On the Behavior of Chickens and Ducks

IMG_0766I have learned a lot since moving to Norco. Horses… are not like other animals. A year and a half in, and I am only just beginning to feel like I understand their motivations and how to form a mutually respectful relationship with them.

 

But I really thought I knew most of what there is to know about chicken behavior. They’re ground-dwelling birds descended from jungle fowl in places like Southeast Asia. Jungle fowl are apparently known to form flocks of 6-8, with one or maybe two roosters among them.

Our chicken flock numbers six laying hens of assorted breeds (there is no comparison to fresh eggs!!), plus two mini roosters. Minis are cool because they have a much harder time injuring the hens during mating. However, I personally believe that the inbreeding that produced them took a toll on their common sense. They are protective to fault- boxing and biting us even as we offer them food!

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An adorable little silkie egg.. the full-size hens lay much larger eggs, and in an array of colors!

 

Chickens DO have common sense! They are far more intelligent than people’s stereotypes make them out to be. They can fly over the fence, but they don’t-they know where the predators are and where the food and shelter is. They form social classes (their pecking order). They show little fear of Jilly- who has proven herself to be a benevolent protector. They come when called. And they have a distinctive language that I am starting to understand. There is, of course, crowing and the famous egg-laying song (which the males join in on… this is still a mystery to me- sympathy singing, perhaps?). But there are also distinct sounds of a more conversational tone. When the pecking order is reinforced by an alpha, the submissive coo of the underling is always the same (although with each bird’s voice I can tell without looking who is being told off). The females also cluck a certain way when they are looking for a place to lay, and when they are startled.

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Jilly watches over one of the mini roosters and our old red hen.

Where the girls are, the roosters are never far away. They protect the flock by not only being its eyes and ears, but with physical violence as necessary (hence the irritating “mini” attacks we suffer daily). As the flocks sentry, they crow to roosters in nearby yards, confirming each others’ locations and warning them to stay away. For threats close to home, a certain soft screech puts the flock on alert and/or sends them to the nearest cover. And when we feed fresh greens or other treats, the roosters are always the first to inspect the food before uttering a special soft clucking noise which brings the girls over to eat the treat themselves. The roosters seem to show the hens where the food is and partake in little of it themselves. Sweet, huh?

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The coop my dad and I built for the flock.

About six months ago, Jason “accidentally” ordered live animals from the internet. We aren’t really into buying animals, especially having them shipped. But what was done was done and a day or two later we picked up a peeping box at the post office. Inside were four perfect days-old runner ducklings, two males and two females. We fell in love.

So now we have a mixed flock!

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Where there are horses, there are flies. Here the ducks are picking the flies off of Tonto’s legs and tail!

We had read that chickens and ducks get along fine, which turned out to be mostly true. They really just stay out of each others’ way. The ducks are messier in terms of making every available source of fresh water muddy and splashing it everywhere (but you can’t be mad, they’re freaking adorable). But they don’t scratch holes in the ground like chickens. And all of the birds enjoy eating bugs, including flies (yay!).

Little did we know, the true test of chicken-duck compatability was around the corner. One of our hens (lovingly named Disco Pants for her feathered legs) began to brood. This was a first for myself, and even for Jason, who had raised chickens in the high desert as a kid. So we had a family meeting and decided to let her have the eggs she was sitting on… and a couple of the duck eggs that the ducks routinely abandoned behind the hay bales. Four weeks later, and we had our first home-grown chick!! He (I suspect) has pants to match his mama’s. The second chicken egg was not far behind (a bare-legged, freckled one). We felt a little like new parents! It’s a good thing we built the coop when we did, because DP and her chicks had the perfect place to rest and grow in safety.

BUT. THEN. One of ducks hatched! We knew it was a bit of a long shot because 1. ducks incubate for longer before hatching so it was possible that DP would cut her losses after a few days with the chicks, and 2. chickens and ducks have different requirements for the developmental environment- temperature, humidity, the rate of turning, etc. But we got lucky, and on a sunny afternoon in April, I checked on our new mother to find a fuzzy black creature nestled in her feathers.

IMG_1204At first, DP was clearly stressed. Not by the strange creature she had hatched, necessarily, but probably because she was a first time parent with three squeaky babies to protect. When we would change out their food and water, she would puff up and growl at us (well, a chicken growl… you’d know it if you heard it!). But she was eating and drinking and not attacking the chicks, even the duckling.

All three chicks spent their first couple of weeks under mama’s wings and tail, keeping warm. After that, they emerged more and more often to stretch their wings and legs. They all were feeding themselves from the dish that mom ate out of from the second day of their lives. Chicken and duck newborns really hit the ground running in terms of parental care! It was obvious that chick #1 was learning from mom, and chick #2 followed big brother’s lead. The ducking stumbled (literally, they are so clumsy) along just fine as a would-be chick, just with a strange attraction to the waterers ;)

Differences between chicken and duck innate (that is, genetically linked and therefore heritable) behaviors:

I have noticed that although the chicks seemed to have an innate need to scratch for their food, the duck did not- nor did he “learn” to scratch by watching his siblings like he did with other basic behaviors (eating the mash from the dish, drinking from the waterers, etc). Scratching must be linked to specific motor functions that the duck is simply not made for…IMG_1380

We started giving the duckling baths in our bathtub when he was the age his bio-mom would have introduced him to the water. He took to it like, well, a duck (most sayings are grounded in truth, right?). But his feathers were not conditioned to be waterproof, and he wasn’t doing anything about it! We promptly began agonizing over whether the correct feather-grooming technique was a learned behavior in ducks (the chicks and the duckling automatically engaged in self and even social grooming, but ducks need to access the oil from a gland at the base of their tail to waterproof their feathers correctly). Would he get damp and need to be brought in and dried every time it gets cold? For the rest of his life?? (I mean, we would do it- we are that kind of weird).

Luckily, it appears that we won’t have to pamper the duck that much. A few baths in, and he is starting to pay more attention to the base of his tail. Without any siblings (or a mother) to learn from, he will need to figure the rest out on his own. Our other ducks all figured it out just fine, but they did have each other to kind of bounce ideas off of, you know? Overthinking it. I know. Anyway…..

Frame-13-05-2016-02-09-21The latest development (literally) has been the dust baths. While this may be an innate behavior in chickens, the technique is clearly learned over time. After we moved the little family into one of the horse stalls, DP promptly began showing them how to scratch for bugs in the shavings (they are very studious, watching her every move)…and dust baths! We hadn’t seen the chicks do this before mom started doing it, but I still believe this is an innate behavior because the duck doesn’t even try to do it. Ducks bathe in water! So he sits nearby and watches, occasionally grooming the chicks that get near enough. And the chicks rolled around like puppies before imitating their mother’s technique of kicking the loose soil up and through her wings. Very, very cute.

I hope that soon we can safely introduce the new young ones to the rest of the flock. And after that, we will have to keep an eye out for secret nests and broody hens- or we shall be overrun!!

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Evolution 2015

There comes a time in every young scientist’s life when they get to go to their first scientific conference. For me, it happened to beIMG_9509 the 2015 Evolution conference… and it happened to be in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Well, about an hour east of Sao Paulo, in fact- in a small tourist city called Guaruja. I had been finishing up a side project dealing with fluctuating asymmetry in kelp perch for CSULB faculty member Dr. Darren Johnson, and it came together just in time for me to make a poster and jump on a plane. “Dragging” my husband along, my thesis adviser Dr. Carter and I prepared for four days of learning and sharing the year’s evolution-related scientific research!

IMG_9436Between fascinating presentations on subjects such as behavior, macroevolution, experimental evolution, etc., we explored the town and…hit the beach. Hard.IMG_9417IMG_9524We were especially enamored of the dogs that roamed the town… not feral, not even stray it seemed. They each seemed to be ‘attached’ to one of the beachside restaurants. They would tour the beach, visiting each person or group of people within their range in turn. They refused our offerings of french fries and peanuts, and besides being extraordinarily friendly, they were for the most part, clean and fat. Jilly would have loved to play on the beach with all of the friendly pups!IMG_9493

Dr. Carter delivered his presentation on evolution education in the morning on the first day, and I presented my poster at the IMG_9491third and final poster session. We heard speeches from esteemed researchers and leaders in the field, and watched an IMG_9500evolution-themed film festival! Meanwhile, Jason (who bought a rod from a friendly, portuguese-speaking tackle store owner) experimented with different rigs and baits fishing from the beach.

All in all it was a fantastic trip, and I will forever have fond memories of my first scientific conference (as well as Jason and my  first international flight together!).

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Spring Break, Lizard Style

In my experience, the best trips are spontaneous ones.

Last week I made several frantic calls and emails to rearrange my schedule for another trip to Ord Mountain. The weather looked promising (even though it would be 90+ degrees F), and I would get to drive >:} The old suburban may not look like much, and it may rattle like a tin can… but it is a beast and it can go anywhere! IMG_8772

A little ways down the dirt road, one of our vehicles (NOT the suburban) popped a tire. Dr. Archie and I worked together to load the suburban and make multiple trips to the campsite with all of the students. From there, he drove back to town to repair the flat. I supervised the setup of camp, and the studentsIMG_8892 and I even squeezed in a little excursion to a cool (literally) cave after we caught some Uta stansburiana (side-blotched lizards, upper thumbnail) and Sceloporus magister (a close cousin of Archie’s target species, S. occidentalis, lower thumbnail) in the canyons nearby.

IMG_8788After a delicious camp dinner we slept under a sky full of stars. The next morning we caravanned up the mountain and caught one lizard after another all morning! We caught more crotophytus (collared lizards) over this weekend than on all of last year’s trips combined. This is especially lucky for me, because the femoral pores on crotophytus are much easier to see than those on sceloporus (remember I’m studying asymmetry!)

Check out these photos for comparison:

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S. occidentalis with femoral pores visible just above the orange coloration on the back of the thigh.

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C. bicinctores with much more distinct femoral pores.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The easier the pores are to count, the lower my measurement error is likely to be. This trip brought my sample size of occidentalis up to 26 and crotophytus to 15. I have my fingers crossed for more fruitful trips in the near future.

In addition to our target species, we also saw Sauromalus ater (chuckwallas), Aspidoscelis tigris (whiptailed lizards), and even aIMG_8819 rosy boa (Lichanura trivirgata)!!! It is, according to Archie, extremely early in the season to be seeing such numbers and such diversity on the site. Much of the vegetation was in bloom, and the insects were out in full force due to the unseasonably warm and sunny weather. More food has meant more surviving recruits and several pregnant females already!

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C. draconoides

After a day of collecting from both the top and bottom sites, Archie led us down another rocky road (more four wheelin’!) to a canyon where we have seen several lowland species. There, we got to see a zebra-tailed lizard (Callisaurus draconoides), and one of the students spotted a young crotalus (rattlesnake, species unknown) under a rock. It did not buzz at us in spite of being in strike position… so I want to pass on the lesson- watch where you step, they do not always give warning!

IMG_8799On our way home, our trouble vehicle had yet another blowout. Now experienced, Archie and his group of students changed the tire on the road. I had strict instructions to take the rest back to camp and get dinner started, so that is exactly what we did! The others returned safely and we enjoyed another good meal before bed. The next morning brought more collecting and then packing for the long drive home. As hectic as the preparation and actual fieldwork may be, I am always a little sad driving down the I-15 with a carload of sleeping students. I hope we go back again soon.

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The Nest

Last fall Jason and I were blessed with the chance to escape our tiny urban apartment. IMG_8478As it worked out, we are now living in a house in southern California’s inland empire- a more conservative, rural area where we have privacy, space, and a community that considers pet ownership a normal part of life, rather than an eccentricity. In fact, we had to expand our family just to fit in! We are caring for four horses on our property, along with a small flock of chickens. Indoors, Jilly and the menagerie have been joined by a ginger cat named Tommy. Jilly and Tommy have become very close- they play together and groom each other regularly.

IMG_8631I am still collecting furniture and nicknacks to fill our new home- we did not have much to bring with us from the apartment. In addition, I have learned several new house-wifey skills: canning, gardening, and wine-collecting included. And, long overdue, my artsy side has been nagging at me. Which has helped with the decorating… but I have been pretty distracted by miscellaneous craft projects. It has been a beautiful, consuming adventure. Filling, decorating, adjusting- it is comforting. I guess this is what it feelsIMG_8649 like to settle down. But I never wanted to settle down. There are still so many adventures to be had!

This winter has been taken up by this transition. With more room than we have ever had, we have not felt the pull of far off spaces and the need to give Jilly a chance to stretch her legs- she has chicken to chase, after all. But as spring approaches, unfinished work is returning to the front of my mind. This semester has gotten to a slow start, but I think we ready to pick up where we left off. I am grateful for this period of self-indulgence. Time to get back to work!

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Golden Road Trip

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The famous tufa towers of Mono Lake

Of all of the species that I am collecting for my thesis project, only one requires a drive of more than two hours. Jason and I had not taken a road trip since our honeymoon, so we were long overdue for such an adventure. Plus, this would be Jilly’s first road trip with us!

I have collected fish from our local coast, lizards from our local deserts, and have examined birds and mammal specimens from museums here in Los Angeles County. Last on my list? An insect species. While writing my thesis proposal, I had settled on the Mono Lake Alkali fly to represent arthropods in my research on asymmetry. They are large enough to count easily by hand, they have two wings (the easier to measure your symmetry, my dear), and they are abundant during the warm season around Mono Lake in Mono County, about six hours north of home. As it was nearing the end of Sepetmber, time was running out to make a collection!

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Mission accomplished!

We packed the car and headed out on friday (later then we intended….as usual). When we got to Bishop it was getting dark, and we scrambled to find a motel room. Jilly took up most of the bed all night, which was funny because she never sleeps on the bed at home (homesick maybe?). The next morning we grabbed some breakfast and headed north. Mono Lake was vast and still in the chilly pre-autumn air. When we walked down to the bank I was relieved to see some life on the clay… the alkali flies were still there! Although they were not in the noisy, black-cloud swarms that make them famous and despised during June and July, I considered myself lucky that there were enough to catch in a net. We enjoyed the scenery briefly, because we had side trips planned for the way home…

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Jilly watches Jason fish Lake Mary

On the way back down the 395, we pulled off wherever there was a lake and fished for trout. Jilly explored the water’s edge while we took in the crisp fresh air and beautiful golden leaves of the aspens. We stopped at Twin Lakes, Lake Mary, Horseshoe Lake, and finally, Convict Lake. The hike around Convict lake was incredibly beautiful- I can’t wait to go back, hopefully before all of the fall colors disappear. The trout were elusive, but now that it’s colder we may have a better shot. Jason is a purist who refuses to fish with power bait or live bait… I think it makes him a more honest fisherman, but it’s hard for me to watch his frustration. He never gives in- and when we go back and he lands a keeper, we will know he won fair and square ;)

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Horseshoe Lake: volcanic carbon dioxide in the soil create a dead zone around the lake where trees cannot survive… spooky…

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Jilly and I go out on a limb (Convict Lake)

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Lake Mary

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Convict Lake

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Jason and I overlooking Twin Lakes

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The magical trail around Convict Lake

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Our golden child ;)

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Selfie!

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Baja and Back

Well, another summer break come and gone. At least that’s what I was starting to think a couple of weeks ago. That was before I got the call. My mom mentioned it almost casually:

“So… what would you think about going to Cabo for Labor Day?”

My Aunt Robin and her boyfriend Sonny had invited Jason and I on a trip of a lifetime! We were going to fish out of Cabo San Lucas!! We cleared our schedules, packed the gopro (finally a chance to use it! Shout out to Erica and Nat for the excellent wedding present!), and counted down the hours…

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Jason with his lifer sailfish! Historic moment! We released it unharmed.

My husband Jason has always been obsessed with fishing. This makes him an excellent field assistant while collecting fish and downright delightful company on a tropical big-game fishing expedition!! Although there were working deckhands on board, Jason was involved with sighting schools, rigging lines, handling bait, and cleaning and packing the fish. My folks and I had such a good time just watching him live his dream. When he pulled in his first billfish (a sailfish!) early on, he had the biggest smile I have ever seen on his face. We also caught dorado, yellowfin tuna, and bonito.

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My lifer sailfish! We released it unharmed.

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Jason and my mom with the yellowfin tuna they co-caught ;)

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My dad with the yellowfin tuna that almost kicked his ass ;)

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Hatchling Rooster Fish or…?

After battling big game, we spent the evenings hanging out on the boat in the marina. Jason and I sat on the swimstep and watched the exotic fish species that were drawn to the lights of the boat. The first night, Jason caught a puffer fish with his hands. A little while later, we had another very unexpected visitor: a tiny hatchling that at first we could not identify. We cannot be certain at this point, but we are pretty sure that it is a very young rooster fish!! What do you think? (click on the picture to enlarge it)

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Jason fishing from the dingy. We barely got him to come back with the promise of a tuna steak dinner…

For one of the nights, we traveled up the Baja Peninsula and anchored up just offshore in a deserted bay. Jason spent the evening in the dingy fishing for Pacific Jack Crevalle, of which he caught several. Suddenly, while Jason cast from the stern (he had just come back from the dingy), a large (~24 in) silver fish shot out of the water, past Jason’s head, and into the boat! It hit my mom in the leg!! Luckily she was okay, and even managed to hold on to the tuna steaks she was bringing out to the grill. Later we concluded that it was a milkfish that was chasing the glint off Jason’s lure from beneath the surface of the water. Being so far from civilization, we were lucky no one was seriously hurt.

We never wanted to leave, but with a new semester on the horizon and Jason’s work calling, we finally headed home with our share of tuna steaks.  Thank you Aunt Robin and Sonny, we will never forget this amazing adventure!!

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Work and Play

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”

– Confucious

This summer my goal is to collect at least half (30 out of 60) of the data I need from living populations of lizards and fish.

So far I have 13 lizards caught and measured.

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Fishing got frustrating when expanses of kelp covered the surface as it was carried along the beach by the riptide.

As of yesterday, I now have measurements for 16 Barred Surfperch Amphistichus argenteus!!

We had gone fishing a week ago, but the wind was up and the surf was downright dangerous (tragically, a lifeguard drowned in neighboring Newport Beach that day). After fishing for a couple of hours, we had only caught two fish…. and LOTS of kelp.

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Jason adjusts his bait before casting for the next fish.

In contrast, yesterday was a beautiful day at Huntington Dog Beach (chosen not only for its aquatic life but so that our dog Jilly can join us). Blue skies and the water was a tropical blue-green and crystal clear. We actually watched a school of Corbina feeding in the shallow surf! We set up our gear and as soon as the bait hit the water we were bit. Fish on!!

 

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This specimen holds his breath momentarily while Jason counts his stripes!

 

Each fish that was caught was quickly removed from the hook and placed in a bucket of saltwater. Then Jason and I took turns counting the number of stripes (or bars) on each side of each fish (no peeking at each other’s results!). The fish was marked with a fin clip (a small notch on the caudal, or tail fin) to ensure that we never measured the same fish twice… then the fish was released, unharmed, to continue its life. There were no more than two fish in the bucket at any time to eliminate confusion (for us) and stress (for the animals).

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“Please do not distract me. I am working!”

Jilly was a perfect field companion, relaxing near the gear, investigating everyone that came near and occasionally braving the surf to observe our progress.

Here is hoping for a few more days of perfect weather and surf to complete my dataset for fish this summer. We are planning a trip to Mono Lake for next month to collect a sample from an entirely different species… black flies!

Until then, we will just have to fish!

 

Walking in a Lizard Wonderland

Summer is slipping by fast. It was time to get some more fishing practice with Dr. Archie.

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He was planning an overnighter to Ord Mountain July 1-2. I packed my bag and went to work Tuesday morning, ready to leave straight from campus. We (Archie, Justin the undergrad, and I) left late thanks to the World Cup (the buildings were eerily silent as everyone was packed into the Nugget, our campus bar and grill, for the game). When we finally got on the road there was traffic and we didn’t make it to the mountain until dusk. We decided to sleep at the top grid because the weather was warm and the wind was down. On our way to the top we disturbed a small herd of bighorn sheep (this is near Barstow, CA!!). We watched them clear the ridge before continuing to the top, where we pitched our tents and started a small campfire. We chatted and looked at the stars before calling it a night.

IMG_7104The next morning we rose with the sun (well, the guys did… I rose when I smelled the coffee) and broke camp. Then we broke out the crappie rods and went lizard fishing!It was an excellent day for the lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis). They were up early… and they were ALL up, it seemed. Most of them were previously marked, which means that the population has been very thoroughly sampled. The two or three that were not marked served as good practice for Justin. We also saw several collared lizards (Crotaphytus bicinctores), and I caught my first one. Add it to the life list!

S. occidentalis is important to my thesis project because it is the species that I am using to represent all reptiles in terms of evolvability. To assess evolvability I am measuring fluctuating asymmetry (random differences between the right and left sides). The trait that I am measuring on the lizards is called the femoral pores (femoral as in femur as in upper leg). These pores appear on the backs of the thighs of both male and female lizards, and can be counted by hand.

2376128401_e1e531d54e_mI didn’t count femoral pores this time because Jason (my dear husband and field assistant!) could not make it on this trip. It’s ok, because we didn’t have to catch most of the lizards we saw (the marking from previous captures is visible from a distance and identifies the animal). I wouldn’t have gotten much data anyway, and I got some good spotting practice on the grid. It always makes me happy to help out Dr. Archie as well.

Next time Jason and I will start collecting data (our practice runs from the past have been promising in terms of asymmetry findings and measurement error between the two of us). Then I will be on my way towards unique scientific findings… and my degree :)IMG_7111

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Rome, Oregon

Owyhee River Sunset


He had been bugging me about it all semester: “Ashley, are you coming to Oregon? You really should.”

Finally, the day before he left, my former herpetology professor and current thesis committee member Dr. Jim Archie asked me one last time… but this time he added, “It’s a chance of a lifetime- we’re reintroducing a predator that has been absent for eighty years.”

“Are you camping?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I packed my bags.

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Adding the chuckwalla to my life list!

The next morning we set off for ten days in East Oregon, bookended by near thirteen-hour drives to and from. Half of the trip was through BLM lands in eastern California and northwestern Nevada. We didn’t make it to our destination that day… probably because of all of the side trips we couldn’t help taking! First we stopped at Fossil Falls, a U.S. historic district and geological wonder caused by ancient volcanic and glacier activity. The rocks were pretty cool- but we were after Malosaurus ater: chuckwallas. I am proud to say that I caught my first chuckwalla off of a basalt boulder that day!

When we made it to the small town of Rome, OR  the next morning, lead investigator Dr. Pete Zani was waiting for us. He gave us a tour of the site: the south-facing ridges of a series of canyons created by the Owyhee River. For the next six days we hiked, caught lizards, and recorded data… with a few side excursions in between.

On top of the plateau, facing away from the canyons... sage for days!

On top of the plateau, facing away from the canyons… sage for days!

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Dr.s Archie and Zani inspecting the cliff edge for lizards.

A group of undergraduates arrived a couple of days after we did. The weather was poor for lizard activity that day, and so a contest was born: whoever could catch a fish out of the river first would not have to help make dinner OR clean up. Hooks were whittled from wood, bone, and pop tabs without success. IMG_6743Finally I found a piece of wire which, along with my lizard catch pole, a cork, some spectra I found in the truck, and a piece of chicken, completed my makeshift setup. The others had long given up on the contest when I set out for the perfect fishing hole. Alone on a distant bank of the river, I cast my gear into the water. Minutets later, the bobber vanished!! After a brief pause (in disbelief), I pulled a large channel catfish out onto the bank next to me. I took plenty of selfies as proof- but even then the rest of the group hardly believed it! I released the fish and enjoyed my chore-less evening. Although we tried, the feat could not be repeated!

By the end of our stay in Rome, our herp sightings included:

Sceloporus occidentalis (the western fence lizard or “bluebelly” as I grew up calling them).

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Uta stansburiana (the side-blotched lizard).

Aspidoscelis tigris (western whiptail lizard, not pictured because they are too damn fast!).

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Masticophis lateralis (california whipsnake).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pituophis catenifer (pacific gopher snake… we saw so many, we didn’t think to take a picture!).

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Crotalus oreganus (pacific rattlesnake).

Dr. Archie was right. It was a trip that I will remember- especially because I gained experience assisting in professional field research, and potentially historic research, at that! I have always liked reptiles, but not with the fascination I have for mammals. This trip made me realize that I could be herpetologist.

A young golden eagle chick awaits mom's return...

A young golden eagle chick awaits mom’s return…

Not just for the animals, which are exciting to watch, fun to catch, and so admirable in their array of color and form- but for the pace and conditions of the research. The lizards like to live in places and climates that I enjoy visiting, and it feels as though a surprise is just around every corner. For instance, as we approached the ridge of one of the canyons, we observed a large golden eagle fly off ahead of us. Peering over the edge of the cliff, we saw a large nest with a young chick in it! It’s things like that which turn a great trip into a magical one.

Hopefully we will be able to go back next year to help with the next phase of Dr. Zani’s project. Until then, I have data of my own to collect closer to home!!

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home.

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Dr. Archie snagging an “occi” off of a rock in Leslie Gulch (one of our day trip destinations).

Fossil Falls

Fossil Falls

The Owyhee River and some of her handiwork

The Owyhee River and some of her handiwork.

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Wildflowers in Leslie Gulch.

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All you need!

 

 

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Evolvability

I don’t know about you, but I like to celebrate graduating from college with a good old fashioned DEVO concert! (Devolution is real!)

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Science is better with a little bit of art.

I love learning. I love school. So when I walked on the stage to accept my diploma last spring, I already had a plan to stay.

I decided to continue as a graduate student at the suggestion of my now-P.I. Dr. Ashley Carter. Dr. Carter is an evolutionary biologist whose main focus is on evolvability, or the capacity of organisms to evolve. Most of the students in his lab use the model organism Drosophila melanogaster (fruit flies) to study different aspects of evolvability. For my master’s thesis, I will be doing something a little different.

Evolvability depends on many different things including genetics, environment, selection pressures, etc. My project is exploring a way that different types of animals can have different levels of evolvability: namely, developmental imprecision. Some types of animals may be better at developing from embryo to adult- in other words, they are more developmentally precise. So when natural selection is picking off individuals that are not “fit” (remember, survival of the fittest!), developmental precision is very important. Interestingly, there is evidence that some animals are evolving more precise development than others! Dr. Carter co-authored the publication On adaptive accuracy and precision in natural populations (The American Naturalist, 2006) which includes this evidence and details if you are interested in digging a little deeper yourself!

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The beautiful sight of my gear packed and ready!! …apparently I am a fan of the color green…

To estimate developmental imprecision, I am measuring asymmetry (the difference between the right and left sides) in different types of animals. Theoretically, the more asymmetry I find in a population, the more developmental imprecision there is in those animals. I will be measuring asymmetry in samples from populations of fish, reptiles, birds, mammals, and insects… which promises to take me to many interesting places to hike, camp, fish, explore and LEARN over the next three years.

Follow me here and on instagram (@thewildersmiths) where I am documenting my adventure!