Friday, December 10, 2010

The Art of Patience: Waiting, Watching and Listening

I really am inspired to share my excitement of field research with others. Each year we have 8-12 people (mostly volunteers) working on Team Marmot. And, each year we have to train these folks to properly collect data. It takes a while, but once trained, students learn that they can help collect high-quality data that can help us explain the diversity of life.

Training involves going out with folks and watching marmots. Marmot watching isn't quite like you may have been led to believe by watching National Geographic nature shows (OK, I'm dating myself--I should have said Discovery Channel nature shows). There's a lot of sitting and waiting.

Waiting for the marmots to emerge from their burrows. We do this because we want to know where they're sleeping and with whom--it's a bit of a soap opera out there.

Waiting for them to engage in social behaviors. Social interactions allow us to understand how embedded into their group they are--a factor that turns out to have major consequences for dispersal. Waiting for predators to walk, run, or fly by so that we can see the marmots' responses.

We have to teach people to read the marks. Using fur dye we paint numbers, signs, symbols, and letters on the marmots' backs. With these, we can identify animals from afar. Reading marks is sometimes a challenge. A's look like deltas or P's depending upon the angle you're looking at the marmot from. We wait and wait for them to turn, and then blink and boom--they're gone. Positive identifying the individuals we collect data on, however, is essential.

Learning to wait, watch, listen, and perceive what's going on around us is a good skill. And our field sites are in very pretty locations, which makes the wait all the more worth it.

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