“What not to do in the field”: A how-not-to guide to field biology

Nitya Prakash Mohanty is a wildlife researcher working on the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal. His ongoing PhD study examines the Indian bullfrog’s recent introduction and subsequent invasion on the archipelago, far from the frog’s natural home on the Indian mainland. Nitya regularly writes articles in forums outside academia, to share fascinating stories of and from the wild and provides behind-the-scenes peeks into the glamorized world of wildlife and its research.

‘Guest post by Nitya Mohanty’

'Field work at the edge of the world'_Nitya Mohanty.JPG
Fieldwork at the edge of the sea

They say field biology is not easy. To spend months on end in isolated corners of the world, battling hostile weather or amassing tonnes of data must require true grit. Yet, every year universities churn out hundreds of field biologists who churn out knowledge based on their studies in forests, seas, and mountains. Before even dreaming of setting foot in the field, a biologist must train in concepts of study design, statistical analyses, equipment, and read a pile of research about his or her subject. But no amount of theory or demonstrations can prepare one for what awaits them in the field.

In my daily attempt to survive in the field, I have had more use of tales of ‘epic fails’ than of ‘mic drops’. One of the first mistakes I made in the field, a few kilometres into my first proper trek, was to ask how far the destination was. Straightforward as the question may seem, the answer demoralized the troop and sapped us all of any curiosity of the wildlife around. Another bright member of this group, who had packed a year’s supply of apples for a weekend trip, did not fare too well either. But, only a few acts of courage go beyond the decision to fast during a long trek. On the command of unearthly forces, a friend of mine relinquished the earthly necessities of feeding herself, while traversing the Western Ghats on foot. Though she didn’t miss out on much (read soybean dinners), we nearly missed out on her life. During this trip, I picked up many a wonderful memory along with a treacherous parasite – a tick, in the most unscrupulous of places. The experienced scarred me on many levels and made me nominate leeches as my favourite parasite, in the bloodsucking category.


'The lovely abode of leeches, a relatively decent parasite', Ashwini V Mohan
The lovely abode of leeches, a relatively decent parasite (Photo: Ashwini V Mohan)

Some field experiences come with the potential to inflict more than just a scar. A dear friend once made the mistake of trusting an armed forest guard to look out for one-horned rhinoceros while he set out collecting their dung. On the distant approach of the dung’s creator, the guard took off without as much as a warning shriek. My friend’s peripheral vision and superior arboreal skills helped him escape a two thousand kilo death. But some acts of trust do not pan out as well. In the long lasting tradition of craving food, while inebriated, two gentle souls once craved the wrong snack – a toxic puffer fish. Alas, their departed souls crave no more. Then again, some people are just plain lucky. A wildlife biologist would not have even graduated when in his early field days he picked up an unsuspecting snake early in the morning. “A cat snake!” he declared, educating us about its non-venomous nature. A friend with little more than just affection for snakes identified it to be a highly venomous Saw-scaled viper, just as the snake started moving to the heat. The cold-bloodedness of the snake, captured in the wee hours of the morning, helped my friend remain unharmed and un-fanged.

'When we collectively ignored a Malabar pit-viper' _Ashwini V Mohan
When we collectively ignored a Malabar pit-viper (Photo: Ashwini V Mohan)

With countless hours to spend in the field, there is a time for individual stupidity and then there is a time for collective stupidity. Some agile minds of my cohort where able swimmers too and decided to jump into a lagoon together. Only the lagoon had sharks. Another group of acquaintances repeated the same feat, with saltwater crocodiles. A large group of people sometimes lulls one into a false sense of security. While stepping across a fallen tree after a long day’s trek, each member of our group gripped a nearby sapling for support. I was the last one to cross and thankfully, snapped out of daydream just in time to avoid grabbing a Malabar pit-viper which had been on the sapling all along!

But by far the silliest thing I have done in the field is devoid of any confrontation with the wild. Upon completing a morning’s line transects counting deer, a colleague and I drove to pick up another team of two at the end of a nearby transect. We became restless as their scheduled time of arrival started veering way off the schedule. On hearing some movement near the clearing where we expected them, I called out in an inimitable code – a simple hoot. Pat came the reply of two hoots. We hooted back and forth for almost an hour in the anticipation of our impending meeting, and then the calling stopped abruptly. I called out in desperation for a while, only to find the missing duo approaching from the opposite direction. I may well have had communicated with poachers for the better part of that morning.

There are of course way too many such instructional tales to recount. In the face of a vast variety of life to study, field biologists come up with a vast array of harebrained schemes to look much less smart than they actually are. If there is a code in the field one must follow, it is not to laugh at a colleague’s mistake; rest assured you will outdo them. Mic drop.

Published by Vardhan Patankar

Email: vardhanpatankar@gmail.com