5 (More) Steps to Becoming an Awesome Field Assistant

Being a field assistant for the first time isn’t always easy. Following on from Izzy’s recent post, here are five more great tips from Cameron on how to be an awesome field assistant (and to have an awesome time).

1. Apply for funding

Being a field assistant costs money. In many cases you might be employed by an organisation, research group or researcher to carry out the role, in which case they will be covering your costs. However, you may be required to (or want to) provide funds yourself. But don’t fret! There are plenty of funding opportunities hidden out there for the proactive field assistant to find. Most funding requires you to submit a proposal outlining what you will be working on and how much you think it will cost. Once you have drawn up a proposal for one funding application it is easy to tailor it for others. Keep an eye on the submission deadlines and apply to as many funds as possible. In my experience, funds for undergraduates aren’t very competitive, so make use of them!

Information for funds available for University of Edinburgh Students can be found here. 

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Cameron fishing for funds

2. Take good equipment

When you are setting up experiments in a snowstorm, or climbing mountains before breakfast, you quickly learn to appreciate the value of good equipment. However, if you haven’t been in the field before it can be hard to figure out what sort of stuff to bring with you. For me, the most important bits of kit are good waterproofs, a decent backpack, and an excellent pair of walking boots (we had a pair fall apart this summer). If you are going to spend a lot of time in the field you should treat yourself to some nice gear. It’s totally worth the investment and good quality stuff can really improve your comfort and safety. Why not add the cost of a beautiful jacket and boots into your funding application (for health and safety reasons, of course)?


3. Ask lots of questions

“Why are we digging up old tea bags from the ground and what’s the deal with all of these dead leaves?”

Take the opportunity to learn as much as you can from the people you are working with. Asking questions and figuring out why you are doing a task can really help you get more out of your time in the field and cement knowledge learned in the classroom. You will also likely be working with people further on in their career than you. If you are thinking about a career in academia, take this chance to pick their brains about all aspects of academic life.

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Haydn showing us the ways of the shrub


4. Take the bad with the good

 Hopefully you will experience many great things during your time as a field assistant but you might also experience some pretty bad lows. The work can be gruelling and the days long. A healthy mentality is key to enduring the bad moments and enjoying the good. Make sure to talk to your team if you are having difficulties, and look after yourself. It really is worth it at the end.

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Conquer your mind and you can conquer the tundra


5. Let yourself be enchanted…

Fieldwork can take you to some truly special locations. We get to explore hidden valleys, shadowy forests, and secret little places far from any path. Please take some time, in-between sampling and recording data, to fully appreciate the wonderful environment and people around you. Not only does this add to your overall experience, it can also turn you into a passionate advocate for these incredible areas. Tell the stories of these places anyway you can, be it on Facebook, in prose, or down the pub. The more people know about your field site, the less likely it will fade into obscurity and be lost.

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Soaking up the view

By Cameron

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Team Shrub – 2017 in Review

It was a big year for Team Shrub in 2017.

Like an Arctic willow in the tundra sunshine, we soaked up the beautiful rays of knowledge and delved further into the active layer of understanding. We grew taller and bushier as new members joined the team, and branched out into new areas of research. We bore fluffy research paper catkins, for our ideas and findings to be spread on the breeze of scientific discovery, and we put down new roots, to support, work with and learn from others in the future. And, of course, we had a thoroughly enjoyable time doing it all.

So as we look forward to all that 2018 brings, we are taking some time to revisit the year gone by, our favourite blog posts, and just how far we came in 2017.

Looking ahead: After a politically turbulent 2016, who could know what 2017 would hold? We spent the start of the year looking ahead with some trepidation, some anticipation and a good dose of excitement.

Decomposition in the cold. We kicked of a busy year as Haydn and Isla headed on a tour of Denmark and Sweden to attend the Oikos symposium on Decomposition in Cold Biomes (https://globalsoilbiodiversity.org/content/oikos-satellite-symposium). It was appropriate as the temperatures had dropped that week and it was quite snowy and chilly in beautiful Lund, Sweden as we chatted about cold-weather decomposition while cosy inside.

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Taking a tea break in Umeä

To Aberdeen. In March, it was our first Team Shrub trip to Aberdeen. We had a beach coding holiday and attended the Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation conference with Gergana, Haydn and Sandra presenting. We teamed up with Francesca Mancini from the Aberdeen Study Group to lead a coding workshop on efficiently analysing and visualising big-ish data in ecology.

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Jumping for joy at the thought of more coding!

Glimpses of our future? By April, we had a wee glimpse into what 2017 might have in store for us through a traditional Bulgarian pastry dish with our fortunes inside!

Tundra Greening and Browning. Also in April, After a lab trip to Durham, Haydn’s home town, to talk permafrost for a day at Durham University. Andy and Isla went to the home of the Crucible, the land of snooker, the (real) region of Robin Hood, and the heartland of the only English football team named after a day of the week. (Also the home of the Arctic Monkeys – who incidentally haven’t spent much time in the Arctic). If you haven’t guessed yet, we went to the town of Sheffield for the ‘Arctic Browning Workshop’. The Arctic is warming and satellites have shown a fair bit of greening, but recent evidence suggests a decrease in the rates of increasing greenness at high latitudes and some browning events. The theme of the workshop was exploring that Arctic browning and what might be causing it.

A trip to the Highlands. Also in April and before the field season, Team Shrub headed to the highlands to show our visiting scholar Jeff Kerby and our summer drone pilot Will Palmer the beautiful countryside in our own backyard.

 

Traits. In June, Haydn, Anne and Isla headed the deep South of the UK to almost tropical temperatures at the University of Exeter. We were at the New Phytologist 39th Symposium on Trait covariation. Whether in the symposium sessions or out on Dartmoor, we had a great time pondering plant traits from the tropics to the tundra.

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Team Shrub strike out across the Highlands.

Traits. In June, Haydn, Anne and Isla headed the deep South of the UK to almost tropical temperatures at the University of Exeter. We were at the New Phytologist 39th Symposium on Trait covariation. Whether in the symposium sessions or out on Dartmoor, we had a great time pondering plant traits from the tropics to the tundra.

The Field Season. Suddenly it was the field season. Team Shrub divided into two teams: Team Drone and Team Kluane to concurrently conduct our data collection on either end of the Yukon. From drones, tea bags, phenology, stories, sounds, smells, feasts, birding, to reunions many adventures were had and a ton of data was collected. We managed to capture over 100,000 images or more than two TB of data with our drones, to dig out over 300 tea bags from the ground, and to fill several field books or iPad spreadsheets with numbers and notes. It was a productive period and we are still working away on processing the data.

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Team Shrub together at last!

New beginnings. This September marked the start of Mariana’s and Gergana’s PhD research. Mariana is modelling how plant species distributions will shift under climate change at two extreme biomes – the tundra and the savannah. Gergana is quantifying the effects of land use change on global and local patterns of species richness, abundance and composition. Sam, Claudia and Matt have joined Team Shrub for their honours dissertations. The data presents will soon be rolling as new student projects come together and our first three Team Shrub PhD students finalise their dissertations over the coming months.

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First day of being a PhD student for Mariana and Gergana!

Coding. Coding Club celebrated its first birthday! Coding is a big part of our work on Team Shrub, we use coding in our research, teaching, our lives in general… where would we be without it. Perhaps a bit less constantly frustrated, but also without those moments of glory when everything runs error free! We even made up a fictional journal for the Conservation Science course that Isla organises and Gergana and Mariana are tutors on. You can find out more about AQMCS (Advanced quantitative methods in conservation science) here – Same data – different results? ConSci 2017 introduces AQMCS!

Conservation in the Cairngorms. In early October, members of Team Shrub took our annual pilgrimage up to the highlands of Scotland for the weekend fieldtrip on the Conservation Science course. With all sorts of weather, mountains, drones, delicious cake and an epic music jam, fun was had by all!

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Learning about conservation in a majestic landscape

Biodiversity, the New North and the science/policy interface. Also in the month of October, along with keen undergraduates from the Conservation Science course, we went along to the Spotlight on Scotland’s Biodiversity conference. For the undergraduates involved, it was their first ever conference. It was pretty inspiring to see the next generation of conservation scientists getting the opportunity to talk with the Scottish experts in the field. A few weeks later in November, we headed to the “Scotland and the New North” policy forum, where Isla got to hold the door for Nicola Sturgeon! A new focus looking Northward for Scotland could mean new things for Team Shrub research in future.

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What will Scotland’s new focus northward mean for Team Shrub?

Also in November, Mariana attended two  policy-related events: the EEB Changing Landscapes conference in Edinburgh and the BES “Understanding science policy in Scotland“ workshop in Stirling. The first was a high-level event where major conservation organisations discussed the future of nature in Europe; while the second zoomed into Scotland to understand how science can feed into the policy-making process.

Writing. In November, Team Shrub had our first official writing retreat. We have been talking about having a writing retreat for years and finally things came together with a chance to focus on our writing goals, away from distractions. We were so inspired that we are planning on having a residential writing retreat sometime in the Spring of 2018 – where we can go from one day of super high productivity to hopefully a long weekend.

Dual Conferences. In December, Team Shrub headed to two big conferences happening at the same time! You can read about our parallel conferences experiences here. At Ecology Across Borders in Ghent, Belgium, Anne, Mariana and Gergana joined over 1500 ecologists to take in lots of exciting science, go to workshops, meet new people or catch up with old friends. Gergana and Anne gave talks, in sessions happening at the same time!

At Ecology Across Borders, we also led a Coding Club workshop, titled “Transferring quantitative skills among ecologists”. We shared our approach to teaching coding to keen participants from the conference. All of our workshop materials are online: Transferring quantitative skills among scientistsYou can also check out the Coding Club website to find all of our tutorials as well as information on how you can join our team and organise workshops at your home institution.

The other half of Team Shrub, Isla, Sandra, Haydn, Jakob, Andy and Jeff went to Quebec in Canada for the penultimate ArcticNet meeting – Arctic Change 2017. You can check out the daily round-up blog posts about the conference here – day 1day 2, day 3 and days 4 and 5. A pinnacle moment for Team Shrub was Haydn and Jakob winning the top two prizes from the conference elevator pitch contest!

Rejections. When we drafted our goals for 2017, we also set out our rejection goals. The idea behind rejection goals is that if we never get rejected, then maybe we aren’t aiming high enough. We decided to collectively aim for 50 rejections. So how did we do? We counted 23 rejections out of our goal of 50. Now perhaps we didn’t manage to count every single rejection this year, some of them we would rather just forget, but can we count the fact that we didn’t achieve our rejections as one additional fail?  Then technically we are at 24 out of 50?

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Team Drone on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Northern Yukon.

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Team Kluane at Outpost Station in the Southern Yukon.

Outreach. At Our Dynamic Earth, we shared the excitement of using drones for science. At the Edinburgh Science Festival, we explored art as a way to communicate science. We put together the photography exhibit “Arctic from Above” and developed collaborations with Simon SloanArchie Crofton to explore how art and data interface and ASCUS looking at tundra shrubs as time machines. Then at Curiosity forest, part of Explorathon 2017, we used drone simulators and cool dendrochronology samples to learn about how to study Arctic change.

 

There were also many jolly meals and trips to the pub. Many heated debates as we discussed science in lab meeting or over lunch. There were many moments of coding frustration followed by a sense of achievement as we worked through our scientific goals.

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One of many lab meetings!

So those were some of the Adventures for Team Shrub in 2017.

What will 2018 hold? We already have some exciting things to share with you over the coming months, and many more in the pipeline. Hopefully we will also have some fantastically fluffy catkins this year: keep your eye on the breeze.

So from all on Team Shrub, a very happy new year and we look forward to sharing with you, working with you, and learning from you in the year to come.

By Gergana, Isla and Haydn

Arctic Change 2017 – Wednesday round-up

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Another day of snow in Quebec City, another day of Arctic conferencing at Arctic Change 2017. Another packed plenary, hearing from Larry Hinzman on how we can and must adapt as not only the climate changes, but many other factors as well. We heard the fascinating, and certainly complex debate around the ownership and use of the northwest passage. Finally, we stood together to celebrate the work of Dr. Michel Allard, winner of this year’s Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research.

Team Shrub was well represented in the first session of Monitoring, Modeling and Predicting Arctic Biodiversity. Isla made a convincing case for detection of various components of vegetation change and their attribution to warming. Jeff then demonstrated the scaling issues we have when going from ground-based to satellite observations – impressing the audience with drone footage at the same time.

In this session we also heard from Paul Grogan of Queens University with a fascinating talk on birch expansion driven by a decrease in herbivory rather than by increased temperatures. Last up was Pascale Ropars (who first taught me the art of digging shrubs up many years ago), presenting a whole-food-web approach to predicting biodiversity change in Northern Québec.

After a delicious lunch (the food here!) which peaked with three helpings of profiteroles, it was time to go back to the second part of the Arctic Biodiversity session. Katriina O’Kane showed us how species move individually rather than as a community during succession at a glacier’s edge. Cory Wallace and Jennifer Baltzer from the Forest Ecology Research Group at Wilfrid-Laurier also took us on a tour of alder shrubs, topographic variation, and the factors controlling black spruce abundance.

Finally, eyes starting to itch and brains hurting from a day packed full of new knowledge, we heard from Caroline Coch on the role of small catchments for dissolved organic carbon inputs, and from Dustin Whalen on how drones are being used to map coastal erosion in the Arctic.

Haydn, Jakob and myself were still on duty by our posters in the evening. Between lively scientific discussions and running into old friends, the two hours flew by and our team set out hungrily in search of poutine. Unfortunately, my insider knowledge of Québec didn’t extend to knowing Ashton’s opening hours, so the door shut in our disappointed faces. We had to turn to (highly satisfying) falafels eaten on the street in -10 degrees C weather to get back to the conference centre in time for the first screening of Breaking Ice, a documentary that took us on the Canadian research ice-breaker the Amundsen.

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I suspect Haydn, Jakob, Isla and Andy are in various stages of anticipation for their Thursday talks. Good luck all!

By Sandra

Arctic Change 2017 – Tuesday round-up: Blizzards, Biodiversity and Beluga Snot

The second day of Arctic Change 2017 hit town like the snow storm raging outside the Centre des congrès de Québec. Today the main hall was full, packed right to the edges, as we were welcomed by ArcticNet, Laval University and the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

After the welcome and official opening, Raleigh Seamster from Google Earth, and Joel Heath and Lucassie Arragutainaq from ArcticEider/SIKU demonstrated the power of remote sensing and its potential for community based environmental monitoring in the Arctic. The speakers clearly had to battle the inquisitiveness of researchers as hundreds reached straight for their laptops and phones to immediately check out these awesome tools! Louis Frontier, scientific director of ArcticNet, followed with a reminder that cutting carbon emissions remains paramount for tackling all issues around Climate Change. Anyone not from Norway or Paraguay might have left feeling a little bruised, but despite the world being only 5% of the way towards its renewable goals, there was still a sense of optimism. And indeed, the plenary closed with optimism in full swing with a touching short film on the Schools on Board project of the Canadian research icebreaker Amundsen and the potential future leaders of Arctic policy change.

Refreshed after heaps of pastries and coffee, the conference headed into the first topical sessions. Alas, we can barely scratch the surface of the vast array of talks on offer here. Justine Hudson method’s of assessing Hudson’s Bay’s beluga whale stress level using snot samples was much discussed on twitter and made an engaging talk with videos of curious belugas “donating” their snot to science. Memorable also were Benjamin Lange’s findings that multiyear sea-ice supports much more algae life than first year ice. We on Team Shrub appreciated hearing about Zoe Panchen’s research on tundra plant phenology showing that microclimate matters more than latitude or elevation for flowering in the Canadian High Arctic.  And Team Shrub was also a fan of Esther Frei’s work on plant trait change over time and her beautiful figures!  We also really liked pondering future fox housing using Florence Poulin’s new index of Arctic fox den vulnerability.

The scientific part of the day concluded with the first poster session, with legions of well designed posters (every conference should have such a great reward for poster awesomeness!) and an astonishing amount of great science. Ruminating in front of our fake log fire we remember Jeffery Saarela and Paul Sokoloff’s enthusiastic poster presentation – working with the Canadian’s Museum of Nature, they are sampling plants all across the Arctic islands to improve our understanding of high Arctic biodiversity. Also sticking out was Sarah Shakil’s poster on chemical composition of slump discharge on the Peal Plateau in the Yukon and Christine Anderson’s beautiful poster about her exciting proposed PhD research on shorebirds in a changing Arctic.

Now we are all tired from a long day of sciencing, talking at our posters, braving the still raging blizzard and running away from snow-spitting Quebecois snow ploughs on our way home to the apartment. After two exciting days, we’re looking forward the great Arctic science to come and take up Allen Pope’s challenge to kick him off the top of the twitter leader board. So keep your twitter ears pricked and see you tomorrow!

 


by Jakob and Team Shrub

p.s. You can also catch up here on what’s happening across the pond at the the Ecology Across Borders conference in Ghent.

Phenology Today

Phenology Today
A semi-weekly periodical about the reproductive lives and growth of tundra plants on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island.

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The pretty white petals of Dryas integrifolia or mountain avens.

A lone white petal on a Dryas (mountain avens) flower resists today’s wind, keeping its status as the last remaining open flower in our phenology plots. An increasing trend of flower seed heads, made up of intricately twisting filaments, can be observed across all sites. Arctic willows continue to grow, but no seed catkins have open yet to reveal their fluffy seed.

The breeze stirs up the gossip among the grasses: who is reproducing, when and where? What will today bring for phenology on Qikiqtaruk? Providing you with all the latest updates on flower blooming, plant growth, seed dispersal and all things phenology, this is Phenology Today!

On the 5th July 70 Dryas flowers fill a single 1x1m plot. Eleven days later, only 4 remain. Summer comes and goes quickly in the Arctic. By the time this news reaches you, there might not be any white Dryas blossoms left – all replaced by twisting seed heads. No seed heads have unfurled so far, and we have yet to record Dryas seed dispersal. But certainly, with the inevitable passing of time, dispersal will happen.  After all, winter is coming…

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The elegant twisting filaments of Dryas integrifolia or mountain avens.

Isla’s arrival marks the resolution of a month-long quest to quantify the level of fluffiness of Eriophorum (cottongrass) flowers. Precisely when does fluffiness start to decrease? It will signify the end, the end of the flowering period and beginning of seed dispersal. Gergana and Isla have visited all phenology plots, and in a shocking twist of events, we now report that some flowers are fluffier than initially perceived by Gergana. More seed dispersal is bound to happen soon. Until then, we shall be standing by continuing to measure leaf length, waiting for the incessant winds to start carrying off Eriophorum seeds.

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The fluffy flowers of Eriophorum vaginatum also known as cottongrass.

How high will the grass species, Arctagrostis latifolia, grow? We visit twice a week, reveal ing a whooping maximum height of 43.1cm so far this year! That’s tall!  There is pollen visible on some flowers, but for now grass seed dispersal seems to be a distant future that we can only but imagine.

Around this time last year Team Shrub was wishing upon willow flowers to bring good weather to both blow away the mosquitos and hasten the arrival of the second half of our crew. Today, very few willow catkins have released their fluffy seeds into the wind in the phenology plots, hindering wish making. The willows are still steadily growing though, surprising us with larger and larger lengths of new stem growth.  How much will they grow this year? Only time can tell.

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The sturdy Salix arctica (arctic willow) flower dispersing seeds.

Thanks to a team effort in eating small pots of yoghurts, we have successfully manufactured new radiation shields for the iButtons on the phenology plots. What can temperature sensors, ground observations and drones tell us about phenological changes? Check out the ShrubTundra project to find out more.

This is Team Drone reporting for Phenology Today from Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. And remember, you heard it here first.

By Gergana and Isla

The turning of the seasons

It’s a hot day. The sun is beating down on the damp ground, freshly cleared of melted snow, and beneath the wet surface the ice begins to retreat.

Nothing too unusual, except that it’s the middle of April, and our field site is an island off the Arctic coast of Canada. Thirty years or so previously things would still have been buried under a thick blanket of winter snow, but as the Arctic heats up, spring is advancing.

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Springtime in the great white north

One of the big questions we are trying to answer is how an earlier spring alters tundra plants. Are they flowering earlier? Does that mean growing seasons are longer? What about different species, do some do better than others? Are there knock-on effects for pollinators, birds, caribou? Can we predict how things will change in the future?

All big questions, all with big consequences for the shape and colour, the sights and smells, the ebb and flow of life for plants, animals and people alike in these cold northern lands. We are faced with one big problem though: come the spring, there’s no-one yet around to measure anything.

But, to butcher a quote, we have a cunning plan. Three, in fact.

1. Eyes in the sky

While we may still be enjoying the cherry blossom on the Meadows and the blustery showers blowing in from the North Sea in April, our field sites are still being watched from above. Satellites give us a great deal of information, all year round, that we can use to track the timing of life (phenology) across the Arctic.

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Qikiqtaruk locked up in sea ice this spring

One approach is to use the ‘normalised difference vegetation index’ (or NDVI for short) to measure the ‘greenness’ of the landscape as the spring unfolds. That works well enough, but the resolution is coarse, and clouds are causing a lot of trouble (no data) particularly in the cloudy summers of the Arctic.

Part of our research aims to link satellite data with ground-based observations. We do this using drones to collect high-resolution imagery and NDVI measurements at the landscape level: ‘bridging the gap’ between coarse resolution images from space, and very detailed monitoring data from small-scale vegetation plots. This way we get a much better understanding of what is going on when we’re not at our field sites, and at all the other places around the Arctic we will never get the chance to visit.

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Bridging the gap

2. Boots on the ground

One of our local breweries has recently started a series called ‘Advancement Through Collaboration‘, teaming up all sorts of different groups to create something new. We try to take the same approach to our own science, whether it is sharing data and ideas with other Arctic researchers around the world, or creating artwork out of shrub rings.

When it comes to phenology, we are incredibly lucky to be able to collaborate with Yukon Parks rangers on Qikiqtaruk – folks who not only welcome us to their lands each summer, but provide insight into the changes in the tundra in ways we never could. Three times each week from late April to early September, every year since 2001, the rangers make the half an hour hike up to sets of long-term monitoring plots to record life stages in three tundra species. They diligently record when their first leaves appear, when they flower, and when they die. Overall, this is one of the longest continuous phenology monitoring datasets in the tundra!

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Checking up on the long-term phenology plots with Ricky-Joe and Sam

With data like this, we can track how plants are responding to change in much more detail. We can also compare different species: are there winners and losers? And we have the data to link things across scale: the information to build the bridge up from individual plants to the whole biome.

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Gergana and Will collecting detailed growth and phenology measurements

3. Fly on the wall

It’s never going to pull in the TV audiences of Big Brother, but a bunch of 24 hour cameras trained on Arctic plants really floats our boat. Last year we installed a couple of phenocams – basically time-lapse cameras – to track in more detail how plant communities are changing over the growing season.

This year we were fortunate enough to secure some additional funding from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) to expand the project. Hugely exciting for us, we will now be able to track vegetation communities across the island, scaling up our findings from the long-term monitoring plots to the landscape scale.

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A phenocam standing tall above the Arctic tundra on Qikiqtaruk

Even more exciting, we are using the cameras to link differences in phenology across the Arctic through our ‘common garden’ experiment in the south of the Yukon. Here we have planted willows collected from across the Yukon to examine whether different populations will respond to change in different ways. One of the biggest differences we have seen so far is that northern populations seem to stick to their ‘home’ growing season: they leaf out late and senesce early compared to southern individuals of the same species growing just 50cm away.

Does the difference in senescence timing explain the difference in growth in these two willows? Willows are of the same species, collected as cuttings in 2013 from a southern tundra site (left) and northern tundra site (right).

At present we can only track phenology changes in the garden thanks to input from more wonderful collaborators – Sian Williams and the folks from Icefield Discovery working down at Kluane Lake. With our new phenocams we can for the first time track differences in phenology over the whole year, not just in our experiment, but at the sites where willows were collected! We think this is the last piece in the puzzle to be able to answer exactly what is going on – whether willows have responded to new conditions, or whether their genes mean that old habits die hard. Our phenocams in the common garden are now installed, and we’ll be installing the remainder at our remote field sites as soon as the summer expeditions get underway. Watch this space!

By Haydn

Haydn is the recipient of a Dudley Stamp Memorial Award on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

Phenology Week

This week on Team Shrub we are focusing entirely on one aspect of change in the tundra: phenology.

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What is phenology?

Phenology (or “fun-ology” as my wife calls it) is, to put it simply, when things happen. It is the timing of life events.

As a PhD student, gazing out of the office window instead of writing up my thesis, phenology is what keeps the view interesting – when the leaves appear in spring, when the birds hatch, when the berries appear on my walk home, and when the trees turn auburn to mark the end of the year.

As a tundra ecologist, phenology offers a way to track the huge changes we are seeing as the Arctic warms. We track when things happen in our study ecosystems – when the snow melts, the leaf buds burst, the flowers appear, and the leaves begin to turn.

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Why phenology?

Monitoring the timing of life gives us a great deal of information that can shed light on how the tundra is changing, how fast, and what it might look like in the future.

For example, we can use phenology to see whether we are seeing an earlier spring, or longer growing seasons for tundra plants.

We can look at if plants can keep up with earlier snowmelt – and if the birds and the bees can keep up with the plants.

We can look at winners and losers: if some species respond to changes while others don’t, and if that tells us anything about community change in the tundra.

And we can look a little deeper still at whether phenology is somehow ingrained, tied to the genetics of an individual or a species, or whether it can respond to the rapid environmental changes going on in the Arctic.

What’s in store this week?

This week we have five posts focusing on the different ways we measure and monitor phenology at our field sites.

So settle in, reach for the popcorn, and get ready for a wild, wild week of science.

Haydn

Qikiqtaruk Book Club Part I: Ecological communities in the Arctic

Qikiqtaruk is a beautiful and inspirational place – science chats are particularly special when you can see, feel, hear and even smell your study system change as the growing season progresses. Out during phenology data collection yesterday, we saw that the spring flowers are fading and seed dispersal is beginning… summer is well under way. And this year, in addition spotting awesome wildlife, admiring magnificent sunsets and informally chatting about science in our remote Arctic field site, we have also started a book club!

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Living among the flowers

Over the past year, Mark Vellend’s “The Theory of Ecological Communities” prompted the start of several book clubs around the world. Mark is a collaborator of ours and Isla’s former postdoc advisor, so we have been eagerly awaiting our chance to read and discuss his book.  We didn’t initially join the book club, but we did manage to stay away from major spoilers and now that we are on Qikiqtaruk and away from the distractions of the world beyond the island (and as close to the plant communities we study as could be) this seems like just the right time to start our very own book club!

We read the first two chapters of Mark’s book after a day of putting hundreds of tea bags in the ground for a decomposition experiment out across the landscape in the different ecological communities here on the island from flood plain willows to dry grass and tussock sedge, and here are our thoughts!

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What is decomposition like in this wet tangle of leaves?

The first question that Mark asks in his book is:

“What is community ecology and how does one define an ecological community?”

Gergana has also been concurrently reading Anne Magurran’s “Measuring Biological Diversity”, which also discusses the definition of an ecological community or species assemblage, so taking what we learned from the two books, there are many ways to define a community, and it’s rarely clear where are community ends and another begins…

Unless you are on a remote Arctic island! Here on Qikiqtaruk, there are several very distinct ecological communities – in particular the so-called Herschel and Komakuk vegetation types.  They are very easy to spot when you are out walking around across the landscape or from a drones-eye view from 50 – 100 metres in the air. The ecological communities are so distinct up here that it is the only place that Isla has been to where she truly believes vegetation classification is possible.

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The Herschel (left) and Komakuk (right) vegetation types

The Herschel communities are older landforms (we think) and dominated by tussocks of the sedge Eriophorum vaginatum, whereas the Komakuk communities likely have undergone disturbances such as active layer detachments, more active cryoturbation and erosion and are dominated by forb species, grasses and the dwarf willow Salix arctica. There are very few species shared between them, and it’s virtually impossible to confuse the two. But why are there such distinct ecological communities in the same extreme Arctic environment occupying the same upland soils with the same overall species pool that are undergoing the same types of selection pressures?  This remains a mystery to us.

Point framing in the Herschel and Komakuk vegetation types. The two locations are about 200m apart

How did these two communities come to be? We think that perhaps it was the different disturbance facilitated the establishment of the younger Komakuk community. But what is keeping the communities separate today? As demonstrated by the abundance of bare ground patches in Komakuk, some level of disturbance continues, but there are a few, not many, but still some areas of Komakuk where Eriophorum tussocks are making a comeback – we probably won’t live to see it in these long-lived and slow growing plant communities, but maybe at some point, the Herschel community will again dominate over Komakuk in less disturbed parts of the landscape. But on the other hand, with longer growing seasons and warming autumn and winter temperatures perhaps different disturbances are on the increase in this part of the climate-limited tundra biome.

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Grins and bare ground in the Komakuk vegetation community

Mark Vellend would have us believe that four factors alone shape the ecological communities that we see on the landscape including: 1) selection, 2) drift, 3) speciation and 4) dispersal.  And that within these four factors are many other forces at play such as biological interactions such as competition, mutualisms, herbivory, disease, etc.

On Qikiqtaruk we have found evidence of biotic interactions such as plant-plant competition and allelopathy potentially influencing the growth and germination of seeds and see signs of herbivory from the muskox and caribou, lemmings and voles down to insects, but it must be more than just biotic interactions creating these super distinct ecological communities up here in the Canadian Arctic.  Can the following chapters of the book “Theory of Ecological Communities” shed light on the ecological mystery that is the plant communities of Qikiqtaruk?  We shall see, so stay tuned.

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How does competition affect seed germination in the tundra?

We are looking forward to our next book club meeting. Until then, we will be collecting data and thinking about how the four high-level processes central to the Theory of Ecological Communities (selection, drift, speciation and dispersal) are influencing the patterns we see in the Herschel and Komakuk communities at our remote Arctic field site.

By Gergana and Isla

p.s. Gergana also found the acknowledgements section very inspirational – it’s always great to read about a community (of people) that supports one another and collectively works to advance science! The University of Queensland, in the sub tropics of the city of Brisbane Australia where the majority of the book was written, was also where Gergana spent a year of her undergrad – such a great place to think and write about ecology!  And such a different place ecologically from Qikiqtaruk in the Canadian Arctic.

This blog post was written on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island in the Western Canadian Arctic as part of Team Shrub’s island book club, aiming to read and discuss Mark Vellend’s 2016 book “The Theory of Ecological Communities” while we are out in the field, right next to the communities we study.  Team Shrub are a group of plant ecologists who often work in high-latitude tundra ecosystems on topics in community ecology.

The team’s book club discussions are summarised in four blog posts:

Fieldwork Milestones

The icy waters that welcomed us to Qikiqtaruk are long gone – past are the beautiful sunsets with light reflecting off big chunks of ice, and instead we now see dark blue or grey waters and occasionally even beluga whales swimming by. It’s a great time of the summer, with some flowers still in bloom, while others are setting seeds. The sandpiper and plover chicks are growing up, and we have been spending lots of time out in the field – through sunshine, wind and fog, the data are rolling in!

Now that we have already celebrated our two week and three weekiversaries on the island and are approaching a month on the island, we thought we’d reflect on our fieldwork milestones so far!

21st June

We celebrated solstice by arriving on the island, checking out the vast expanse of sea ice in the water and exploring our home for the summer and all the breeding bird species with Park Biologist Cameron Eckert.

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1st July (Happy Canada Day!)

Canada Day dinner with the rangers – for some of us it was our first Canada Day ever and it was the big 150 this year, and we all had a great time sharing stories and enjoying a tasty feast on a day celebrating the confederation of peoples including all the original people of this vast country.

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2nd July

Wildlife sightings – some of our favourites include a herd of 25 caribou with calves, the four majestic muskoxen, a short-eared owl flying over camp, black guillemots riding the waves, waders dashing around on the spit, and belugas and bowheads off the cliffs from Collinson Head (14th July).

4th July (Happy Independence Day!)

Six new phenocams are all set up and hopefully well enough to resist any muskox encounters (none so far)! It will be great to see all the photos stitched together at the end of the season from May to August, thanks to the rangers setting things up for us before we arrived. The ongoing on-the-ground phenology observations have also been no less exciting, though they are a bit more of a pain to collect when the mosquitos are at their most ferocious like yesterday!

6th July

The first twisting of the filaments of the Dryas (mountain avens) in our phenology monitoring! We’ve also been counting how many flowers there are in each of the phenology plots and we are now past peak flower time – now there will be fewer and fewer pretty coloured flowers, but watching the Dryas seed heads develop and twist round and round and the fluffy flowers of the Eriophorum take flight is beautiful too!

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7th July

A Team Shrub record for largest area surveyed with drones in one day – 3,000,000 meters squared. We now have 193,735 images (as of 15th July) and counting for this field season so far. As soon as the winds die down the drones are out – with three pilots in the field, there has been lots of drone action – different drones, different scales of investigation, different spectral bands, which together will hopefully give us a comprehensive view of vegetation change across the tundra.

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8th July

Our first group photo (minus Isla who hasn’t arrived yet)! Team Drone surrounded by tundra flowers and arctic willows.

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10th July

A milestone in the making – surveying all of our sites with GNSS (a type of GPS system) – a super precise way to know exactly where all of our markers and plots are. Around a week ago, we met with representatives of Canada Parks and it was very cool to learn that they also use GNSS technology when mapping historical sites – always interesting to see how people use the same technology in different ways.

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11th July

Perhaps the most exciting milestone of all (at least for Isla): Isla has arrived!!!  I have finally made it to the island after five days of trying.  Finally, on Tuesday the 11th of July my float plane successfully touched down in Pauline Cove as a seal curiously watched on.  Most amazing of all was that the “freshies” the fresh fruit and vegetables that had been sitting in a hot plane for more than two days were actually for the most part fine and still as fresh and delicious as vegetables tend to be in the North.

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14th July (Happy Bastille Day!)

Another Team Shrub record of 50 drone flights in one day! And, the excitement of finding a two-way radio in the tundra, several days after it was last seen.

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15th July

Active layer depth has reached its highest value yet at 68cm this week! Strong winds delayed some of our initial drone flying, but there have been lots of ground observations made. The metal probe we’re using for the active layer depth measurements is also a pretty good walking pole! And when dragged along the ground sounds a bit like that noise from that horror movie “The Shining’.

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Every day

Awe-inspiring sunsets – Qikiqtaruk is beautiful at all times of the day, but the evening light makes it all extra special! There are also many ittle moments of beauty in the field – be it a particularly fluffy patch of cottongrass, backlight lupines, a family of ptarmigans walking by, or just the sheer grandeur of the landscape, it’s been great to stop during data collection for a second to take it all in.

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So at nearly one month in there are many milestones to go.  What will we see or experience next?  Only time will tell…

By Gergana, Isla and Team Drone

Fieldwork pickles

Fieldwork often results in funny situations.

Some of these situations are frustrating as they happen, but they can be funny afterwards. From forgetting and/or loosing things and various pieces of equipment not working to unpredictable weather getting in the way of drone flights, there is no shortage of opportunities for us to find ourselves in a real pickle. A strong smell of vinegar fills up our cabin right now, so it seems like an appropriate time to share stories about our fieldwork pickles so far, both real and metaphorical!

Last year the team put out sets of markers to identify our drone sites. Most of the markers made it through the winter just fine – they are still exactly where they were pinned down… but some now have around 10-15cm of water above them! One of the sites is flooded – we were wading through the water, aiming for the dry grassy areas beyond the wet patches, when we realised we are actually already in the site! After looking through the murky water we eventually managed to find a fair few of the markers. We’ll still need to wait for the site to dry off a bit before we can fly the drones above it, so hopefully all the wind and sunshine will help with that1

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Wading in the willows

This field season we arrived on the island with a serious drone fleet – several multicopters and fixed wings, some of which we are using for the first time. Troubleshooting drone problems on a remote Arctic island has already given us the chance to ponder creative solutions, as we can’t look up things on the internet or send the drones back for repairs. Luckily, this season we have three drone pilots, so hopefully we are in for some smooth flying! Nevertheless, we did still accidentally cut a very important wire 2km away from camp making the drones inoperable – at least it was a beautiful day for a walk back to camp to get a new one!

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“You broke what?!”

And then, of course, there are the real fieldwork pickles! I used to do a lot of canning (and I still have jars of pickles left from when I pickled over 100 jars of gherkins – it was a great year for cucumbers!), so I thought I could whip up a batch of island pickles. After all, Qikiqtaruk is our home for almost two months, and what makes a place feel like home? A lovely community to welcome you… and a few jars of homemade pickles! So with veggies, jars and a recipe from back home in toll, I set out to make “Парена царска туршия”, which translates as “mixed pickled salad for kings”.

Making pickles turned into one pickle of a situation though, when I found brine shrimp swimming around my pickling jars, certainly not the brine I was going for! I have since found more jars and in two weeks’ time the pickles should be ready to eat!

So here’s to a field season where we seldom find ourselves in a pickle and instead, enjoy some nice pickled veggies!

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Mixed pickled salad for kings

By Gergana