Field work in the Southern Alps: undergraduate research on introduced pests

Veronica Price-Jones was an international exchange student that came to Lincoln University in 2017. She did the ECOL 393 Field Ecology Research course and recounts her experiences here.

Admittedly, my ECOL393 experience did not get off to the most auspicious start. Thanks to a combination of cancelled, delayed and missed flights, I arrived in the country on the first day of my field tour, without my luggage. Luckily, the teaching staff were very accommodating: they were able to pick me up directly from the airport and make a brief stop at a local department store to pick up a few extra supplies. From there, things could only improve, right?

Flying over the Southern Alps foothills on the way to Christchurch. Image from Veronica Price-Jones.

Right, of course. Looking back, it seems foolish to have considered any other outcome. But retrospection is the luxury of the present, and last February, all I knew was that I had never attempted to conduct independent primary research (the closest I’d come was a group project on the consumption of polystyrene by mealworms), and so I started the week a little anxiously.

 

Why did I decide to enrol in ECOL393? In the interest of full disclosure, the value of a field course on my transcript and on my resume did not escape me. However, I was also seeking a new challenge and the opportunity to find out if field work was something I would like to do with the rest of my life. Of course, there are no easy answers to the question of a lifelong calling. My experience in ECOL393 did, nonetheless, contribute several pieces to that puzzle.

Setting up a tracking tunnel. Image from Veronica Price-Jones.

Conducting my own research was intimidating to start with, and I won’t claim that it went perfectly smoothly, but I ironed out kinks along the way, with the help and support of the teaching staff. One of the best parts of this particular course at Lincoln University, was how the professors treated each of the students like equals, and took an interest in each of our individual projects. Repeatedly explaining what I was doing not only brought to light some weak points of my project, but also gave me a lot of confidence.

 

All of this valuable learning took place in spectacular natural surroundings. We worked near the Boyle River Education Centre, near Lewis Pass, home to beech and kanuka forests, which in turn are home to innumerable bird and invertebrate species. Unfortunately, the area is

also home to a number of introduced pest species, such as rats, mice, possums and stoats. My personal project was to compare the sensitivity of different devices used to monitor populations of these species. By walking up and down four transects, each with five stations, I collected data for a comparison of tracking rates of possums and mice by tracking tunnels, chew cards and camera traps.

Possum caught by camera trap interferring with tracking tunnel. Image from Veronica Price-Jones.

After the field tour itself, the semester was dedicated to constructing a professional report, with comprehensive lectures on the different elements and feedback on sequential submissions.

I won’t bore you with the statistics, but for anyone interested in the “Predator Free 2050” initiative, my data analysis showed that all devices are equally sensitive for possums, whereas tracking tunnels are most sensitive for mice. That means that ongoing conservation efforts might choose to invest more in tracking tunnels than camera traps or chew cards. Of course, there are caveats to add: tracking tunnels are actually too small for possums (though possums seemed quite willing to pull the papers out of the tunnels and rip them up); and the chew card interference rate rose between nights one and two, so perhaps mice were initially scared of the new object, but then their desire for the peanut butter bait overcame their hesitation. Obviously, there is more research needed, which I have no doubt will be undertaken.

As a closing thought, I truly enjoyed being the expert on a topic, for the first and last time in my undergraduate career. And that is what may yet push me into a career of research.

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