Conservation on the move

One muggy morning, a group of uniformed fifth graders files from their classroom and forms a circle in the grassy common of State Elementary School 192. At their center, wielding a microphone, a compact, energetic man named Samsuardi counts them into groups of three, and announces their roles: Ones and threes will grasp each other’s shoulders, representing large, shady trees in the forest; twos are elephants, which must hide under the trees for shelter.

The elephants dutifully find trees to crouch beneath. “HUNTER!” Samsuardi shouts, his high-pitched voice ricocheting off the compound walls. The elephants scurry out from under the trees to the edge of the field. He calls them back, then bellows, “LOGGER! LOGGER!” This time the trees flee, giggling as they miraculously uproot themselves and leave the elephants exposed.

The game looks like anything you’d expect to see on a playground, until Samsuardi ends it with a mini conservation lesson. “It’s important to keep elephants and trees together,” he tells the students, his tone serious now. “If there is no forest, the elephants will suffer.”

Originally posted 2018-02-07 13:00:00.

Chasing Tigers In Royal Manas National Park: To Umling

We are settling into one of our many nights in the forests of Umling, to the western part of Royal Manas National Park. The night is devoid of any human voices, and all we could hear is the river gushing below, and the wind blowing in the trees. There is only the light of the moon, penetrating through the canopy and we are cautioned not to light fire nor switch on torches. The rangers check their guns, put the safety lock on and put it under their pillow. It is 7 p.m., and we are done with dinner. We are at Kukulung, a place very close to the Indian border and infamous for militant activity and armed poachers. There have been infrequent past encounters between these intruders and the Bhutanese counterparts, and the tales of these encounters sends chill down the spine. There are dangers also from the elephants and gaurs (also known as the Indian Bison), both known to be notorious for attacking people. Here, they can be seen in big herds.

Kanamakura river and elephant dung at Umling © Tashi Dhendup

I am in Royal Manas National Park, studying tigers. Royal Manas National Park is the oldest protected area in Bhutan and was established in 1964. The national park is located in the southern foothills of the country and is known worldwide for its incredible biodiversity and scenic landscapes. It has seven species of wildcats in an area of 1054 square kilometers, one of the highest density of cat species in the world and I have always wanted to come here and work. I am currently a wildlife biology student at the University of Montana, and as a part of my thesis research, I am studying the genetic make-up of tigers in the Bhutan Himalaya landscape. I am using non-invasive survey techniques to collect poop samples for obtaining DNA which would provide information on genetic diversity and connectivity in tigers of Bhutan. Insights on ecology and spatial distribution are increasingly becoming available, but information on genetic make-up and diversity is highly lacking and thus, lack explicit consideration in tiger conservation strategies in the country.

Colleagues check to see if they found a tiger poop ©Tashi Dhendup

I come to Royal Manas National Park because it has tigers, a lot of them compared to the rest of the country and the national park has enjoyed momentous success in tiger monitoring and conservation over the years. The park was applauded recently for an amazing feat: the tiger numbers have doubled over the last three years.

With a team consisting of two research assistants, myself, six armed rangers and three porters, we set off to collect tiger poop. With every poop we found, we celebrated immensely; there was joy on each of our faces. But we were always careful and alert. Few rangers would walk ahead, we would walk in the middle, and few rangers would be at the back. We had to be quiet and maintained a steady pace; some eyes looked up front, some sideways and there were few of us looking at the trails for poop, scrapes, and pugmarks. It was one of the most enriching and adrenaline filled days of my life.

A tiger pugmark ©Tashi DhendupThe team takes a group photo before heading out for the day ©Tashi Dhendup

We were always ready by 7 a.m. in the morning, and the day’s journey would take a walking of at least 7 hours. We would cross dense forests, grasslands and rivers, tread river beds and climb ridges. By noon, our porters would cook us delicious food. We would retire by 4 in the evening, cook dinner near a water source, have it there, put out the fire and go somewhere else to sleep. We would choose a vantage point to camp, under a tree canopy and close to a river. The weather seemed erratic and we prayed it never rains for we had no tents with us; it was February and it hardly ever rained in February. The camping sites were always shifted, we never camped at the same place. We would be sleeping scattered across the forest floor and never together. It was the usual drill, and quietly, we would slip into our sleeping bags by dusk. We would watch the moon and the stars and fall asleep. This would be our routine for all the days we were in the forest.

I feel extremely lucky to be getting a sizable number of tiger poop in Umling, and the fieldwork went much smoother than I anticipated. Next, I will be visiting Manas Range on the eastern side of the park. The fieldwork will be equally daunting. I will also be visiting other tiger hotspots across the country to collect more samples. Many of whom I had consulted with had not observed much tiger poop deposits in the forests, and I was very nervous. I visited monasteries and lit butter lamps for blessings, and it is typical of what many Bhutanese like to do when they need something urgent. I was also nervous because of the history of some of these places I was visiting. But I was determined to take it as a challenge, and, I didn’t have a choice.

Collecting a tiger poop sample ©Phub Namgay

Fieldwork and patrolling along the borders are always this nerve wrecking. Park rangers are on average 15 days away in a month in the jungles patrolling, camera trapping, and carrying out fieldwork for other research purposes. Many decades have passed this way, and they handle it well; their families have learned not to miss them more. The rangers put their soul into their work and their love for nature is genuine. Their sweat and perseverance are returning results: tigers are doubling in numbers and illegal logging is subsiding. They are very happy about these positive developments, and I could it feel from their smiles as they spoke about it. However, they train every now and then and are always alert and fit; complacency has no room in these jungles.

Colleagues walk by an Indo-Bhutan border pillar. To their left is India and to the right is Bhutan ©Tashi Dhendup

Acknowledgement: My masters is supported by WWF-EFN Fellowship, University of Montana, Wildlife Conservation Network and Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research (UWICER). The current study is funded by National Geographic Society, Bhutan Foundation, Animal Ark Sanctuary, UWICER and National Tiger Center, Bhutan. I am also very thankful to the management and staff of Royal Manas National Park for rendering support in the field. I remain grateful.

Originally posted 2018-04-10 00:29:46.

Quick Stop at the Petrel Station

I drove through Punakaiki recently.

Once a year this west coast town holds a festival to welcome the Westland petrel back home to New Zealand after its annual sojourn to South American waters. Amid a weekend of music and revelry, festival-goers gather on the beach at sunset to watch thousands of large black seabirds assemble in the sky above the coast. The birds then fly en masse overhead toward the forest hills, as they do every night during their breeding season.

Punakaiki has good reason to be proud of these beautiful petrels, also known as a tāikos, because they’re truly a local specialty. All 4,000 or so pairs nest along this small patch of coastline. Unlike nearly all other burrowing seabird species in New Zealand, Westland petrels somehow avoided being pushed off the mainland when invasive mammals hitched a ride with humans to this part of the world (though the birds certainly struggle with predation on land, as well as with threats at sea).

I missed the Tāiko Festival by a few weeks, but I got to see something even better when I stopped through town. With the help of a conservation-minded landowner whose property holds dozens of nests, I visited the Westland petrel colony itself.

Westland sunset by Abby McBride

It was sunset when I parked in the driveway and followed Bruce Stuart-Menteath into the inland forest. In the gathering dusk we ascending long sets of wooden stairs that he’d built years ago to give petrel colony tours to interested parties. At one point, Bruce paused to explain something and was interrupted by a crash in the thicket off to the left. “That was a petrel,” he remarked, as we continued our climb.

At the top we sat down, and there the spectacle began in earnest.

Big dark birds were crash-landing in the forest all around us and shuffling along the ground to their burrows. Watching the dimly lit sky through a gap in the trees and ferns, we could see their silhouettes circling as they prepared for entry. One came straight at me: imagine looking at a Batman symbol (except more seabird-shaped) that gets larger and larger and then veers aside at the last instant to tumble dramatically onto the ground. I felt a whoosh of air, a brush of wings, and fortunately no puncture from that fearsome ivory beak.

After one of these landings, Bruce turned on a dim light so we could get a look at a petrel as it rested from the exertion. I had half a minute to sketch this one before it crept away toward its burrow.

Westland petrel by Abby McBride

Later on, another bird climbed up a stump in front of us—a customary launch pad, Bruce informed me—and spent about ten minutes contemplating an early departure back to sea. Several times it opened its long wings and flapped vigorously. But it ended up dropping back to the ground and meandering off into the bush. Apparently it would wait until the morning rush, when most of the petrels head back to the ocean under cover of darkness (to avoid the falcon, Bruce said).

We didn’t want to use too much light and disturb the petrels. But there was plenty to listen to, between the crashes and the rustlings and all manner of vocal performances, as the birds sat in their burrow entrances and loudly laid claim to their territory. Within a week or so they’d be laying eggs.

When we descended back to sea level that night, I accepted a kind offer for “tea and pudding” (that’s dinner and dessert in New Zealand) with Bruce and his partner Denise Howard. Then I camped nearby on the coast.

I emerged from my tent an hour before dawn and drove until I reached a stretch of road that Bruce had described to me. I got out of the car. Standing there with the world gradually lightening around me, I watched Westland petrels materialize in the distance above the hills and fly toward me in a wide, continuous stream. They flew over my head and past the moon with faintly swishing wingbeats, off for a day of feeding at sea.

The flood slowed to a trickle, and at last the final petrel flew over. The sun rose. I got back in the car and drove on.

Why I am obsessed with hummingbird pee…and torpor

My two recent obsessions have been hummingbird pee and hummingbird torpor.

Video: Hummingbirds may be small, but their energy consumption is huge. Learn how they do this.

Hummingbirds are tiny (and I mean, tiny) birds.

They use up energy very quickly and barely store any fat, so they really don’t have a backup generator to rely on if they come close to running out of fuel. I’m really interested in how they manage this limited energy over short time scales.

Okay, so going back to my obsessions. We all know what pee is, but here’s a hummingbird peeing, just in case you were curious:

A Rivoli’s hummingbird peeing as it is released. Photo credit: Don Powers

We injected stable (non-radioactive) double isotopes of water (Deuterium + Oxygen-18) into hummingbirds, and collected their pee just after injection, then released them. Twenty-four hours later we would try capturing the same hummingbirds to collect another pee sample. The change in the levels of isotopes in their pee over 24 hours told us how much energy they’d used in the wild in that time! How cool is that? So I was (understandably, don’t you think?) excited when they peed for us. Sometimes, as you saw in this gif, they would pee as a goodbye token to us as they were released. This was often even more exciting, because sometimes it was the only pee sample we got from that bird–we would scramble to collect it from our hands!

And what is torpor? Daily torpor is an energy-saving mode, a form of hibernation, that some animals use. Like humans, hummingbirds are endotherms; they generate their own body heat to keep warm.

We use infrared cameras to measure hummingbirds’ surface temperatures at night. Here’s a hummingbird spending energy to keep its body temperature nice and high at about 41oC (though because of the insulation its feathers provide, its surface temperature maxes out at about 36oC):

A hummingbird maintaining a normal body temperature. Photo credit: Anusha Shankar, Isabelle Cisneros

We also use oxygen and carbon dioxide analyzers to measure a hummingbird’s breath at night and estimate how much energy it spends per second. A hummingbird at normal body temperature spends energy something like this for an hour at night:

By using torpor at night, some endotherms allow the outside air to decide their body temperatures, and allow some of the internal processes in their body–their metabolism–to slow down. These torpid animals can drop down to using just 5-30 percent of the energy they would normally use while awake and resting.

Hummingbirds, being tiny, speedy, flying machines, often use torpor overnight, when they don’t have access to their energy-packed sugary nectar. Somewhat dramatically, they do this to avoid speeding their way to death overnight. But as a result, hummingbirds in torpor are quite useless; a torpid hummingbird cannot respond to outside stimuli for between 10-20 minutes. Here’s what it looks like when a hummingbird enters torpor (black means the bird is at normal body temperature, and red means the bird is in torpor):

And when it is in torpor for a whole hour:

Hummingbird in Torpor

And this infrared image below is what a hummingbird in torpor looks like; you’ll notice that its body’s temperature is about the same as that of the air around it (~ 17oC)!

Imagine if you were on a cold mountain somewhere, running out of food, and you could turn your internal thermostat down and save energy–all without feeling terribly cold, because your body was itself cold! Hummingbirds can save 65-92 percent of their energy every hour that they use torpor. I was mindblown when I realized this. I am so happy that scientists before me invented ways of measuring the oxygen in a bird’s breath, and ways to measure the temperature of a surface with a camera. And that I was able to take this technology to the field and explore what hummingbirds in their natural habitats do to balance their crazy energetic needs!

Beautiful Places to Work

My field team and I have gone to a number of beautiful and beautifully different places to study how hummingbirds manage their energy on a daily basis. Here are some of our sites:

Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona, USA. Photo credit: Anusha Shankar

A view from the Santa Lucia cloud forest in Ecuador (1900m). Photo credit: Anusha Shankar

Maquipucuna cloud forest, Ecuador (1400m). Photo credit: Anusha Shankar

A view from El Gullan, Universidad del Azuay, in the Ecuadorian Andes (3000m). Photo credit: Anusha Shankar

Our hummingbird headquarters at El Gullan, Universidad del Azuay, in the Ecuadorian Andes. Photo credit: Anusha Shankar

Mist nets we used at El Gullan, Ecuador, to catch hummingbirds. Photo credit: Anusha Shankar

In the video, a description of our site at El Gullan (owned by the Universidad del Azuay), near La Paz, Ecuador. We studied hummingbird physiology and ecology. Check out my blog page for more details! anushashankar.weebly.com/fieldwork-blog

Originally posted 2018-02-07 02:01:13.

Out of the Blue

Shortly after sunrise on April 2nd we successfully navigated Mir back to her mooring in Banyuwedang Bay in northwestern Bali after over three months at sea — a three months that brought us clear across the Indonesian archipelago and back, covering over 2,500 nautical miles along the way, all in the name of adventure and conservation.

Calm day on the Banda Sea. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation

Did That Really Happen?

The crew aboard Mir made it safely back to Bali, and our long-anticipated voyage to Raja Ampat has sadly come to an end. As can happen with any slice of time, this adventure is already beginning to take on a dreamlike quality in my mind — did that really happen? Was I truly just traveling through the most biologically-diverse marine ecosystem on the planet on a 108-year-old ship? The surest way for me to verify that it wasn’t all just a dream is by closing my eyes and reliving some of the moments from these past three months, knowing full well that my imagination could never have conjured these otherworldly visions on its own — visions of looking up from eighty feet below the water at thousands upon thousands of fish circling above me in such perfect unison they appeared to be one single, gargantuan, cyclone-shaped, super-organism. Visions of standing on the bow as we slowly approached a remote island at sunrise and expecting to see pterodactyls swooping off the turrets of stone as the land came into focus to reveal steep, jagged cliff faces speckled with broad-leafed plants overflowing out of any little spot that could hold a cup of soil. Visions of being on watch late at night and looking over the side of the ship at long ribbons of bioluminescence streaming and twisting away from Mir’s hull as she cut through the otherwise pitch-black waters. And one especially wild vision of diving in a tidal “river” between two islands where the current was so strong that when everyone else grabbed ahold of a boulder to stop themselves, and I missed it, I had to dig my hands into the sandy bottom where I was dragged away from the rest of the team while “gusts” of water threatened to tear my mask from my face and it felt like I was on a gravity-free planet about to get blown into outer space, never to be heard from again. But of all the things we saw in Raja Ampat, the most spectacular was what we went there to see in the first place: the vast trove of healthy coral reefs, all of which hosted a chaotic profusion of sea life on and around them.

Fish tornado. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation

Voyage Back to Bali

We left our final anchorage in Raja Ampat on March 10th to begin our long voyage back across those big blue spots you may have seen on maps of Indonesia. Although we were sad to leave a place we had come to love so much, our adventure in no way diminished once we did; on one of our first nights underway between Raja Ampat and Sulawesi, an electrical storm came so close to the ship that the thunder was already clapping while the lightning was still spiderwebbing pink and welding torch-white across the skies beside us, causing us to throw our hands up to our ears. The four of us who were up at the time all thought the power had gone out on the ship before realizing we had each been momentarily blinded by the flash.

We saw many of these eerie, floating fish attractors in the seas around Sulawesi. Our presumption is that these scarecrow-like paddle people have a double purpose: 1) to keep birds from landing on them so fish aren’t dissuaded from gathering below, and 2) to make them easier for the fisherman to relocate. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation

After spending a few days diving in Wakatobi National Park off the southeastern coast of Sulawesi, we continued on to the small island of Moyo, where the Biosphere Foundation has an ongoing “Friends of Moyo” project. There, we were reunited with our hero, Sutama, and his wonderful and hilarious wife, Wayan, who flew in to meet us from Bali. We spent a week in Moyo transplanting broken corals, and adding many small moorings to the beautiful reefs off the coast of the island. Sutama led us in these efforts, while also training the local dive leaders of Moyo who are eager to carry on the critical work of protecting their reefs from anchor damage, destructive fishing practices, and pollution.

From left to right: Sutama, Dolphin, Wayan, and Nadia. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere FoundationSutama and Wayan Chandra transplanting corals near Moyo Island. Photo by Kitty Currier, Biosphere FoundationLaser and Sutama tying a mooring buoy line to the rocky substrate. Photo by Nadia Low, Biosphere FoundationSutama certifying local Moyo divers: Chandra, Herwin, and Arif as Biosphere Foundation Coral Reef Stewards. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation.Gorgeous waterfall on Moyo Island  it felt incredible to swim in fresh water after months of salt. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation

While in Moyo, we also visited a local school where we met with nearly 150 students, teaching them about the detriments of plastic pollution and the importance of healthy coral reefs. We sang and danced with them, and performed the same skit that we put on in Mansuar, where once again I played a sea turtle who nearly chokes to death on a plastic bag that I mistake for a jellyfish. In Bahasa Indonesia, jellyfish is “ubur ubur,” and apparently my pronunciation of the word is so hilarious that now every time I see one of my Indonesian friends, they yell: “ubur ubur!” in a drawn-out and exaggerated accent and then burst into laughter. Just now a boat filled with Balinese dive leaders spotted me where I’m typing this and all shouted “ubur ubur!” in unison and then nearly fell overboard with delight.

Schoolchildren of Labuhan Aji village on Moyo Island, Indonesia. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation

On the Horizon

We’re living at a critical moment not only for humanity, but for all life on Planet Earth — a moment when many say it’s already too late to steer us off our current crash course with environmental destruction. Coral reefs are a strong indicator of overall ocean health, and alarmingly, they are projected to be nearly gone in the next thirty years if ocean temperatures continue to rise at current trends. After seeing the spectacular underwater ecosystems of Raja Ampat, those of us aboard Mir are more motivated than ever to not sit idly by as our elegant biosphere slowly fades out, and whether it’s too late to change our species’ destructive course or not, the truth of the matter is that these reefs still exist today, and that means there’s still hope. If we lose our reefs for good, there’s no getting them back, so now is the time to act; our grandchildren won’t be given the same opportunity if we do nothing.

Mir crew, 2018. Photo by Woody Heffern, Biosphere Foundation

Though our expedition to Raja Ampat is now behind us, the work of the Biosphere Foundation is only gaining momentum; as of this week, Sutama officially became the head of our NW Bali Marine Stewardship Program where he will continue to develop programs to educate local people — including officials from the local Nature Parks, and Indonesia’s National Parks — in simple, yet effective, methods to protect their oceans. Also on the horizon is the Biosphere Foundation’s new educational center that will soon be built in northwest Bali where both local and international students can participate in our land and sea environmental stewardship programs. We hope you’ll join us.

To learn more about the Biosphere Foundation, visit our webpage at: www.biospherefoundation.org

S/V Mir. Photo by Nadia Low (and her drone), Biosphere Foundation

Originally posted 2018-04-09 22:13:24.

Grantee Insights: ‘Why Fruit Bats? Why Not?’

It is high summer in Madagascar and the sun beats down relentlessly on our dusty field camp. I huddle beneath an invasive pine tree in this impacted landscape, trying to protect my laptop from the bright glare of the masoandro — the “eye of the day,” as the Malagasy call their sun.

“Mamay ny andro,” says my coworker, Ando Rabemiafara. It burns today.

I nod in agreement, wiping my sweaty hands on my shorts before returning my attention to last night’s netting data, which I type into an Excel spreadsheet. I marvel that these 2018 entries follow upon those most recently entered in January 2016. I am faintly horrified to admit that it has been two full years since I last held a fruit bat — though in my defense, I spent those last two years earning my PhD.

National Geographic Explorer Cara Brook pulls a Pteropus rufus fruit bat from the net. Ambakoana, Madagascar, February 2018. Photo by Christian Ranaivoson.

In 2016, I wrote to you as a doctoral student at Princeton University, where I studied the infection dynamics of potentially zoonotic (or human-infecting) fruit bats in Madagascar. Bats have received much attention in recent years for their role as natural reservoir species for several emerging viral infections in humans, including Ebola and Marburg filoviruses, Hendra and Nipah henipaviruses, and SARS coronavirus. The unique island ecosystem of Madagascar is home to three endemic fruit bat species (found nowhere else in the world), and each boasts a lineage previously implicated in a major viral zoonosis: the genus Eidolon with Ebola, the genus Rousettus with Marburg, and the genus Pteropus with Hendra and Nipah viruses. In Madagascar, all three fruit bats are widely consumed by humans as food.

Now a postdoctoral fellow with the Miller Institute at UC Berkeley, I am building on my dissertation work to investigate seasonal drivers of viral transmission in these bats under an NIH-funded research initiative, led by Dr. Jean-Michel Héraud, head of the Virology Unit at the Institut Pasteur de Madagascar (IPM). My trusty research partner, Christian Ranaivoson, now a doctor himself, is ever by my side — a new postdoc on our grant — in addition to a IPM-based laboratory postdoc, Dr. Vololoniaina Raharinosy.

Previous work has demonstrated a distinctive seasonality in spillover events of most bat-borne viruses to humans, or other secondary animal hosts (i.e. pigs, horses, and civets — respectively implicated in cross-species transmission of Nipah, Hendra, and SARS). Typically, this seasonality has been linked to wet-dry season transitions and the yearly birth pulse of the bat species in question. My dissertation work highlights similar seasonality in immune signatures of filo and henipavirus exposure in our Malagasy fruit bats. As a postdoc, I am keen to build a more finescale longitudinal dataset to help differentiate between several existing hypotheses of the mechanistic drivers underlying this pattern.

Baby Nicolas watches the bat team. Angavokely, Madagascar, February 2018. Photo by Cara Brook.

I’ve spent the past two years building laboratory and modeling skills to help me make the most of our Madagascar field data, but I admit that, at times, it has felt like I have lost touch with my roots. A year ago, while teaching a quantitative data analysis workshop to Malagasy students, I surprised an observer by claiming my identity as a field biologist. “I thought you were a mathematician!” she exclaimed, choosing a title I would have never envisioned for myself. As Yun-Yun Li, an undergraduate research assistant from my dissertation days, once wisely noted, “I think you are still trying to decide what kind of scientist you want to be.”

After two years away, it’s refreshing to revisit our age-old field sites but a little bit sad, as well. I’ve seen much of Christian in the intervening time, but for many of the local community members in the regions where we work, it has been two years since I have seen fit to mandalo — to stop by. In that time, the cast of characters has not much changed: there’s Zervé, the landowner, his sweet wife Lalao, and their cute son, Tojo, whose cuteness has now been eclipsed by that of a baby brother, Nicolas. And there is our longtime coworker, Ando — once bat hunter, now simply net-maker — and Rabesty’fanihy, father of the bats, who has never told me his real name. Rabetsy has been independently monitoring the local Pteropus rufus roost for no gain beyond personal interest since funding for a former conservation project dried up back in 2007.

Rabetsy, Ando and Gervé all still cycle through the same handful of T-shirts I knew them in last, though their hems are much more ragged and their faces much more tired than I remember. Ando has lost his four front teeth to a taxi-brousse accident.

“I guess I’m still wearing the same clothes, too,” I say to Christian, glancing down at the tattered boys overshirt and threadbare soccer shorts in which I’ve been so professionally cavorting around Madagascar for the past five years.

“True,” says Christian, “though for you, it is a choice.”

Ekipa Fanihy, the ‘Bat Team.’ Ambakoana, Madagascar, February 2018. From left, Ando Rabemiafara, Christian Ranaivoson, Rabetsy Fanihy, Angelo Andrianiaina, Hary (Madama Rabetsy) and Cara Brook. Photo by Jules Rakotonirina.

The skills and pace of field life come back to Christian and me quickly, for we were both born for this work. But I have mellowed with age and experience, and the worries that consumed me as a PhD student seem somewhat trivial now. In a previous life, I used to insist that we split all the field tasks as we processed and released each captured bat. But I no longer care so much that Christian is better at drawing blood than me; in fact, I’m happy — and proud — to let him collect us better data. Likewise, I used to be saro-piaro — jealous, in the possessive sense — about being the one to pack our field materials up in their respective boxes. These days, it occurs to me that it maybe does not matter that the eager new PhD student, Angelo Andrianiaiana, puts the calipers in a different box than I would have chosen. I guess wisdom and perspective improve with time and I am preparing myself to become obsolete to my own work.

Under our new NIH grant, we’ll be sampling these bat roosts monthly for the next five years — news that makes Rabetsy leap to his feet and actually kiss my cheek in gratitude. But I won’t be here all 12 months of every year. As Yun-Yun said so wisely, I’m trying to be many kinds of scientist all at once, and there are skills to learn and resources to exploit back in Berkeley, too. Still, I feel guilty — both to leave and to stay. But when I confess my anxiety to Christian, he just smiles and assures me, with his characteristic calmness, “You are doing the best you can.”

I remember a lecture I attended back in graduate school, in which University of Pennsylvania Professor Daniel Janzen, described his celebrated conservation and development project in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Janzen has been employing dozens of local community members in conservation-based caterpillar research for much of the past 35 years. When asked, “Why caterpillars?” Janzen’s reply, was simply, “Why not?” In his opinion, the development consequences of his work alone fully justify the science.

As a scientist, I have no doubt that I’ll be chasing answers to my thrilling research questions for a lifetime. But as a human, I vow, that should there someday come a time when I am no longer excited about my work, I need only remember Rabetsy’s face upon hearing of our grant success and dig deep within myself to ask, “Why fruit bats? Why not?”

Originally posted 2018-03-08 19:52:04.

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