Updated: Sep 20, 2018
By Maggie Doolin (PhD Student, University of Utah)
Edited by Dr. Jillian Detwiler
In my limited experience, well-planned field work always kicks off with lots of hope and promise. There should be that initial optimism in order to weather the stressors and failures that will likely be encountered along the way. Though I had spent time in the field for a day or a few days here and there, I got my first taste of the ups and downs of a longer collecting trip in the summer of 2017. My Master’s advisor (Dr. Florian Reyda) and I planned a trip around the eastern half of the USA to collect specimens that – I told myself – were integral to our phylogenetic study of the large acanthocephalan genus Neoechinorhynchus. The steps were so simple. Rent a car, drive to type localities of six Neoechinorhynchus species, collect some well-infected hosts and scoop out the worms. After two weeks and 4500 miles, we would return home, tired but accomplished. We had local contacts mapped out at nearly each stop. So much fun! How could we not succeed?
Well, the first step to successful collecting is to first find the target organism! The animals did not cooperate. Although we did collect the fish hosts at most sites, we only encountered Neoechinorhynchus at one water body. Even using three different fish collection methods, spending long hours in the field, and partnering with local contacts to really get in the heads of our aquatic targets, we only returned with 50 worms of 1 of the species of interest. This was about 90 miles traveled and $90 of grant money spent for each of these worms, and indeed I handled them with more care than I had ever used to process any of our worms before. This trip has fondly become known as the “Big Miss” in our lab since four of the type localities were in Mississippi, and we obtained no worms from that state.
Even after such feelings of failure, I still reflect upon my experiences positively. There was more than just worm collection going on throughout those two weeks. Cultural exchanges and ground-level observations of the USA reminded me that field-based biology happens to include the immense benefit of exploration. I developed a new appreciation for the beautiful, multidimensional country in which I live, and I learned that no matter where I am, connecting with local guides is integral to a positive experience in the field. In northern Mississippi, we were assisted by a commercial fisherman, Jerome Haddon, who had made a living for 60 years exclusively by catching bottom-feeding fish in the Yazoo River. He was skeptical of our interest in his fish guts, but really welcoming to us with few questions asked. Without Jerome, I am sure we would have felt even more like Northern outsiders in the close-knit and unfamiliar southern community where we worked. For two days, we dissected fish in front of his garage, listened to the stories he told in his soft southern accent, and watched in awe as he fileted the extremely bony buffalo fish (Ictiobus sp.) with the precision of a master. A few times, he even understood what I was saying in my “Northern accent,” which I took as small victories! Personal connections like these relieved some disappointment from the negative collection results and also encouraged us that we were looking in the same places any local expert would look (because we were led by the local experts).
In the end, what appeared as a failure immediately after the trip included many memorable experiences and positive outcomes. First off, we did succeed in bringing back one species of Neoechinorhynchus, and we had negative infection data from dozens of fish hosts at several distinct field sites that revealed factors in infections (e.g. seasonality, host feeding ecology) that will be considered in future collection trips. Second, I hold the cultural experiences and strong connections to the field sites near and dear. Lastly, after the trip ended I learned one of the many benefits of collaboration with colleagues in my own field of study. Parasitologists with whom Florian had communicated before we left for the field contributed several Neoechinorhynchus specimens to our study that summer. These contributions greatly expanded the number and range of species that were represented in our systematic study of the genus. There was plenty of frustration, but not totally a Big Miss.
(Field Notes tell the tales of how parasitologists make (or attempt to make) scientific discoveries. Field Notes can also be used to share observations for which you're still looking for an explanation. Have a story you'd like to share or an observation on which you'd like input? Drop me a line and let me know! Email Kelly Weinersmith at Weinersmith (at) Rice (.) edu)