How glamorous is the day-to-day life of a field ecologist? The answer depends on how much you enjoy being uncomfortable in beautiful places. Here’s a vignette of a wonderful day in the forest.
We begin the morning by consulting maps of the forest dynamics plot, planning locations to install our equipment and make our forest survey. Our initial attempt went wrong when we neglected to account for magnetic declination in the survey lines! Today our goal is to first install five 100×2 m box transects that are evenly spaced, except for a few strategic deviations to avoid other research sites, then begin to survey all the trees and seedlings within each transect.
Before we can get started, we have to prepare our tools. These transects are demarcated by neon-colored string strung between PVC stakes hammered into the ground at every 16.6 meter interval. PVC is one of the few things that will persist in the moist tropics – but even it will be rapidly covered by algae, or spirited away by a flash flood. Here I am cutting stakes in the field station’s shop.
In the dim light of the forest understorey, objects seem to disappear as soon as one looks another direction. We use fluorescent paint on our stakes to make them more visible. Here I am using decomposing Cecropia leaves to shield the forest from extraneous spraydust.
And with that, we leave. We bring measuring tapes, string, hammers, notebooks, and pens. We bring dozens of PVC stakes, colored flagging, a GPS, meter sticks, knives, metal tree tags, and nails. We bring lunch and extra water.
We bring rain gear, but give up on it quickly. On days when the rain does not let up, one reaches a certain level of wetness where more rain doesn’t make one wetter.
Today we laid out five transect lines and surveyed 200 meters of forest. Above you see us during a heavy afternoon thunderstorm – we are soggy and muddy, have spent the day sliding through ravines, rocky streams, and slippery hillslopes, and are thoroughly happy. Glamour enough for me.