Long field seasons: how to prepare for one

Planning for a long field season next summer? Here is some advice for you. 

Recently, Leticia Soares wrote a post giving advice to students who are planning their first field season. Well, let’s be honest, we all could learn a thing or two (or a gazillion, in my case) about having a successful field season. Together, we decided that this was a topic worth extending, and we invited a few friends from the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL) to give us (and you) some extra advice. In a previous post, Robbie Hart gave us some food for thought while in the field. In this post, you can read Mari Jaramillo‘s tips on how to plan for long periods in the field. She is a PhD candidate who works with avian malaria in the Galapagos islands. That’s right, she works in the Galapagos!! (sigh). Mari is a student in Dr. Patricia Parker’s lab at UMSL, and you can read more about her work at the end of this post.  

Taken at Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

Taken at Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

If you are lucky, field work doesn’t only take place during summer. Depending on the nature of your project you might need to stay at the field for extended periods of time, which for a field biologist is not hard at all. The hardest thing is probably leaving; you may be so comfortable you may want to make it your home…

But at some point you ought to know when you have collected enough data. No need to start crying and pouting though, the preliminary analysis of these data will point you in the right direction in future field seasons needed to complete your project.

Planning for extended field seasons is not that different from shorter ones, there’s just a lot more of it! Start thinking way ahead of time about the things that may take a while to get and be proactive about it. Lists are crucial! Ask yourself what things are indispensable for your research, for your assistants and for yourself and write these things down on a field or personal notebook. Also, you and your advisor will be glad if you check the list, item by item, with them or with your teammates that have been to the field site before. You could also send a list of personal items to your assistants and colleagues so they too are prepared for the field conditions and make sure they know about things that they are going to live without, like fresh water or electricity. Now, it doesn’t matter where and for how long you are going if all items in your list are checked off, you are good to go! And if you didn’t include it in your list, after all the scrutiny…


…the truth is you will likely be fine without it.


Field conditions and protocols are different from place to place; make sure you get acquainted with the rules and regulations of the different parks or reserves that you will be working at. Embrace the rules! You may find some of these rules are a pain in the %#$, but there is usually a pretty good reason behind them. Most of my field experience comes from work in the Galapagos Islands. These islands are a world icon and for that reason the park rules are more strict and extensive than anywhere else I have ever been. But I wouldn’t worry; there is a whole lot to enjoy as a scientist in these islands that no one else ever gets to experience!

The stars of the Pacific sky. Credit: Jeisson Zamudio.

The stars of the Pacific sky. Credit: Jeisson Zamudio.

If your work involves being away and isolated for long periods of time, you need to think survival!

Cover yours and everyone else’s basic needs and you will have a happy team! This means: food and water, a well-equipped first aid kit, a comfortable and warm place to sleep, a stove, gas or fuel and cooking equipment, duct tape (YES! Duct tape is a must!), rope, and never forget the matches!! I usually take a bunch of lighters and carry them in Ziploc bags in different places. Trust me, you do not want your field team to be eating cold food for two and a half months! This leads me to something I forgot to mention (and my advisor reminded me of), notice I said a ‘bunch of lighters’, not just one? Always take a spare, especially for items that are important for your work!! There are certain places in the Galapagos where you can head to do field work and find yourself in real isolation; it may take hours (and hundreds of dollars) for boats to get there, if an important piece of equipment brakes you’ll be glad to have a spare one!

Also, make your own plan of what to do in case something unusual happens or in case of an emergency and make sure everyone knows that plan. When the basics are covered, give yourself and your team a place to talk about the research each day. I usually break the group into two-people teams that go out and work all day to come back to camp before sunset. We may or may not have a cooking schedule (I’ve recently learned big groups alaways need schedules), but we usually eat dinner together, talk about how the day went and plan for the next day.

Some field experiences may be overwhelming, especially if it is the first time in a new place or leading a big group of people. You’re usually very busy and constantly planning for the next step… but I guess my best word of advice would be to stop and look around. I mean, really look around. You may be working with a single species but give yourself time to observe its surroundings, its habitat and its interactions with other organisms. Field work is a whole learning experience on its own, take advantage of it. And learn from others too, listen to other people’s ideas and suggestions; some people may surprise you with their creativity.


Lastly, know that things never go exactly as planned. When this happens, IMPROVISE!

Even if that means adding sea water to the rice because you forgot to bring the salt, holding your arm up next to the roof drain at 3am to collect rain water for cooking because they told you there would be water up in the hut and there isn’t, or brushing your teeth with noodle water. Aah! All the good things about field work!



About Mari Jaramillo: I am an Ecuadorian biologist and have been doing field work in the Galapagos since 2008. I began as a field assistant in different projects with PhD students from Australia and Germany. I eventually ended up working with Dr. Sharon Deem, DVM, and Dr. Patricia Parker in a project under the Wildcare Center for Avian Health in the Galapagos Islands of the Saint Louis Zoo. Then I was awarded one of the scholarships for two Ecuadorian students established by Dr. Parker, Dr. Hernán Vargas and The Peregrine Fund to complete a master’s degree working with the Galapagos hawk. My master’s project (at UMSL) studied the impacts of ungulate (mainly goat) eradication on the diet of the Galapagos hawk on Santiago Island. This project required me to lead big groups of people to an uninhabited island for long periods of time (up to 2 1/2 mo) and very hard work. For my PhD I switched back to work with avian diseases. I’d like to break down the disease dynamics of avian malaria in this somewhat isolated archipelago to understand which are the main players in transmission and what is its effect on the endemic avifauna. However, I return to Santiago often to lead field seasons for the long term monitoring of the hawk population run by Dr. Parker in collaboration with Dr. Vargas and others (GNP, CDF).


Darwin’s finches “reversing” their famous process of speciation

In a paper published this week on the American Naturalist, Kleindorfer et al. report on how one of the subgroups of Darwin’s finches, the insectivorous tree finches, are collapsing back via hybridization, and also suggest the extinction of the large tree finch, Camarhynchus psittacula.

The Darwin finches are some of the most iconic examples of adaptive evolutionary radiation, and consequently, speciation. There are some curious facts about the history behind Darwin’s finches that I think are interesting to share. History that which obviously involves our beloved blog namesake, Mr. Darwin.

Darwin finches, from Wikipedia.

Darwin finches, from Wikipedia.

Charles Darwin was known for his likings of hunting and avidity in collecting, and perhaps for that reason I always pictured Darwin happily shooting all kinds of finches in Galapagos and instantly recognizing how that was a major find, and making all the intricate connections between adaptive morphology and speciation. However, it was another shipmate of the Beagle, Syms Covington, who did most of the bird collections in Galapagos.

As with almost all breakthroughs, the “eureka” moment of this famous Darwin episode was an afterthought. Darwin didn’t even discuss the finches in the diary of his voyage on the Beagle at much length. At the time, Darwin thought those were blackbirds and gross-beaks. Only after being back in England is when the famous ornithologist John Gould identified those Galapagos birds as “a series of ground finches which are so peculiar [as to form] an entirely new group, containing 12 species.” After Gould had made his findings public is when Darwin associated their incredible morphological adaptation to the species divergence concept, when he noted that “seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends”. Also interesting is that, nowadays, we know Darwin’s finches diverged from a group of Tiaris birds, which originated in the Caribbean islands and then spread to Central and South America, and finally to the Galapagos.

Now, to add to their glorified fame as teachers of the workings of evolution, Darwin’s finches are showing us a snapshot of the reverse process. The paper of Kleindorfer et al – just hot off the presses on the American Naturalist (Feb. 24th) –  looked at the three Camarhyncus species, known as tree finches, in one of the Galapagos islands, Floreana, to test the mechanisms and functions of annual patterns of hybridization in these sympatric species.

Images of three sympatric tree finches from Floreana Island in 2010. A, genetic population 1; B, hybrid tree finch; and C, genetic population 2. From Kleindorfer et al (2014).

Images of three sympatric tree finches from Floreana Island in 2010. A, genetic population 1; B, hybrid tree finch; and C, genetic population 2. From Kleindorfer et al (2014).

“The three Camarhyncus species on Floreana Island are of special interest because Lack (1947) singled them out as a paradigmatic example of successful speciation in Darwin’s finches. The medium tree finch probably originated from a “small morph” of the large tree finch from Isabela Island, which was either followed by (Lack 1947) or preceded by (Grant 1999) separate colonization events of “large morph” large tree finches from Santa Cruz Island and small tree finches from another island. […] Evidence that we present here, however, suggests that these three species may represent a case of evolution in reverse …”

They had birds collected at three different time periods, 1900s, 2005, and 2010.  Their morphological and genetic analyses suggest that through time, species composition started to move away from the three distinct clusters (small, medium, and large), and by 2010, there were two species left, the small and the medium tree finches, along if a population of hybrids between the two.

“The results presented here go to the heart of evolutionary biology: by what criteria do we denote species, and by what criteria do new species form or collapse? Here we present evidence that three sympatric species of Darwin’s tree finches in the 1900s have collapsed, under conditions of hybridization, into two species by the 2000s.”

They argue that their results show a case of disassortative mating, where the females of the “small tree finches” (Camarhynchus parvulus) are choosing among the larger of the “medium tree finches” (Camarhynchus pauper), creating a hybrid population of intermediate morphology. As for the “large tree finch” species, Camarhynchus psittacula, they don’t appear in any of their collections during the 2000s, and authors suggest there is a chance the species has gone extinct.