Friday, 13 June 2014

Time to see what I can do

I'm back in Christchurch, and after a couple of mad days (which I had planned to spend in the lab but ended up spending mostly in coffee houses) I had a productive one yesterday. Half of it was spent psyching myself up to go into the lab. The other half was spent in the lab. Today I returned to the lab to continue.

I don't find lab work difficult. Once obedience and hand-eye coordination was developed, a child
 could be instructed to do what I have done over the past couple of days. But I have a deep fear of beginning molecular work. I think it stems from my undergrad days, when our lecturers taught us statistics and molecular techniques as though they were something horrible that nobody understands, but we had to do them, so let's just get it over and done with. Which is completely untrue - they're both fun and satisfying.

Anyway, my samples are in the thermocycler (a small oven that is programmed to heat, cool, and reheat samples over a couple of hours). Hopefully amplifying the DNA from spiders I have collected. I am thinking this first set of samples won't work, but what I want to see is why they don't work and from there I can go about fixing things.

Now I have my samples, I have unlimited science to do with them. The only limits in fact are my own human-ness: laziness, distractability, stupidity, ignorance, laziness, and laziness. If I work hard enough, and think smartly enough, there isn't really any limit to what I can accomplish in the next 2 years and 4 months. My undergrad degree was not a test of my skills. I was a bit above average the whole time, not because I didn't work hard or was too stupid, but because I had to do all kinds of things that didn't interest me. I had to work harder on the things that were boring, which meant I didn't have time to excel on the fun things. But now I do. This is my project, and I have so much time to work on it, and it has a structure which can be flexible and I am being encouraged to do what I really really want to do anyway - it's like being a horse, and suddenly the racetrack is taken away, and all I have is an open field in front of me to run as hard and fast as I want and discover whether I'm a quarter horse or a Shetland pony.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Bad luck

Having reached the end of the first part of my journey, I headed back to Christchurch for a week of rest and recuperation, and to plan the final fieldwork month (after doing the North Island...which was uneventful...I found spiders, and the North Island was its usual boring self, although I did meet a really really awesome arachnologist and talking to him made my month). Even though I'd mostly been sitting on my bum driving around, I was knackered - backpacking and camping aren't particularly restful, I guess. I was looking forward so much to my own bed and my own room and my own friends and being indoors. It didn't disappoint. My bed was marvellous. The fire was on, and nobody was home. I skyped my brother (who I haven't spoken to in 8 months - he's kind of busy) and saw my friends and, naturally, got into yet another sci-fi series (Babylon 5) and another comedy (Derek). I'd been successful on my spider hunt, was up to date with writing (apart from my thesis...really need to get onto that), and the final stretch of fieldwork was going to be fun because I should find lots of new species.

I think things were too perfect, and somehow the balance of the universe got upset. When my landlord (who also lives with me) got home after being away, it turned out his wife had left him and now he was lonely and I was convenient generic female. Just my luck that I can't attract any guys OR girls my own age, but creepy old men are a dime a dozen coming my way. So I had to parasitise off my friends, and move out of the flat (friends helping me again). I had things to do and people to have serious talks to, and I was actually kind of glad to get back on the road and start fieldwork again.

Unfortunately, the spiders had other ideas. It's been a week and I've found a few populations of spiders (though not so many as before, because I'm now looking in areas where populations haven't been noted before). I haven't caught many though - they just refuse to come out. Plus the beetle moves very slowly because he is cold, and I have to warm him up again by tucking him into my gloves (awwww). So tomorrow I am heading back to Christchurch again (where I am moving in with a friend - yay!). I have plenty to get on with for now (not least designing microsatellite primers, which sounds kind of scary to me and I'd rather have a few months rather than a few weeks to work on). I'll resume fieldwork in spring, when it will still be cold enough for me to work but not so cold that the spiders don't work.

D'Urville makes work for idle thumbs

I've been back from D'Urville Island for a month now, and that was the best title I could come up with.

I picked up a new field assistant (a good friend of mine who seems to eat meat and butter and nothing else) in Nelson and we drove along an extremely winding, gravelly, but scenic road to French Pass.

Behold! Scenery.
 We got to this tiny, completely isolated village after dark, and met up with the skipper from D'Urville Island Water Taxis. I am really starting to hate boats - they always make me feel nauseous, and you can't hear anything anyone says over the engine, and getting on and off them is always far too exciting. But this time it wasn't so bad - the journey was only 15 minutes, and the beach landing was just manageable without getting wet feet if you could jump far enough.

The "campsite" at Lucky Bay was described on the website as basic. Pretty accurate description really, as there was nothing to suggest it even was a campsite. There was supposedly space for two tents, but we could not see where this might be. On one side of the campsite was tall, stubbly grassland and on the other side a forest. We squashed the grass down as best we could and tried to fit all the knobbly bits into the various indentations that one has on one's body. Then we closed our eyes.

A few minutes later, there was a tap-tap-tapping on the other side of the tent. I figured my field assistant was doing something, but she turned to me and said "That's the weka!" The tapping continued, moving all around the tent to my side, stabbing me in the ribs. Weka are chicken-sized flightless rails with blunt, hard beaks for stabbing people in the ribs. Clearly this one was curious. But surely our tent's novelty value would decrease with time? Apparently not. This wildlife encounter lasted all freaking night.

In the morning, I went to boil some stream water and place it in various receptacles, letting the stream flow around the receptacles to cool them. Rain was chucking down, and despite my waterproof trousers and raincoat I was drenched within minutes. Apparently washing them with disinfectant, as the Department of Conservation had requested, rendered them useless. Luckily I had merino wool underthings which are warm even when wet. My friend emerged from her cocoon, went skinny dipping (??!!) and then brought me a jumper and some coffee (making her my favourite person in the world ever at that particular moment).

After consuming a lot of slightly salty coffee, we pondered where to look for the spiders. Mount Woore was the location in the spider book, but where was that? We had no maps, there were no signs, and no information anywhere. There was a hill though. We packed up things, harnessed a couple of beetles and headed upwards.

The forest was wet, muddy, slippery, and wonderful. Tiny, ethereal mushrooms kept catching our eyes. I knew some of them:

Orange pore fungus - pretty but invasive

Clavaria sp., a type of coral fungus
Bird's nest fungus (Crucibulum sp.) with fruiting bodies in various stages of maturity. The one closest to the lens is most mature, complete with spore-containing "eggs" that rely on raindrops hitting them for spore dispersal.

 Others I didn't know and were really hard to photograph. Plus, we were supposed to look for spiders.

We found lots of burrows on the slipperiest of slopes. We could only make progress by crawling on our bellies and grabbing onto trees. The burrows were lidded, and pretty obvious, so before long we were both finding them everywhere.

When I say obvious...
After marking out a bunch of burrows, we went on a hike through a different part of the forest. That was the first time I've ever been hiking without a trail or path to follow, and it was quite interesting. I have no sense of direction (not just a bad one - none at all, I got lost on a single road state highway yesterday for two hours going back and forth and wondering which direction was up, and I had a satnav). Also I am prone to getting a bit claustrophobic in forests which clouds my judgement. Luckily my friend had a bit of an internal compass, and I had banner tape, so I marked the hell out of our section of the forest and we found our way back easily. There were plenty of spiders there too, and I was lucky to have such a patient assistant because every time I saw a burrow I would flip the lid up (not sure why it's so satisfying to do that, but it is).

After dinner (meat and butter), we went back to catch the spiders. They were a bit tricky to catch, being reluctant to leave their burrows, so we caught three and left it at that. The last one that we caught was from a burrow that my friend had found, but she was shocked to see how big it was. After I had put the spider safely away, she confessed "Now that we're finished catching spiders, I can tell you that I'm actually quite freaked out by them". Bravery.

That night, the weka were back. There were two this time: a mum and her totally fledged and grown up chick that was still begging her for food constantly (with a really, really, really annoying squeaky noise). Occasionally a weka would get its head into the front porch of our tent, steal the baby wipes and have fun opening and closing the lid of the pouch. I stuck my head out into the porch area and waited. At length, the chick stuck its head through and reached for the baby wipes. Suddenly, it noticed me, sprang back out of the tent and ran straight into a tree. They didn't come into the tent again.

The rest is pretty boring - got the boat back to French Pass, drove back to Christchurch to have a couple of days off to write grant applications. But I still think D'Urville Island was the most fun island I have been to now. The isolated feeling, the beauty, the stream, the wildlife...and even the weka. Plus, meat and butter are tasty.