When an ecologist talks about fieldwork, what do they really mean? I’ll share a few scenes from our forest dynamics project here in Puerto Rico for you, so you can see what a full day of work looks like.
We stay at a small field station in the rainforest, and wake up early to plan our day’s fieldwork. Here we are in the only dehumidified room with all our computer equipment, discussing where we need to hike, and preparing equipment to carry out with us. (Note one very important piece of equipment in the background – a lunch to eat in the forest!)
Today’s task includes measuring the diameter of several trees that have been ringed with metal dendrometer bands. These bands have indicators that move as the tree gets wider, letting us very accurately measure its growth over time. While we do measure the size of most trees with tapes, we also have this second dataset that tracks a smaller set of trees with more precision and at more time intervals. Here we are writing down some coordinate information for these trees so we can find them out in the forest. We’re also making notes about which several species we will need to flag for later leaf sampling.
We then spend part of the morning hiking out into the forest across streams, on top of large boulders, and over dead tree trunks. When we reach our site, we lay out 100-meter long transect lines that will help us locate plants. These lines are specified to run due north on a map. However, topographic contours don’t always agree – here we are walking near-parallel on the face of a very steep and muddy slope, trying not to break ourselves as we set up for measurements.
Sometimes we find large obstacles in our way, but we have to keep the lines straight, so the only correct solution is to go over the top!
We then walk down our lines, looking in a two-meter band for any plant with a stem with diameter greater than one centimeter at the ground. Two people make measurements, and one person records.
We used to record all our data in notebooks – but now we use a little computer. Most problems in our data come from transcription errors as numbers are transferred from measuring tape to voice to paper to datasheet, so this machine cuts out one step and saves us time.
This is slow work that requires a keen eye, good balance, and lots of patience. Little seedlings are often found hiding under downed leaves and stems of other plants, or nestled in nooks of large rocks. This Prestoea montana is easy – it’s not on a cliff, unlike a lot of the plants we had to find today.
After seven or eight hours, we start our hike home. Of course, tired eyes and feet often miss obstacles, like this little liana that caught my boot (and all of me). If we aren’t caught by the forest, we’re home before sunset and ready to clean ourselves off and prepare our data for another day in the field!