Field research

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Camping in the South Warner Wilderness, Modoc National Forest, California. Photo credit: Erik Beaston

What is field research? It is an essential part of natural history research. Field research involves visiting the habitats where the plants being studied (in my case, members of the Pyrola picta species complex) actually grow. Visiting ‘natural’ populations helps us understand what types of conditions are optimal for Pyrola species to grow in.

QUESTIONS: For example, in a population of Pyrola picta I observe various extrinsic details: What are the forest tree species and what are their approximate ages? What is the slope, aspect, and elevation like where these plants grow? What is the substrate is composed of? Which species of pollinating insects are visiting the flowers? Are they fertilizing the plants? I also observe characteristics that are intrinsic to the plants’ natural histories: How close are the plants to each other? Do they grow in shade or in full or partial sun? When do these plants flower? How is fertilization accomplished?

Observing and recording these types of characteristics across the entire geographic range of P. picta and its relatives provides me with a very powerful tool– the ability to seek out patterns and better understand (1) what these plants require for growth, and (2) how extrinsic and intrinsic factors change over space and time. Extrapolating from this information, I might ask, ‘How have these plants evolved over time and how might they evolve in the future based on what I’ve found here?’ Patterns can have predictive value!

Many times, field research takes me to places where I think P. picta and relatives should grow given the habitat conditions, and I ask the question, ‘Why does this certain plant species not grow here?’ These are important observation as well, because the absence of the study species could mean that (1) it was extirpated from the area, (2) I am overlooking a small detail about its habitat requirements, (3) that the plants never dispersed to this area in the first place, or (4) a number of other reasons. It is often very difficult to determine the cause of absence!!

LOGISTICS: To find natural populations of a study plant, it is best to look in areas where humans have had minimal impact. Because P. picta and its relatives are so sensitive, it is fairly easy to find their habitat in beautiful climax or sub-climax coniferous forests. To reach these habitats might mean driving through a national forest and simply getting out of the car to record observations OR it might mean backpacking in to a site that is several miles from any road.

Any field trip is likely to go more smoothly with sufficient planning and preparedness. This means bringing the proper equipment for making records and having enough food and water. If hiking and/or backpacking are required, then planning for possible accidents is a must. For many years I conducted field work alone. The advantages to solo hiking are solitude, having to think of nobody but yourself, and working on your own timetable. The disadvantages can be quite serious– dealing with injuries alone can be tricky (or deadly), top predators are more likely to approach a lone hiker than a group of two or three, and when multiple people travel together, equipment (i.e., plant press, camera, ropes, pickling jars with fluid, stove, etc.) can be dispersed among backpacks. It is wonderful to share beautiful vistas, the smell of the forest, the excitement of discovery, and a hot meal outdoors with someone you enjoy being around!

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