18 February 2014

The hills are alive with the sounds of ... research




Mistletoe
My first taste of real research was back in my third year at Otago. I was doing an animal behaviour course and a couple of other classmates and I were able to design and conduct an experiment, all on our own. We had access to the DSIR facility at Invermay where we painted big numbers on some deer, released them into a paddock and crammed ourselves into a small but tall hide to make our observations. We were looking at dominance hierarchies and whether there was a definite pattern of interactions within the herd. It might not have been earth-shattering science but as we collected the data over a few afternoons we really felt the buzz of being real scientists.

Last week I spent a couple of days on our third year field course up at Lewis Pass. The students spend about 10 days in the field where they design and conduct their own research. They then return to Lincoln to analyse and write up their project as well as giving a 10 minute talk on their research. This field course is a great way to do your first serious research. The Boyle River area (Nina Valley, Mt Faust, Lewis Pass) is about as archetypal New Zealand as you can get with bush clad mountains, rocky mountain streams, rifleman and robins flitting about the trees, spongy moss and hairy lichen coating trees and rocks, and sandflies, lots of sandflies.

Daisies above the treeline

It was great to be out with the groups and to see the same excitement about doing their own research that I recalled from my student days. As a lecturer it is very stimulating to be out in the field. This is, after all, where our interests are and it is great to be training another generation of young naturalists. Talking to Tim Curran, the course examiner, we discussed how it was so good to see these students taking the next big step in their careers and how they matured (in a science way!) in front of our eyes.

Tim

And it is fun for us lecturers as well. I ended up above the treeline looking at daisies, searching for mistletoes in steep beech forests, marking native cockroaches into the wee hours and looking for birds in different habitats in my time in the area. On Friday I got to hear about all of the research that had been done. Here are the various projects done by our students.

Marking cockroaches

Karina Brennan Evans looked at drought resistance traits in beech species, Dan Quinn gave us a guide to avoiding sandflies, Emily McLaughlin recorded bellbird distribution in different habitats, Davena Watkin looked at home ranges of native cockroaches, Niki Rinaldi El-Abd surveyed invasive weeds in open areas, Ashley Orton measured seedling and sapling recruitment of Nothofagus (beech) species across an altitudinal gradient, Annie Lloyd looked at how NZ Robins populations vary in time and space, Georgia Stevenson examined the effects of altitude on the plant functional traits of mountain beech and silver beech, Grace Ng surveyed invasive plants moving into beech forest, Ian Geary searched for seed predation of native and exotic daisy flowers by insects, Jarrod Anderson measured relationships between habitat and bird diversity, species richness and detection totals, Jonathan Ridden surveyed the distribution of mistletoes, Jordyn Roe compared different insect sampling methods in grassland, Angus Heslop examined how vertebrate pest populations may beaffected by beech mast seeding, Morgan Shields recorded invertebrate communities in beech and kanuka, Shyam Provost surveyed woody exotic species, Courtenay Guise studied whether altitude affects Rifleman abundance, Sam Hansby recorded insect communities on Mount Faust, Matt Coultas looked at effective monitoring methods for mammalian pests in mixed beech forest, while Renee O’Halloran looked at the link between vertebrate pests and bellbird abundances.

GPSing the bird sitings

A major theme of the talks was how the best laid plans that you make in the lodge before heading out can quickly come unstuck when you you are several hours walk into the mountains. There was also the detectable buzz of having been out in the mountains and successfully obtained new knowledge about the world. So hopefully this will be as memorable for these students as my first experiences were.
Five minute bird counts










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