The laboratory I work in has collected some of its data sets from the plants growing on the Channel Islands National Park in California. I got to go with my advisors to Santa Rosa Island and help them collect some of the data for our research. I got to participate in actual biology field work for the first time. I also learned about all the hard work that goes into data collection – now I know how all those numbers in the spreadsheets back at the lab were actually determined!
The trip starts with a three-hour boat ride out to the island. I got a wee bit queasy, but no seasickness, thank goodness. A boat is the easiest way to get there, but it is also possible to fly in a plane because the islands have airstrips. The other passengers on the boats were either researchers like ourselves, National Park Service staff such as park rangers, or tourists.
After we got off the boat, my advisors explained how data is collected for the species we were studying. The plant we study is a rare species of Indian Paintbrush. The plant grows in certain locations on Santa Rosa Island, and to measure how many plants survive from year to year, we set up a grid made of wires and tape in the same location every year and examine the plants inside. For the ecological data, we look at things such as plant size and new seedlings formed, because these can tell us about the trends and overall health of the plant population. This is important because rare species are more likely to become extinct, and hopefully the data can be used to predict and find the causes for failing plant populations. Often, the hope is to rehabilitate the rare plant species – this is called conservation biology.
On this trip we spent six days collecting data from plots all over the island. We also spent one day in a canyon using GPS units to mark the locations of many other rare plant species. We hiked to a part of the canyon that hadn’t been completely mapped yet. Then when we found patches of a rare plant, we would record its location in our handheld GPS units. We spent the entire day hiking and mapping plants, and still the canyon is far from being finished. Since it takes so much time to survey the canyons on the island, another area of research is optimizing the canyon surveys so that fewer people can collect fewer data yet still get accurate estimates of plant densities.
After seven days of hard work, we got to spend some time socializing with other researchers and the park rangers who were on the island with us. Many of them work on the island regularly, spending weeks on the island then going back to the mainland for some kind of “shore leave.” I loved hearing about all their different careers and research interests. They really love working in nature, and I can see why. The island was so beautiful that sometimes I didn’t want to leave.
I learned a lot about how plant data sets are actually collected. I also appreciate field work a lot more now and might even consider it as a career.
Enjoy the photographs! Since I was the photographer, most of them are of the landscape surrounding our plots or of my lab group working on the plots.