Posted by: Adam Kay | January 5, 2013

“Sweet as” – Notes on the vagaries of field ecology research in New Zealand by Adam Kay and Liz Chambers

Field ecologists need to be adaptable, patient, and persistent. We often work in remote locations under variable conditions with limited resources. These limitations certainly make things more difficult, but it’s also really fun to figure out ways to get around the constraints and unexpected challenges that come our way.

whitebait can solve most problems. its a fried pancake filled with fish fry (the white worm-like forms)

Whitebait can solve most problems. It’s a fried pancake filled with fish fry (those white worm-like things)

This January, UST Biology major Liz Chambers and I (along with our colleagues Maurine Neiman from the University of Iowa and Amy Krist from the University of Wyoming) are measuring ecological characteristics of various lakes on the south island of New Zealand. Our funding for the project comes from a grant from the National Geographic Society (to Maurine). Our main goal is to test our hypothesis about the relationship between environmental phosphorus limitation and the relative success of sexual and asexual forms of the freshwater snail, Potamopyrgus antipodarum (for more information about the project, see here). Toward this end, we’re sampling 15 lakes across the south island to estimate the extent of nutrient limitation for algae (the main food for our snails) and to determine algae chemical composition. We’re also collecting snails for various biochemical analyses that will help us estimate the extent to which their growth is limited by phosphorus availability.

One challenge for us is that New Zealand is sparsely populated and the lakes we’re sampling are in fairly remote locations. It isn’t possible for us to return our samples to a lab for processing. As a result, Maurine and Amy worked out a system for taking care of samples in whatever motel room we find ourselves in. In the afternoons and evenings, we’ll be out on the porch scrubbing tiles with toothbrushes and filtering water samples. We also have a cute little toaster oven that dries our samples. And you’ll often find Liz back in some dark corner running chlorophyll A assays on our portable spectrophotometer. (Liz would like to point out that the room NEEDS to be dark, and she is not emo or anti-social.)

Another challenge is that we don’t have a lot of money or time to do this project. It’s really expensive to fly to New Zealand, and the cost of living here is also high (e.g., we’re currently paying $10/day for internet). Maurine and Amy did a fantastic job organizing the field sampling, but the equipment all had to be sent from the US because we didn’t have time to buy and build things once we arrived. We also didn’t have the opportunity to scout out our sampling locations before we got here. So we had to be creative. Maurine and Amy spent the first 3 weeks of December traveling to the lakes to lay out white tiles (to assess algal growth) and to put down Nutrient Diffusing Substrate (NDS) assays (collections of glass filters spiked with different nutrient mixtures – these assays allow us to estimate which nutrients limit algal growth under standardized conditions). Now, three weeks later, our job is to go back to the lakes, find and retrieve tiles and NDS assays, collect snails, and prepare samples for analysis.

That sounds easy enough, but the weather has changed lake conditions dramatically over the last few weeks. Heavy deluges resulted in water levels in our lakes to increase but as much as 2 meters. Our best experience was at Lake Ianthe, where we expected to collect our tiles and NDS assays in about thigh-high water. When Liz and I got to the site, we realized that the shore line was gone. We began walking out to the sample location in our waders, but the water got deep quickly and our waders soon filled with water. We tried to swim in our waders (not a good idea). We then swam out to the sample location in our clothes, but we couldn’t find them in the murky water. (Here is what we looked like when we made it back to shore). Later in the afternoon, we returned with Maurine and her husband Bennett. We created a floating platform (made out of an inner tube, duct tape, and a cafeteria tray) to bring our tiles and NDS assays to shore (Here is a video of Adam being a wimp as Maurine launches into the cold water) (Here is a funny video of Liz, Adam, and Maurine swimming to the site ). Using swimming goggles and with a little luck, we were able to find all but one of our samples. It was exhilarating!

After a drive across the south island over Arthur’s Pass, we’re back in Christchurch to drop Bennett at the airport. From here, it’s down the southeast coast and then over to Fjordland in the southwest. Spirits are high.

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