Tag Archives: science in action

In the Field, Finally

The last time I checked in here, the very first field season of my PhD career was just about to officially begin. I was filled with anxiety about my ability to handle the complex logistics involved in setting up a multi-year research project, to design protocols that would result in robust scientific data, and to serve as a mentor to two undergraduate interns when most of the time it feels very much like I myself have no idea what I am doing.

Four weeks in, I am happy to report that I’ve learned a tremendous amount in the last month. For instance, one of my biggest questions was whether the phenomenon I planned to study (insect herbivory on subalpine meadow plants) actually even existed at a level that I could observe and record. I’d been told by Elli, a previous student in my lab who spent years surveying the same plants I was interested in, in the very same meadows, that she almost never saw evidence of insect damage. For months, even as I made intense preparations for the summer’s work, I was wildly nervous that I’d get out there, squat down at a plot ready to count tissue loss on leaves, and see absolutely nothing. However, I can now report that there definitely are enough insects in the meadows making a living eating plants that their traces are there if you are looking for them. This fact—that you might not notice something you’re not actively looking for—is definitely no knock on Elli, and actually seems rather marvelous to me. It serves as a huge reminder of the value of personal observation. I’m still unsure of whether I’ll find any evidence for strong climate drivers of insect herbivory, as I had hoped; the levels of plant damage seem not only species-specific but very patchy, and there are lots of factors I hadn’t anticipated dealing with in my analysis (for instance, my new transect on the east side of the mountain is drier, as I’d expected—but it’s also greatly more disturbed by burrowing rodents). So far, it’s not clear that the climate-driven elevational pattern I thought I might find will actually emerge from the data. But that’s a bridge to cross later. For right now I’m just happy I’m not trying to study a ghost.

There have been smaller and more practical lessons, too. I now know that I should bring extra flagging tape with me when I go to the east side of the mountain, because there’s a good chance the ground squirrels there will chew up the flags marking my plots. Extra kill jars are also a good idea, because you never know when you (I) will drop one into a marmot hole. I’ve learned that on humid or wet days the insects caught on sticky traps will start to decompose extraordinarily quickly, even if you only leave the traps out for 48 hours. (In general I’m struggling to deal with storing sticky traps for later analysis, because they are a pain in the ass to handle and their catches are very easily squished.) And I’ve learned that while Rainier’s mosquitoes are a vicious and cruel tribe—each week I come away with dozens of bites on my head, face, waist, and hands, the places hardest to cover up—my hatred for them pales in comparison with my affection for their mountain home.

Perhaps the nicest discovery of all is that, after having been terribly nervous about becoming a DDCSP mentor, my time with James and Leila has been among the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the field season so far. They are both smart, curious, funny, and kind. They take their own projects seriously—both involve aspects of plant-pollinator interactions in the same subalpine meadow ecosystem where I work—but are always happy to help out with mine. And they are wonderful company. As someone who fell in love with the outdoors in large part because it offered the opportunity to experience a vast and quiet solitude, I was afraid that I wouldn’t enjoy being the leader of a crew, no matter how tiny. But somehow we all seem to naturally fall into low-key moods and high-energy moods at the same time, and I have adored working with them. They’ve only got another two weeks before their program ends, and I know I will miss them more than I could have ever imagined I would!

I remind myself daily that I’m at an incredibly early stage in my project, and a lot could change. But while I am still not entirely certain of a great deal, I will say that it is far more comfortable to be in the field dealing with concrete day-to-day problems than it was to be imagining those problems from my desk. I’ll post another update here later on this summer—for now, it’s time for a night’s sleep in my own bed before I head out into the field again tomorrow morning for another week of work. I’ll leave you with a few images of the last month.

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Lupinus arcticus with three well-chewed leaflets (probably by juvenile grasshoppers).

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Valeriana sitchensis, my most abundant study species, showing signs of attack by an as-yet unknown gall-forming insect.

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Bite marks on the developing fruit of an avalanche lily (Erythronium montanum). Not sure who the culprit is yet.

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I have to be careful not to confuse mammal damage with insect damage. It was most likely a marmot that sheared off the tops of these tiny Castilleja parviflora stems.

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I see a lot when I manage to look up, too.

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We’ve had about half and half wonderful weather and days full of fog/rain/clouds. Those can be gorgeous too, though.

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Leila at 2000m.

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James and Leila at 1901m.

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The three of us.

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The mountain, writ large.

How to Cheer Your Future Self Up: A Simple 4-Step Plan

I was feeling a little rough this Tuesday afternoon. There was no real excuse for this, or at least none that I’m quite willing to accept. Classes have been going well.* I’ve never felt more secure in my goals. And Tuesday was a gorgeous December day in Seattle, crisp as a ripe Braeburn. I was staring straight at the snowy sides of Rainier above the skyline, in fact, when my feelings were at their roughest. Frankly, it takes a special kind of absorption to be unhappy while one is looking at a peak that magnificent. I won’t bore you with the specifics; I admit this embarrassing evidence of my own humanity only to tell you that a few hours later a delightful thing happened that cheered me right up. And in case any of you have reason to anticipate that at some point in the future you too will be feeling a little rough in spite of mountains, I present the following simple instructions for a remedy.

• Step 1: Skin approximately 400 bird specimens for The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
• Step 2: Wait a few years before feeling a little rough.
• Step 3: Discover that FMNH 472922—a flycatcher specimen you were responsible for prepping—helped confirm the usefulness of a novel field mark, added one new species to the list of birds whose presence has been recorded in Illinois, and enjoyed a star turn in a recent taxonomic paper by a team of ornithologists from the University of New Mexico.
• Step 4: Delight!

If you’re interested in the details of this story (you should be!) I’ll point you toward two posts by Field Museum researcher Josh Engel. Here’s Josh’s introduction to the specific flycatchers the field mark distinguishes between, and here’s his follow-up, which includes a great set of photos and points out a marvelous recent coincidence that will explain the origin of the specimen you see below.

Not FMNH 472922.

Not FMNH 472922.

I should note that Josh is terrific, and well worth following in general. He writes about odd museum-y discoveries and active scientific efforts with equal pleasure and knowledgeability. I can’t seem to find a unique address for his writing that’s more specific than the one for the Field Museum’s general blog, but this link will tell you more about Josh and point you to what he’s published most recently.

I realize, of course, that if I hadn’t prepped FMNH 472922, someone else would have—and quite possibly they’d have done a better job of it. But it’s still pretty exciting to have a first-hand proof of the mantra everyone who’s involved in a natural history collection knows: You can never predict how, or when, something will come in useful. Every specimen has the potential to one day contribute to our understanding of the world. As does every human being, no matter how sorry for herself she might occasionally feel.

* It’s taken a while, but I’m finally competent at predicting the courses of substitution and elimination reactions of alkanes! Miracle of miracles, as the tailor sang.

Dogs, Cats, and Scats: Saving Jaguars, One Poop at a Time

One of my favorite leisure activities is looking at other animals’ poop. If you’re reading this, you’re probably the kind of person who can relate. I have a collection of photos on my phone that I’ve taken while hiking—everything from the irresistibly hairy gray dreadlocks produced by coyotes (which I happily handle) to the compact tourmaline pellets of elk and moose and the enormous spreading mounds of bear sign, great brown skies constellated by the bright remains of berries. Someday, in the fullness of time, I will realize my dream of buying the domain name www.shitisaw.com and building there a grand compendium of crap.

In the meantime, I’d like to direct your attention to a particular piece of scatological science that you can support at this very moment. It’s a project run by University of Washington wildlife ecology PhD student Jennifer Mae-White Day, who’s crowdfunding the final year of her dissertation research. I’ve posted this several times in a couple of places, so apologies for the repetition; but I can’t overstate how worthy I think this project is of your support. Here’s why:

Jen’s work relies on trained detection dogs which help her search for jaguar scat. Her research site is located in a remote, rugged habitat in Southern Mexico where other techniques for studying these elusive animals would be extremely difficult. (Aside: Did you know that Darwin was fascinated by jaguars and continually tried to find them while on his excursions in the Americas? You would if you followed him on Twitter. He’s a great one for Twitter.) Anyway, scat surveys are a totally noninvasive means (they don’t involve trapping or otherwise stressing the species of interest) of collecting information about animal movements, diversity, and health. Poop contains both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, so it can be used to identify individual jaguars and build a picture of genetic diversity within the population. It also contains hormones and absorbed toxins, which means Jen can quantify the psychological and nutritional stresses the jaguar population is under. And by tracking the locations where scat is found, she can figure out which landscape features, particularly those affected by human activity, attract or repel jaguars (hugely important to deciding where to target conservation)—as well as how genes flow between populations.

In short, this is very good basic science AND it’s highly applicable to our immediate efforts to preserve both the vanishing jaguar population and the ecosystems where they play a vital role as top predators. PLUS, it supports the work of Conservation Canines in general—so apart from anything else, you’ll be helping to save the lives of rescue dogs and give them purposeful work.

Jen with one of the Conservation Canines. I stole this picture from the project page. Apologies that I don't know who to credit for it!

Jen with one of the Conservation Canines. I stole this picture from the project page. Apologies that I don’t know who to credit for it!

That’s my pitch about the value of this research. My other pitch is about how much I think Jen, specifically, deserves your support. First of all, she’s very experienced with this type of research; she’s been working on projects involving large carnivores, tropical habitats, and scat surveys for many years, so she knows exactly what she’s doing and any funding she receives is going to be efficiently used. Secondly, I know her because she TAs my ecology class at UW, and she happens to be incredibly good at that. She leads our lab sessions with great enthusiasm, knowledgeability, and finesse, and I’ve learned a lot from her explanations.

Finally, Jen is a fantastic person as well as a determined scientist. A few weeks ago I made an appointment with her to talk about my grad school plans, and she sat with me for nearly two hours in the middle of what was an incredibly demanding week for her. At the end of it I felt like I had gotten an enormous education in approaching the application and decision processes, as well as sharp insight into how to thrive as a grad student. I was also moved by Jen’s generosity and kindness. If you’re reading this and you don’t happen to be the kind of person who likes looking at poop, then you’re probably a person who knows and loves me, and wants to support my future success. I can tell you that meeting Jen has directly contributed to my chances of achieving that success. So even if you couldn’t care less about jaguars or dogs or conservation, if you care about me, that’s a pretty good reason to support her.

I’m pushing this so hard because the Experiment.com model, like Kickstarter’s, only funds projects if they reach the goals they’ve set—so if Jen doesn’t get to $10,000 in the next 9 days, she’ll lose everything she has raised so far. I think that would be a tremendous shame. One last thing: Even if you can only spare a small amount in support, your modest backing will go twice as far, because every new donation from now on will be matched dollar for dollar till the end of the funding period.

Please consider making a contribution. If you do, and we’re ever in the same city at the same time, ping me and I’ll buy you a drink. Then we’ll toast to good science and good people and good old fashioned poop.

LINK TO THE PROJECT PAGE WHERE YOU CAN DONATE

LINK TO POSTS JEN HAS MADE ABOUT SCAT SURVEYS

JEN ON TWITTER

Better Yet Crawl

In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.

—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitare

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

—Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

I don’t have a natural talent for observation. In the course of most of my daily activities, noticing is a hard mode to maintain. There’s a lot of triage going on—What’s on my work calendar; did I do that Chem homework that’s due today; have I lost my hat again; wait, where am I going right now?

But even when I’m out on a hike, or backpacking, giving heed to everything around that’s worth heeding isn’t necessarily easy. Thoughts get in the way. Putting foot in front of foot gets in the way. Sensations from the eyes get in the way of sensations from the ear.

You may be different. If so, I envy you. Me, I like that Ed Abbey paragraph because hell yeah seeing shit is hard.

There are lots of reasons it’s a little easier in the field than at home, two of which are that there’s a lot more to see and you’re less used to seeing it. But I realized recently that maybe the biggest, simplest, most relevant reason I tend to notice the world more on field trips is that I’m so often doing what Abbey suggests:

Crawling.

I’ll tell you about a trip with Danielle Christianson last month in Sequoia National Park.

Danielle is a Ph.D student at UC Berkeley; I met her through a mutual friend, and have now had the great good fortune of helping her in the field on two occasions. She’s kind, very funny, and intimidatingly smart, but extremely practiced at downplaying her background—which includes several years spent working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion lab in Pasadena, CA. One of my favorite things about Danielle is that always she ends the afternoon by turning to her assistants and saying (absolutely from the heart, and no matter how frustrating or difficult the past 10 hours have been), “Thanks for the good day.” That—along with the fact that she brings frozen blueberry pancakes to the field and wakes up early to toast them for everyone’s breakfast—may tell you all you need to know about her.

This is Danielle at work.

This is Danielle at work.

Six years ago, she started this quixotic venture by looking for and marking thousands of tiny seedlings (mostly Abies magnifica, red firs) with even tinier metal tags. Since then she’s been counting how many survive in each of several dozen small plots within her study area, as well as how much they’ve grown in biomass each season. Danielle’s also been recording a multitude of environmental variables across her site during the same time, including soil moisture, temperature, sun exposure, and topography.

Matched with the seedling numbers, these data will tell us how differences in climate, and changes in climate over time, affect the seedlings on a scale much finer than most climate models can currently accommodate. This is interesting and important work that has lots of theoretical implications for managing and predicting the future of this particular habitat. In practice, it demands the execution of a lot of small, repetitive, and surprising field tasks.

On this trip, for instance, we needed to track down every seedling that was still alive last year—or find its tiny brown corpse amid the dirt and leaf litter—or failing that, at least pick up its lost tag. Since even an “old” seedling that’s been around for over a decade might be just a few centimeters tall, that wasn’t always easy. And after five years of attrition, there were still over 2,000 seedlings to be found. Danielle and Jack, her field assistant for the second year in a row, were like morel hunters in springtime who see mushrooms everywhere—their eyes having learned to pick out the shape of pygmy conifers before their conscious minds recognized them. It took me a bit longer to get used to looking this way.

Found seedlings had their tags removed; from then on they were identified by flags.

Found seedlings got mapped and assessed in a variety of ways. Danielle would measure their tallest height, count each individual branch—a number that could range from 0 to 40 or 50—and then, based on the fact that “new” growth on a conifer is a slightly different shade of green than “old” growth, decide how many branches and branchlets had managed to make progress since last year. Finally, we tried to photograph each seedling head-on against a white, shadowless background, so that Danielle can use computer vision analysis to determine the area of its canopy, or “leaf silhouette”—another way of measuring biomass without ripping a tree out of the ground and taking it back to the lab.

(This photography project may have been the most frustrating of all this year’s field tasks, for reasons that are too boring to go into but mostly involved the total lack of cooperation of sun, terrain, camera, and human body. It did cause Danielle to spend an evening fashioning a portable portraiture backdrop for our seedlings out of construction paper, a hard-backed folder, a clipboard, electrical tape, and binder clips. That thing was awesome. Remind me to write a post sometime about the crazy gear field scientists make out of household objects.)

But listen, pretty much everything on that to-do list required getting down on and crawling on hands and knees.

One afternoon I saw a bit of dust moving out of the corner of my eye and ended up watching a carpenter ant try a dozen times or more to shift the body of a dead compatriot, significantly bigger than itself, out of a depression in the soft red earth. Once there was a glint of something burnished, so small it could have been imaginary, but when I scratched beneath the bark of the log I was sitting on I found the green sheeny case of a wood boring beetle long moved on to better skins. There were pieces of it. Here wing, here head, here torso. An arthropod jigsaw puzzle.

Another day I bored Jack, who was napping beside me during a break, with the astute observation: “There’s a really pretty blue fly or something over here.” Hiking home evenings after, I spied a spider being mauled on the trail by the same little beast and took a video, and that is how I know it was really a blue mud dauber wasp, not as menacing-looking but related to the cicada killers I used to see in Chicago.

After one pee I returned with the pleased announcement that I had found a tree that had become a trail. In its afterlife, the fallen trunk retained a thin shell of intact bark cradling a woody avenue of beetle-mulched chips. Danielle, considerate, pretended to be impressed by the discovery—but afterward I noticed decaying tree-trails all over the place.

One of, it turns out, many tree trails.

I’d like to tell you everything: How red fir pine cones fall apart into scales that look to me like miniature gingko leaves in fall color; how their terpene sap sometimes smells like ripe oranges. How you can tread hard on the torso of a tree gone through by ants and release a fall of wood dust fine as baby powder. How the pine marten we saw chasing Douglas squirrels one day stopped on a branch to yawn and flashed fangs like a vampire bat.

The thing about the practice of looking is that your gaze relinquishes allegiance, becomes catholic. Having spent time with wood dust and beetle exuviae, I was free to notice what we had brought into the forest—ourselves. I liked watching the unconscious choreography that was Danielle, taller than tall, unfolding and refolding her limbs like a carpenter’s rule to fit into the spaces beneath and between fallen trees. I liked the way the sun slipped between the worn folds of her striped cotton shirt and forestry vest.

Jack was a far more careful scribe than I, and there was sharp satisfaction in the correspondence between the movement of his hand stirring a pencil in tight, tiny circles, as if writing the whole of Walden on a grain of rice, and the sound of lead scratching data onto paper.

This is her last year of data collection, but Danielle still has one important trip to make to the mountains; among other final tasks, she needs to pick up all the environmental monitors she’s set up at her study plot so that she can collect data from them. That trip was supposed to be happening as I type, but because of the government shutdown, she has no access to her field site. That’s true for other scientists doing research in other federally managed lands across the country, too. And for many doing work in areas like Danielle’s, if the shutdown doesn’t end before the first snow, getting there may become impossible until next year.

That’s a lot of seeing, sitting, wondering, and understanding that’s not going to happen.

This Week at Tejon Ranch

I’m about an hour north of L.A. this week, on a small team helping out a U.C. Berkeley grad student with his dissertation research at Tejon Ranch. Tejon is a fascinating place, both biologically and politically—it’s a 270,000 ranch framed on all sides by four very different ecological regions, the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave Desert, California’s South Coast, and the Great Central Valley. It’s also the largest contiguous piece of land in the state that’s held in private hands.

About 5 years ago, the Tejon Ranch Corporation (driven by entwined motives, one idealistic and one economic), signed an agreement with five national and Californian environmental organizations. The contract was designed to help the company figure out how to shepherd its land in a responsible way, and it turned about 80% of the property into a conservation area while protecting the company’s ability to develop the other 20% without the threat of lawsuit. (More details on the rather intricate agreement, which has been great for the land but hasn’t quite worked out exactly as planned so far, in this excellent Sierra Club article.)

One of the stipulations of the agreement was that the environmental groups signing it would form a new conservancy whose role would be part natural resource management, part research, and part public outreach. Felix, the grad student whose project we’re helping to launch this week, is working with the Tejon Ranch Conservancy and the university to study 15 plots along creeks in the riparian areas of the ranch.

The research has a pretty broad scope: it aims to use soil and vegetation sampling, wildlife monitoring (of particular interest are the huge population of feral pigs that plague the ranchers, but we’re also setting up a herpetological study), and geomorphological data to create a comprehensive picture of:

a) What’s out there, and
b) How it’s affected by different patterns of land use (for instance, cattle will be kept off some plots and continue to graze on others, to see how livestock management practices affect species composition and abundance. Felix’s lab is particularly interested in comparing the relative impact of specific human activities vs. climate patterns on a landscape over time).

A previous project, which is now wrapping up, covered essentially the same ground in the ranch’s grassland areas.

We drove down on Sunday (there are five of us here; Felix, his lab manager Michelle, a recent graduate, and a current undergraduate) and had our first day of fieldwork today. To no one’s surprise, it was a tremendous learning experience: It took us all day to complete the long checklist of tasks for a single plot, and if we kept going at that pace there would be no way to even come close to finishing all 15 plots by Friday, our last day. So we’ll be streamlining the protocol for the rest of the plots, and Felix will have to save some bits of the data collection for future visits to the site.

We may not have accomplished everything we had hoped to do when we set out this morning, but I think it’s fair to say we had a great day. The ranch is beautiful—full of ridged and folded hills golden with Mediterranean grasses that came here in the bellies and on the hooves of Spanish cows, now dotted with North American cows. There are oaks and willows and cottonwoods and wild grapes. The sun was pretty intense, since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky all day, but down by the creek we had more shade and very few bugs. I might tell you a little more about the project later on, but before I crawl into bed tonight I wanted to at least share a few photos with you from the day.

We parked right next to this gorgeous sight.

Michelle showed us how to use a clinometer to measure the grade of a slope.

This Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) was riddled with galls, which are bad for the tree but lovely for birds and other wildlife which eat the insect larvae they contain.

This is a view of the dirt road where we parked our vehicles (you can barely make out the white Conservancy truck between the trees there) from plot CH3, where we worked today.

Michelle took and pressed a few plant samples today.

On our way out of the ranch, we stopped to look at a male red tailed hawk perched on a fence post. He flew off before I took this picture, but you can still see his mate tiny up at the top of the tallest tree. We aren’t doing any bird research, but it was a good bird day. No roadrunners or condors yet, though. Maybe tomorrow.

    

Full of Food

Alaska, wrote John Muir, is full of food for man and beast, body and soul, though few are seeking it as yet. Were one-tenth part of the attractions this country has to offer made known to the world, thousands would come every year, and not a few of them would stay and make homes.

He wrote: How truly wild it is, and how joyously one’s heart responds to the welcome it gives.

Friends, I found myself hungry in body and soul last year, so I went north. And this year I am still hungry, so I am going north again.

Between tomorrow and mid-July, I’ll be working in the wilderness of far western Alaska, serving as a field volunteer on a Fish and Wildlife Service project. There will be four of us, two scientists and two volunteers, camping out on the vast tundra, studying the breeding habits of the rare, secretive, and by all accounts beguiling shorebird known—charmingly—as the Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis).

I wish I could post updates from the field like I did last summer, but unfortunately we’ll be entirely offline and out of cellphone access, so I’ll do my best to take notes and tell you a little bit when I get back about whether John Muir was right. (Spoiler: I’m pretty sure he was.)

BTCU with EJ leg flag

In the meantime, all my love, all my thanks for being so supportive of these excursions, and if we haven’t already talked about all this hunger business, my book Mountainfit will tell you everything you need to know. If you are new to The Science Essayist and aren’t quite sure whether you like my writing enough to spend five dollars on it, this review from doctoral candidate Sienna Latham—who studies the history of science and is one of the wonderful people who backed my Kickstarter project to get the book written—might give you a sense of what it’s like.

Be safe, friends. I’ll talk to you soon.

On The Uses of the Macabre

Happy Halloween! Today seemed like an excellent day to make this post.

Entering the bird lab this past Thursday morning, I found Mary, who usually works at the sink, sitting on a stool beside the large metal prep table that dominates the room. In front of her were two plastic trays; on each, several tidy rows of specimens were arranged. The birds that made up this small collection represented three different species: Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis), Nashville Warblers (Vermivora ruficapilla), and White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis).

All three are extremely common birds in the Chicago area at this time of year, either because they’re migrating through on their way to warmer southern climes, or because they spend the winter here.

And all three are known to me personally from morning walks through the Wooded Island in Jackson Park, the treed and windy urban oasis by the lakefront where I saw the distempered raccoon earlier this spring. I love the sight of dozens of dark gray Juncos against patches of snow on the ground, like a fireplace’s worth of cinders someone has rolled up into cozy little balls. Nashville warblers make jaunty little tail flicks as they forage through low trees and shrubs (often that’s all I see of them, an olive whisk-whisk-whisk before they rustle away through the leaves). And the mustard-yellow smudges next to each eye on White-throated Sparrows always make me imagine these fluffy, familiar creatures having just feasted messily on a stash of abandoned hot dogs.

The fact that Mary was working on these birds wouldn’t, in and of itself, have been of much note except that the specimens were in a form that I’d never seen before in the lab. Normally, these are species that Dave chooses to preserve as skeletons. One of the advantages of doing so is that there are many measurements it’s possible to take from a skeleton that it’s impossible to take from a study skin. To prepare a specimen for being skeletonized by the dermestid beetles, volunteers must first remove all its feathers and skin, a process called “roughing out.”

But the specimens Mary was working with seemed to have gone only part-way through this process. On the Nashville Warblers and the White-throated Sparrows, the feathers from their bodies had been removed, but those on their heads had been left in place. And on the Juncos, tail feathers remained as well.

White-throated Sparrows

In this state the specimens appeared, I confess, both fascinating and a little macabre. The juxtaposition of intact, feathered crowns, their plumage still beautifully soft and many-colored, with the dark red muscle of de-feathered bodies, created an incongruity—the likeness of life next to the unmistakable sign of death—that forced me to stop.

Why had some feathers been left on these birds?

Mary soon explained that in each of these species, subtle but significant differences in plumage coloration can be observed. Such variations raise a host of scientific questions (Are the disparities related to sex, age, or region? Can they be traced to genetic differences? Is one form of coloration more common than another, and if so, why? Does the prevalence of each pattern change over time?).

To document these variations, Mary was collecting caps from all three species, as well as tail feathers from the Juncos—because these were the parts of the birds’ bodies where the differences occurred. This way, the caps and tail feathers could become part of the museum’s collections and potentially help to answer some of these questions.

But when she was finished collecting what she needed, the beetles would go on to skeletonize the rest of the specimens’ bodies as usual, thus preserving the ability to take bone measurements from them in the future. The fact that I’d seen the birds’ bodies in this state was a coincidence: an accidental glimpse at a bit of scientific frugality.

Here are some of the variations this kind of data will hopefully help to quantify:

Junco caps and tail feathers

Juncos can have crowns that vary from a light gray to a deep black, sometimes tinged with brown—and while all Juncos have white outer tail feathers and black inner tail feathers, there can be considerable variance in the amount of white and black on the intermediary feathers. This photo doesn’t show the subtle differences in the shades of the crowns very well, but you can clearly see how much more black than white there is in the tail feathers of the bird in the foreground, and how much further out the black extends to the edges of its tail.

Nashville Warbler caps

Nashville Warblers can have a patch of wonderfully rich chestnut-colored feathers in the center of their crowns, something I’ve never noticed when birding because the tiny flecks of red are all but impossible to see amidst or underneath their otherwise gray head feathers. Adult males all have some red in their caps, but the amount can vary widely; and some adult females have a little ruddiness there, too, while others have none. These differences are unfortunately very hard to see in the photo I took, but if you squint you might be able to see some red stippling in the third specimen from the left.

White-throated Sparrow caps

Finally, White-throated Sparrows actually have two well-documented morphs, or variant forms. You can see these quite clearly in the photo above: one morph has distinct black and white stripes running vertically down its crown, while the other has black and tan stripes arranged in the same pattern. Both morphs can be found in both sexes.

DNA analysis has shown that this polymorphism in White-throated Sparrows arises from genetic differences. Both White Stripe and Tan Stripe birds, as they are usually called, show a slight preference for mating with individuals from the other morph. This opposites-attract tendency (which goes by the unwieldy name of “disassortative mating”) keeps the approximate proportion of each morph in the overall population stable, so that neither morph disappears or becomes dominant.

Most fascinating of all, at least in the case of White-throated Sparrows, the morphological variations we see in their crowns are also associated with clear behavioral differences. White Stripe males are more aggressive and more showy—they’re more likely to engage in “spiraling,” a wonderful-sounding behavior that involves singing as they ascend the branches of a tree by circling it. They’re also less dedicated providers of parental care, and less monogamous than Tan Stripe males. As for White Stripe females, they are almost as bold and selfish as their male counterparts. (This may explain why both WS males and females seek out calmer, more reliable partners from the opposite morph.) For more on this subject, I’ll point you to this excellent post by GrrlScientist, who explains the genetics behind these behavioral variations far better than I could.

What I love about my own experience of all this is that it illustrates so clearly a principle I’ve always felt to be true about the study of natural history. That is, the macabre (like beauty) is not a thing that exists as an inherent property of the world, not something with a palpable presence in time and space. Instead it arises out of the complex interaction between ourselves and the world. Even if disquiet is our first reaction to a memento mori, it need not be our last.

But to the extent that encounters with the macabre invite curiosity—like the curiosity that struck me so forcibly when I walked into the lab and saw those unusual-looking specimens on Mary’s trays, and led me to learn some of the things I’ve shared with you today—I think it’s an extraordinarily useful quality in science.

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I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about two additional things I hope you will investigate:

1) Flinchy, the t-shirt company co-founded by my favorite fellow bird lab volunteer, Diana Sudyka, has several new designs available for purchase. I own one of them, and can testify to its quality and attractiveness. And greater luminaries than me endorse Flinchy shirts, too.

2) I wrote a piece for the Scientific American Guest Blog this week about my rather extraordinary friend Nina and her Field Museum project, LinEpig. You can find it here, under the curiosity-provoking (though not macabre) title “Internet Porn Fills Gap in Spider Taxonomy.” Nina picked the title, because she knows even better than I do that first you catch the eye, and then you tell the story.

Nina at work

Till next time, dear readers-mine. I hope it won’t be so long again.