Give me a wheelbarrow and I will move the world

By Davide Gaglio

Who would I be today without traveling? Well… I cannot imagine it! I’ve always been willing to discover new places, people, and the wilderness. I’ve loved experiencing new challenges and through them, learn more about myself. In the last 10 years, I’ve been lucky enough to join several research projects as field assistant, which has allowed me to visit parts of the world that otherwise I would never have seen. I have worked in Europe, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa…what great experiences!! While traveling, I’ve met awesome people, learned several life lessons, found out what I really like about research and last but not least, I met my girlfriend, who will become my wife in four months’ time!
Field assistants are crucial for the collection of data of a research project, especially for a research like mine, where my focal species only breeds for a very short period of time during which I need to gather as much data as possible. If I don’t grab all the data that I can get, I can’t just re-run an experiment like lab scientists do – in fieldwork, you can never turn back time to the start of a breeding season, and the animals can disappear, never to be seen again. So, I really want to thank all the field assistants that have helped with my project over the last 3 years.
I would like to share with you the experience of Maël, who was my assistant for a few months in the last field season:

Hello!
maelMy name is Maël Leroux, I’m a 21-year-old French student in zoology. I came to South Africa last September in order to add some practical experience to my theoretical skills. After few months around South Africa trying to find an internship, I was spotted by Davide, who offered me a position as field assistant for his PhD project. He told me I was supposed to work on Robben Island (Cool!) studying the behaviour of Swift Terns (what tern??? I have never heard about them before!!) Well… I was very curious and intrigued so I accepted immediately!
Davide explained to me a bit about the project by email and I knew from the beginning that it would be a fantastic experience. I meet him a few days after I arrived in Cape Town, and not even a week later, I was on a boat, direction …Robben Island…wow!boat to Robben island

As soon as the boat left the waterfront, I was fully into this adventure, and as a good start I saw a whale for the first time in my life…(wow again!)!

Spot the whale!
Spot the whale!

I arrived to Robben Island in the evening, and Davide decided to take me immediately to the colony. There I met those wonderful terns in the light of a stunning sunset. From this very moment, my journey in South Africa became magical!

terns at sunset

After I met my study species, I met the team living at research house. I enjoyed my time sharing the house with the “penguin people” … especially for dinner, when everybody would come back from their long day and always have some funny penguin story to tell (in front a nice glass of wine, of course). I have to say, between Italians, Frenchies, Brits and South Africans, the dinners were diverse every day and I loved it! Braai, pasta, frogs (no, I’m kidding!), cakes and pureed, sooooo good! Food for the belly, not just for the soul.
Obviously, it wasn’t only beautiful landscapes, nice dinners, or discovering the wild side of Robben Island. I had to work, a lot, and hard. During the first month, I had to analyze the data we collected using video cameras, which was interesting, but long and tough. To bring the video equipment in the field was a long wheelbarrow to workjourney every day as the bakkie was not working, so we had to use a wheelbarrow…

A WHEELBARROW!!!…

But luckily after we banded the chicks, I started to work in the field all day long. It was so interesting that I didn’t even realize time was passing! (Ok, perhaps this wasn’t true every day…) Studying their behaviour, observing some unusual interactions, which often Davide had to explain to me, combined to form a very unique working experience. My work in the field was intense and really stimulating, with plenty of surprises. Like the first time I saw a hartlaub’s gull brutally steal a fish from a baby tern! Well, I didn’t know those neighbours could be so nasty ☹.

After this experience I am now thinking to continue my studies and start a PhD myself. Thanks, Davide!”

I respond to Maël in French “de rien!” I really enjoyed my time with him in Robben Island.
In the last few years I have grown as researcher, switching from working as a field assistant myself to having my own project with my own field assistants. It gave me the opportunity to receive help from other people and in return help fuel their skills and passion for research. It’s not only for the data collection or for the PhD project itself. It’s sharing time with interesting people, it’s learning something new every day, it’s sharing dreams and fears, it’s the life of a biologist!

What’s the worst that could happen?

By Keafon Jumbam

Kea tracking

I stroll into the field, locate my target animal instantly, keep it company for two hours, collect data and move on to the pups at the den, collecting extensive data on maternal care. This is how things should work. In reality however, things get a little more interesting. On several occasions I have tracked down an individual, heard the loud beeps from my telemetry receiver signaling that this individual is nearby, “called” it for hours, and ended up throwing in the towel because, oh well, it didn’t show up. And the pups? Well, we’ve had only one breeding couple so far, and time’s ticking by: I have only one more breeding season left before I have to write up my thesis! Fieldwork demands quite a bit of determination and grit, because there are so many factors out of your control.

And fieldwork, theoretically, calls for emotional detachment. We are scientists, after all, and need to collect data without tainting it with our soppy sentimentality. But, like most ecologists, I get emotionally involved in the lives and personalities of the batties. This, in fact, keeps me going – it’s easier to spend long, dark nights in the field if you’re genuinely curious about the lives of these wild animals. Without a bit of passion for the batties, I’d never make it.

Luckily, it’s easy to get emotionally involved in the lives of batties. Take the couple Aristotle (or Ari) and Scruffy for instance – Ari is notably the most abusive husband we have come across in the field.

Scrawny but feisty -- Scruffy!
Scrawny but feisty — Scruffy!

His temper tantrums often lead him into nasty fights with Scruffy, be it over raisins or simply out of irritation at her presence. Interestingly, she never gave up on him – for better or worse, batty style! Named after her sick appearance (literally speaking), she was the scrawniest of all batties I had laid eyes on, with a large and rapidly expanding bald patch around her neck and shoulders. But boy oh boy, are looks deceiving! She was easily the feistiest of all female batties, leaving me completely drained of energy with her fast pace and quick disappearing acts behind thorn bushes. In fact, I secretly wished she would pass out for a while so I could catch my breath.

Ari about his business.
Ari about his business.

And this is where emotional detachment would have been helpful. I remember quite vividly the last evening I spent with her and for the first time ever, she took me on a stroll, limping and stopping ever so often to rest underneath bushes. She could barely forage for food and was in a lot of pain. Our normal two hour data session only lasted thirty minutes before she disappeared into a den for the rest of the night. I anxiously waited for the worse the following day and sure enough by midday, we received a panicked call from a meerkat-project volunteer that a very sick batty had been spotted around. That would be the last time I see Scruffy again.

It doesn’t get any worse than that, does it?