Young had to fire her gun in the air to scare him off for good. Credit: Kathy Young

From frogs to hippos

While it’s great to come back from the field with adventure stories, you should plan your trip well enough that none of those adventures gets in the way of doing your work — or worse, says biologist Tyrone Hayes. At the University of California, Berkeley, he studies the effect of commercial chemicals on amphibians.

The first time Hayes travelled to Kenya, in East Africa, he knew to be wary of lions and leopards. But one night while looking for frogs with a student from Kenya, the student looked nervous. Hayes was puzzled because there were no threatening animals nearby. When Hayes asked if it was safe for them to be there, the young man assured him it was but remained clearly frightened.

That’s when Hayes noticed some holes in the lakeshore where they were working. He asked the young Kenyan what created the holes. “‘That’s the hippos,’” the student told him, explaining that the animals walk around at night to feed. So Hayes asked again whether it was safe to be out there. The student replied, “If a hippo sees you, she will bite you twice.” Hayes wondered what that meant.

There was a slight language problem. It turned out that the student was trying to tell Hayes that the hippo would bite its victim in half.

Though Hayes has been careful not to disturb hippos ever since, the possibility of a run-in with one hasn’t kept him from fieldwork. And that’s a good thing. Years later, the scientist discovered something very important about how certain chemicals might be leading to a drop in worldwide frog populations.

Biologist Tyrone Hayes, from the University of California, Berkeley, created lab experiments to better understand why frog populations are declining. Credit: Courtesy of Tyrone Hayes

Hayes has a background in evolutionary biology (the study of natural biological changes in living populations), endocrinology (the study of hormones, chemicals that the body makes to direct the timing of important activities) and molecular biology (the study of chemicals essential to life). Combining his knowledge from these different fields, he created lab experiments to test what might be responsible for the drop in frog numbers.

His experiments showed that some male frogs living in water contaminated by a common weed killer called atrazine had shrunken voice boxes. This made it hard for the males to call to potential mates. Some frogs exposed to atrazine had malformed reproductive organs that made it difficult or impossible for them to reproduce. And in some cases, frogs born male became female. They not only looked like females but could bear live young (although all their offspring were males).

Today, Hayes is convinced these changes have to do with how atrazine interferes with frog hormones. Hormones are natural chemicals that all living animals produce in their bodies. The chemicals act as messengers, helping to control how cells and organs do their work.

Hayes’ findings may be important not only for frogs but also for humans who produce many of the same hormones as frogs. The biologist’s studies helped prompt the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to re-examine how safe atrazine is for humans.

People’s activities are creating environments where some things can no longer live safely, Hayes warns. And if commercial weed killers and other chemicals are responsible, that’s worrisome, he says, because there’s nothing unique about the frog’s world. “We are living in the same environment and breathing the same air.”

Ant farming

While Hayes combined his work in the field and the lab to probe the effects of an environmental contaminant, fieldwork can also uncover just plain fascinating insights into the natural world.

Fungus-growing ants in Brazil are attracted to the bait — dried cream of rice — entomologist Jeffrey Sosa-Calvo uses to track the insects back to their colonies. Credit: Jeffrey Sosa-Calvo

Jeffrey Sosa-Calvo, for example, studies complex societies of fungus-growing ants in Guyana and Brazil. Out of the 13,000 or so known species of ants, there are roughly 250 that grow fungus for food, he explains.

“Think of them as farmers,” says Sosa-Calvo, an entomologist, or scientist who studies insects, at the University of Maryland in College Park. “They discovered agriculture about 50 million years ago. Humans discovered it 10,000 years ago.” So maybe these ants have something to teach us about how to structure a society to reach certain goals, he suggests.

Sosa-Calvo points out that each individual in an ant colony has a specific job to do to the best of its ability. Some ants collect decaying organic matter such as beetle feces to bring back to underground colonies. There the ants use the matter to fertilize — promote the growth of — the fungus that their colony eats. Some ants take care of the larvae, or baby ants, while others construct underground chambers for the fungus garden, take out the garbage or defend the colony with mandibles (mouthparts sharp enough to cut skin). And of course there is the queen ant, whose job it is to give birth to more ants.

To observe these complex ant societies, Sosa-Calvo sometimes spends months in the jungles of South America. There he tracks insects just 2 to 3 millimeters long and the color of soil. To help him see the tiny camouflaged creatures, he sprinkles dried cream of rice on the ground and waits for the ants to take the bait. When they head home carrying the white grains, Sosa-Calvo can see them well enough to follow.

Jeffrey Sosa-Calvo excavates a colony of fungus-growing ants in Brazil. The chamber containing the fungi was located almost 4 meters from the surface. Credit: Ted R. Schultz

But even with bait, they’re not always easy to find. Sometimes it’s not enough to be resourceful; you also have to be patient. Sosa-Calvo once spent 10 days searching the jungle, much of it in the pouring rain. And his measly reward? Only one ant.

Still, he loves field research, even when his study subjects are scarce. “I get to see places I never dreamed of,” he notes. “You’d have to take a canoe and travel for days to see another human. It’s great.”

He even loves the adventure of bathing in jungle rivers that are home to piranhas and caimans (a relative of crocodiles). But just to be careful, he always brings along a buddy to keep an eye out and get help in case something happens.

“When the caimans go down under the water and you can’t see them anymore, that’s the part that freaks you out,” he admits. Sosa-Calvo also confesses to being frightened one morning after he awoke to find jaguar prints in the dirt below his hammock.

But when asked if he could be talked into cutting back on fieldwork, Sosa-Calvo does not hesitate: “What? And miss all that? When I’m there, I think ‘Oh man. I could just stay here forever.’”

Power Words

geography The study of Earth’s features and how the living and nonliving parts of the planet affect one another.

permafrost Permanently frozen ground.

ecosystem The plants and animals found in a specific place that depend on each other to survive.

Inuit A group of people native to North America and parts of Greenland and northeast Siberia.

hormones Natural chemicals that all living things produce in their bodies. These chemicals act as messengers, helping to control how cells and organs do their work.

reproductive organs The organs in a creature’s body that allows it to make babies.

organic A substance that comes from plant or animal matter.

This is one in a series on careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics made possible by support from the Northrop Grumman Foundation.

Sharon Oosthoek is a freelance science journalist. She likes to write about animals and their habitats. Sharon also really likes chocolate. Her sons have learned to hide their Halloween candy.