Improvising field gear

Somehow these combine to form SCIENCE! Image Credits: Saperaud (top), Jacopo Werther (bottom) wikimedia commons

Somehow these combine to form SCIENCE!

Image Credits: Saperaud (top), Jacopo Werther (bottom) wikimedia commons

When I was a kid, my idea of science involved lots of glassware, and high-voltage electricity. I had no idea what any of it was supposed to do, but it looked really cool (let’s be honest, it still looks cool). If you look at popular TV shows (CSI, Bones, etc.), you might get the idea that science is all PCR and GC-MassSpec. Some scientific disciplines do use fabulously high tech (and expensive) equipment. Then there's field biology.

One thing that you’ll find about field biologists is that we have an interesting combination of specialized and improvised tools. My favorite anecdote from my own research is that I often go out on a million dollar boat (a rough guess), and don thousands of dollars worth of dive equipment in order to deploy an experiment made from cut-up welcome mats and cable ties. The experiment, in case you are wondering, is part of a monitoring project for sea urchins that my dissertation advisor, Dr. Larry Harris, has been conducting for about 20 years. It has been used to predict the population fluctuations of the urchins and to advise fishery managers.

You can never have too many cable ties. Photo credit: Seth Goodnight

You can never have too many cable ties. Photo credit: Seth Goodnight

Cable ties and welcome mats?

Cable ties are one of the staples of marine research; they are a field biologist's best friend. In any situation where duct tape doesn't work (like underwater, or in harsh weather), a cable tie will usually do the trick. Welcome mats provide an area where the larval urchins (which are initially planktonic) to settle and develop into juvenile urchins. They need a place to settle, and we need something that we can easily retrieve. Since there's not a specific piece of equipment that we can use to monitor sea urchin settlement, we had to make our own.

Some of the tools of a field biologist. All kinds of mesh, rope, cages, coolers, and settlement plates. Photo Credit: Seth Goodnight

There are lots of examples of everyday household items that can be used for field research. Turkey basters are great for collecting invertebrates from mud flats, coffee cans make a nice way to cut out a core of salt marsh sediment, and a bucket with the bottom cut out gives you a portal to see what's underwater. We build cages of all shapes and sizes out of plastic screens, PVC pipe, Plexiglas, or plastic-coated wire mesh. Every habitat is unique, and every experiment has its own set of challenges. That's one of my favorite things about field biology: you never know what you'll be building next.