Thursday, November 20, 2014

What is it like in a day of a wildlife biologist?


I get a lot of e-mails and questions from high school and college students assigned to interview someone in a field they're interested in. Often, the questions are very similar, if not identical. So, I decided to run a post containing the answers to common questions and now I can just refer students here.

If you have questions that are not covered here, include them in the comments. I need to add a disclaimer: wildlife biologist, wildlife ecologist, biologist, etc., are all very vague terms that include lots of different jobs. I do not claim to speak for any field in general, only what I do.

What is it like in a day of a wildlife biologist?

This depends a lot on the time of year. During the field season most of the day could be spent entirely outside, checking traps, monitoring animals, walking to sites, etc. Usually there is also a lab component where datasheets get organized or entered in the computer, animals get measured, weighed, processed. When the field season is over, my job generally becomes a desk job, where I organize data, conduct statistical analyses, and write manuscripts.

Are you away from home often?

Yes. To the point that I often did not really know where home is anymore. Since 1997 I haven't lived anywhere for more than three years. I own a home in Auburn, Alabama and I have a relatively permanent job there now (as of February 2014). This job requires relatively frequent travel for meetings or field work, but these typically last for just a few days.

Do you have to do a lot of paper work?

If datasheets and writing scientific papers is considered paper work, yes. I also have to work on budgets and file receipts. There is not a lot of the standard 'office stuff' like memos, etc.

Have you had any dangerous encounters?

Working on boats, outside in remote areas, with wild animals is inherently dangerous, but it is important to always use appropriate safety precautions. For example, I have lots of experience working with venomous snakes, but I do so in a way that minimizes risk.

Have you ever been bitten or in any way harmed by an animal?

Yes, this is a common experience. I am often bitten by snakes (non-venomous species) and I wear gloves when handling mammals so that bites aren’t dangerous.

Have you had to get certain immunizations?

Tetanus shots are a good idea when working outside with animals and research equipment. I have also had rabies shots in advance of doing some bat work in Costa Rica. Traveling to other countries may also require some immunizations, like for yellow fever.

Are you allowed to bring weapons either for self-defense or to hunt for food if you are away for long periods of time?

I have never considered bringing a weapon for self-defense in the field. Whether you can hunt for food depends on where you are, what you are doing there and local rules/regulations.

What kinds of animals do you work with?

Mostly reptiles but also birds and amphibians.

Do you have varied assignments or are you focused on one thing?

Typically, the job is to focus on one or two major things, and as long as those are moving along you can spend your time working on other things. I always have half a dozen or so side-projects going on at any given time.

Would it be useful to have skills as a pilot or photographer in this field?

Being a pilot would be useful, I think, if you were radio-tracking animals that move long distances, like caribou or bears. Good photographs are always great to have for communicating science and for keeping records of study site conditions or weird events.

Do you get told what to study or can you come up with your own questions to answer?

I was hired to work on a specific project, but I can develop my own questions to answer as long as I have time.

Why did you follow this career?

I love biodiversity and have a passion for understanding the wildlife around us and conducting research to identify ways we can continue to use landscapes while accommodating for the needs of wildlife populations and assemblages.

What is your favorite part about your job? Least favorite? 

My favorite part of my job is knowing that my work could help the conservation of wildlife populations. The least favorite part of my job is doing paperwork and the fact that it is often necessary to always be looking for funding for salaries and research expenses.

What tips do you have for someone who wants to be a wildlife biologist? 

Spend time learning about what a wildlife biologist does (there are a diversity of types). Try out some internships and part-time jobs to get hands-on experience and obtain a good solid background in the relevant sciences in school.

Was it easy to find a job? How did you find your job? 

The job market is not great. I found my current job because I knew my current supervisor and he knew I was a good fit for the project. I am currently looking for a permanent faculty position.

What is your most memorable moment during your job? 

Hiking around Conecuh National Forest looking for Indigo Snakes was very memorable.

Do you do a lot of field work or is it mostly doing research in a laboratory? 

The projects I'm currently working on do not involve any laboratory work, just field work and computer time.

What kind of courses do you suggest for college students? How high of a degree do you have? 

I have a Ph.D. If you're interested in becoming a wildlife biologist, I would suggest getting a Wildlife Management, Zoology, or Ecology degree (with all the relevant required courses) on top of the requirements, take all the electives you can!

Do you travel a lot? If so where? Where is the main place you work? 

Every few weeks I have to travel throughout the state as part of some project or another. Every month or so there is also some conference that requires some travel as well.

Which skills do you believe are the most useful out in the field?

When conducting field work, it is important to be able to gauge potentially dangerous situations (for example, unsafe driving conditions, heat, lightning) and respond accordingly so that accidents do not happen. On top of that, it is important to be able to write notes and collect data so that no important information is lost.

Is there anything your position requires that you dread to do?

Long stretches of work inside in front of a computer can be draining.

What did you want to do when you first entered college?

I knew I wanted to study wildlife when I started college, I didn’t necessarily have a specific idea regarding what that meant.

Is there anything you would have done different when first starting off to have made it easier to get to where you are now?

Not really. When I was an undergraduate I tried to take every opportunity to get experience in the field. I was fortunate in that I was in a position to take advantage of volunteer opportunities for which I did not make money but I also took part-time jobs working on other people’s research and lab projects.

Which of your research projects do you feel has made the most impact on your life?

The research project that has made the most impact on my life, for several reasons, has been the research I did at SUNY-ESF with James Gibbs on the effects of roads on turtle populations. This was my first full-fledged and (relatively) independent research project. It was very useful experience for me and allowed me to learn about science, both how to answer questions and how to communicate the answers. This research also got a lot of attention in the press and from other researchers, so it opened professional opportunities for me. I also appreciate my experience with this project because it developed into a long-term collaboration with my former advisor that didn’t just identify problems but also offered solutions.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Creating a Wildlife-Friendly Yard With Native Plants

By Rebecca Deatsman

    Between finishing my undergraduate degree back in 2009 (how has it already been five years) and moving to Walla Walla, Washington this past June, I was moving continuously from one temporary housing situation to the next - a year here, three months there. In those five years I lived in four different states plus a couple foreign countries. All that time, I was telling myself that someday, when I had a house with a yard, there were two things I wanted to plant in it: heirloom vegetables (an idea started by a mild obsession with the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) and native wildflowers.

    Well, now I have a yard. The vegetables were easy enough; I helped my then-boyfriend (now fiance) pick out tomato and pepper seeds from the Seed Savers catalog last spring before I even moved in. The wildflowers, however, are a work in progress, and I’ve decided to share what I’ve learned so far in my first official post as a contributor to Living Alongside Wildlife.

Benefits of Native Plants


    Plants provide both shelter and food for wildlife in a number of ways, and native plants, the ones that local animals have adapted to make the most use of, are the best of all. In addition to fruit, nuts, and seeds for food, birds use plants for both material and sites for their nests. Flower nectar will attract and feed pollinators (including hummingbirds as well as insects). And many butterflies can only lay their eggs on specific plant species - think of the famous relationship between monarchs and milkweed.

White-Crowned Sparrows (pictured) passed through our yard during the spring migration, but I’m hoping that by improving the quality of habitat in our backyard, we can tempt them to stay and nest.  Photo by Ingrid Taylar, via Wikimedia Commons

    In addition, since native plants are adapted to local conditions, they can be very low maintenance, requiring less pesticide, fertilizer, and water to thrive.

But What Should I Plant?

    Not all commercially-available “native” flower species are the same as their wild counterparts; many are hybridized varieties that have been specially bred to be prettier or easier to grow. Actual wild-type plants may be a little harder to find, but not only will you be closer to recreating a true native 
landscape in your yard, they’ll reproduce and spread more readily once you plant them, since hybrid plants often don’t produce viable seeds.

The bright colors and sweet nectar of native flowers like camas lillies (on right) may tempt more butterflies onto our property.

    If you’re not sure what plants are native to your area (remember that “native to North America” doesn’t necessarily mean native to where you live) or which ones would do well in your yard, a great starting point is the regional planting guides produced by Pollinator Partnership, which include suggested species lists for attracting insects and other pollinators. Once you’ve picked a couple to start with, Plant Native has directories of native plant nurseries listed by state to help you find places that can sell them to you.

    I’m starting small. After a lot of Googling, I found a tiny Oregon company that was selling bulbs for Camassia quamash, a beautiful blue lily found here in the Northwest. I planted them at the base of the dogwood tree in our backyard, and with any luck they’ll flower next spring. I’ve started bookmarking other plants that would work well to fill the gaps in our landscaping. Over time, we can attract more insects and birds and make our suburban yard function just a little bit more like native habitat - and so can you.

    Have you tried adding any native plants to your landscaping? Share stories and pictures below!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Another Giant Rattlesnake Picture (from Texas/Mexico) Doing the Rounds


"Supposedly killed in Roma, Tx."

"Fwd: 13.5 foot South Texas rattlesnake - Yikes !!! Next door to Dave Rogers Ranch in Hidalgo County"

"13.5 foot South Texas rattlesnake - Yikes !!! This is not the kind of snake you want to challenge. 13 1/2 feet long."


I received three different e-mails about this rattlesnake back in September but I just never got around to posting about it. Apparently it is now getting a lot of attention on Reddit accompanied by the following information:

"Giant Rattlesnake killed at my grandparents ranch in Mexico".

This picture and the accompanying information have all the trademarks of a Giant Rattlesnake Hoax (should I copyright that?):

1. Multiple versions of the photograph exist claiming the snake is from various locations.

Roma, Texas is in Starr County, not Hidalgo County (although both are in south Texas). And obviously Mexico is not in Texas at all.

2. The snake is being held towards the camera on a long pole  to make it appear longer than it really is, a camera trick I explain in great detail here

3. The snake in the picture is claimed to be larger than any rattlesnake than has ever been measured in the history of the world/rattlesnakes.

For what it's worth, the snake in the picture looks to be a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox. This species does occur in southern Texas and Mexico, but the largest ever found was around seven feet long. That's about half the size of the imaginary number attached to the photo. Don't believe it.

So, we can confidently conclude that the information associated with this picture is bogus without even examining whether the photo was altered in any way. Please provide a link to this blog wherever you see the photo!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Readers Write In: Mystery Snake #1 is eating Mystery Snake #2!


Here are some recent snake identification requests I've received. Please see below for our snake ID post ground rules!

Good morning,


We found the snake shown on the attached picture in front of our house.

Roberto L.
Cooper City, Florida




Good morning David,

Here are some shots of 2 snakes, one dying, one very much alive. (no human intervention involved). I think I know what the live one is. Perhaps your readers might want to take a guess as to either or both. The pictures were taken not far from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Take care,

John A.
Charlotte, North Carolina





What kind of rattlesnake is this? It had nine rattles and I'm 5'7".

Lisa H.
Des Arc, Arkansas




Readers: What Are These Snakes?
-----

Snake Identification Post Ground Rules


-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.


-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the goal of these posts.

-You can safely assume that I know what kind of snake is in the picture, I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed.

Monday, October 6, 2014

What Species is this Feces? A New Readers Write In Blog Series

Hi,

Please could you identify the droppings in the attached photo? I regularly see them around the perimeter of a large wild pond.  At some point the "owner" found and ate a nesting coot's egg (shell found). Also, the animal enters and dives to collect fresh water crayfish. Thank you for any help. 

Regards,

Tony
Dorset, UK



Readers: What Species is this Feces?
-----

What Species is this Feces Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a feces is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify animal scats, which is the goal of these posts.

-I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Readers Write In: A Mixed Bag of Snake Identification Requests




Found this snake trying to get in, Not sure about it. Any help? It is aggressive and its tail quivers just a bluff I'm sure.....

Thanks,

Mike
Pike County, Ohio






Found this snake in my house today and can't really tell 
what it is. Any help identifying it would be much appreciated. 

Thank you,

Geoff B.
South Mississippi





I
'm about 3 miles from the Ashley River, but they installed a retention pond in the school yard behind my house last fall. Should they be a concern for me? Or are they beneficial?

Thanks so much

 for the info.


Ruby
North Charleston, South Carolina


The brown patterns were a lot more brown, nearly 
caramel/toffee in color, and the underbelly was a sandy color. this instant film casts a strong green hue over everything. Also, it was obviously quite young, haha. what's your take? I relocated it off of my parents property, as a precaution and now I feel bad!

Seamus H.
Frederick County, Maryland






I saw this lil' guy on my front porch where my grandson 
plays...at first sight, I thought was a copperhead due to its color, but after looking again, it looks like a young diamondback...only with no apparent rattles. What is it?

George C.
Maurepas, Louisiana


Readers: What Are These Snakes?
-----

Snake Identification Post Ground Rules


-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.


-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the goal of these posts.

-You can safely assume that I know what kind of snake is in the picture, I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed.