Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dead Ringer

I've just spent the last 24 hours returning to my roots as a field biologist by participating in YPM's winter BioBlitz. If you haven't come across the concept of a BioBlitz before, it's a 24 hour inventory of all the living organisms in a given area, in this case the town of Stratford, CT. When it became apparent that my pre-paleo training was as a mammalogist, I was swiftly recruited to run the mammal team, which is based in Roosevelt Forest. Quickly realizing that our chances of success would be markedly improved if we had someone whose most recent field experience of catching mammals was not a) 2o years old and b) in the rainforests of New Guinea, I recruited my old AMNH Mammalogy buddy Neil to help. I did this by the simple expedient of telling him that there were Fisher martens in the forest - not a huge stretch, as a female and cubs were seen a few years ago. I also promised him alcohol.

So on Friday afternoon Neil and I, along with our YPM colleagues Tim and Jess, met in the parking lot at Roosevelt Forest. We were armed with an impressive array of trapping hardware, including multiple types of live traps, automatic cameras, and our secret weapon - two jars of Dead Ringer. This substance, which looks vaguely like beef stew, if smeared onto trees and bushes is reputed to attract carnivorous mammals from miles away. All I can say is that this particular mammal thought that it smelt like the concentrated essence of 50 rotting skunks. We also had a bottle containing a cocktail of several different types of urine to spray liberally over our traps. When you come right down to it, Mammals are disgusting things.

When applied to our camera positions the Dead Ringer was so potent that even we could smell it from a mile off. So it was with high hopes that we left the forest at nightfall. Of course, it pissed down with rain all night and we returned the next morning we found we had caught... nothing. However, when we pulled the camera traps we found that we had actually managed to photograph some mammals - an opossum, a couple of deer, and a fox. Add that to the racoon tracks that one of our colleagues saw at the beach, a squirrel sighting, and a couple of fresh-ish paw prints on the bank of a stream that we decided were coyote and we had added six species to the inventory. Most importantly, after years in the bowels of AMNH I had rediscovered that fieldwork was actually quite fun. We are already revising our sampling strategy for the next BioBlitz, in August.

Running around in the woods, hunting animals, and equipped with foul smelling substances. Oh My God - I have turned into Ted Nugent.

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