Once more unto the field without friends, once more

I haven’t collected any data for myself since 2006. To be fair, this is isn’t because I’m a lazy so-and-so, parasitizing exceptional co-workers like a zombie ant fungus and driving them into collecting data for me. Not entirely, anyway.  Nevertheless, spending almost ten years as a biologist (how the hell did that happen?!) doing empirical research without having collected any data myself does seem a bit suspicious.

(10) Ophiocordyceps_unilateralis
Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, aka the ZOMBIE ANT FUNGUS, first described by Alfred Russell Wallace in 1859 (a vintage year for Victorian naturalists!). The infected any feels a compelling urge to find it’s way to the underside of a leaf, bite down on the leaf vein, and stay there until it dies a few days later. The fungus’ fruiting body then sprouts from the ant’s head, releasing its spores. Image from wikimedia commons.

Perhaps I should explain. I’ve only ever worked on long-term studies of wild animal populations, which are the results of the hard work of many people at many different institutions (see more on the study system page!). This has involved doing quite a bit of fieldwork, highlights of which have included helicopter rides, cuddling (well, OK, capturing) lambs, collecting elephant shit, not throwing up on boats (yet), floating lazily down the Irrawaddy, and eating a swan, but all of that has been for the collection of ‘core’ data for the various projects. As yet, I’ve not come up with a research idea and had enough research funds to be able to go to the field and actually collect the data. UNTIL NOW.

Next week, I’m heading to Hirta, the largest island in the remote St Kilda archipelago, home to a population of wild Soay sheep which have been studied for 31 years. I worked on this population during my PhD, which was mainly about how parasite infection had absolutely no effect on ageing whatsoever, and last went to the island in 2010. This year I’m going back for the lambing season, as a sort of exploratory trip before I write a bunch of research proposals later in the year. Lambs will be born and very cute they are too…but BORING. I’m really interested in what happens to how their mothers deal with parasite infections when they’re going through the extremely demanding process of carrying a lamb and then raising it to weaning.

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How does carrying and rearing a lamb affect a female’s responses to infection? Work in domesticated sheep and on St Kilda shows that parasite counts can increase around the time of lamb birth, but we don’t really know to what extent individual females differ in their responses to infection at this time, nor why such differences occur.

To try and investigate this, I’m going to St Kilda for six weeks to do little else but collect sheep shit (an activity which I’m notorious for amongst my PhD cohort, my friends, my family, and, in an astonishingly short time, my new colleagues in Stirling). While other researchers are running around after lambs in the sunshine, I’ll be crouching, poised, binoculars raised and sandwich bag ready, waiting for specific female sheep to do a poo. By doing this again and again over six weeks, I’m hoping to collect enough longitudinal samples from enough females to count parasite eggs (a measure of infection burden) and to store samples in the freezer to analyse antibodies (a measure of the sheep immune response to worms), hormones and the diversity of their intestinal bacteria. To say what the specific questions I’m going ask are would be giving away a lot (including perhaps that I’m not quite sure what all the questions are yet…), but let’s just say that the demands of bearing and caring for offspring could be a demonstration of the predicted trade-off between reproduction and immune function, and how the trade-off is mediated by reproductive physiology, nutrition and patterns of selection.

(10) Ele shit
After years of training, I’m able to instantly identify these faecal samples as having come from elephants rather than sheep.

I’m sitting here quite nervously, having posted off my cutting-edge field equipment (collection bags, cool box, freezer packs, collection bags, duct tape, forceps, collection bags and red wine), hoping that I haven’t forgotten anything and that the 3kg of salt I’ll be able to fit into my rucksack won’t upset the staff at the Loganair check-in desk. If I have a good trip, I’ll have enough samples to be able to see whether these assays work well enough to justify a full-scale grant-writing assault in the coming year. If I have an excellent trip, I’ll have enough samples to write a paper. If I have an out-of-this world trip, it’ll be sunny.

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Village Bay, Hirta, St Kilda, April 2008 on a good day.
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Village Bay, Hirta, St Kilda, April 2008 on a bad day.
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