Giving thanks… and gifts even when you don’t feel like it.

It’s been a year since I posted this. It still is pertinent. Don’t get “outrage fatigue” quite yet. There are still a lot of good people doing good work for conservation at your state level, the national level, and for the globe. You can be one of them. Happy Thanksgiving everybody in the States and just have a wonderful day if you are elsewhere!


The Secret Life of a Field Biologist

As you are sitting around at home surrounded by family getting ready for the dreaded Thanksgiving Dinner conversation with extended family that may or may not share your world views, and you are thinking “What am I gonna do for holiday gifts?” or maybe not, but I think you should consider the following [toolongdon’twannareadspoilers: buy park passes and donate to conservation advocacy groups, see below for suggestions and links]….

As you are trying to find common ground across the stuffing this Thanksgiving, remember that most of the people sitting there care about the lands, lakes, and woods (or deserts or mountains).  They just may use different language to show their passion about the environment.  That Uncle of yours that voted a way you didn’t like (whether it was Hillary, Trump, or 3rd party; hey but at least he voted) has probably donated more to conservation this year through hunting…

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Unwanted Americans – an invasive immigrant’s tale

Water voles are believed to have lost 90-95% of their historic numbers in the UK.  Although they may seem to be flourishing if you see them, that is only because it is a local group doing well.  These small groups of voles, seemingly doing well one year, can blink out of existence.  Why would a local group disappear even if they have great habitat, with plenty of lush grasses and other vegetation to munch on?  Maybe they just moved out to find an unrelated mate. But there may be another more dire reason for their disappearance.

Enter the Unwanted American: the American mink (Neovision vison).  Imported in the 1930-50’s, these mustelids were farmed for their fur.  “Unwanted” is a slight misnomer for then, but now, now the fur farms have been shuttered and in the decades from their inception, mink escaped and established a population in the wilds.  Mink are super good at what they do, and that happens to be reproducing and hunting.  The mink likes the same type of habitat that water voles like.  This habitat overlap makes for bad neighbors.  The mink slip right into the vole burrows and carry off vole after vole to the waiting teeth of its young.


An American Mink. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)



Mink aren’t the only thing that the vole gets predated by.  Other predators include foxes, birds of prey, and this guy: A stoat! (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Research has shown that water voles are disappearing wherever these mink are cropping up (and they impact important economic species like salmon).  So far the worst hit areas have been the lowland populations in the southern half of the UK, but the mink is moving north.  Right now the Assynt area seems to be free of them, but if a couple of mink wander in the right direction, that may change.  There are currently efforts underway to trap and remove the mink but the best way to do it is to keep them from establishing a presence in the first place.  Monitoring for early “pioneers” is the best way to keep them from creating permanent settlements and drive out the natives (they eat more than just water voles too).

There are several less dramatic, but equally bad-ending reasons for the disappearance of your local water vole group too. Sometimes, when an animal lives in small groups they can have something happen out-of-the-blue that could cause a local extinction.  These could be large storms or fires or other natural disasters that kills or removes the animals homes.  Other times, it can be something more subtle.  What if one year, all the female voles gave birth to only female offspring?  There would be no one to mate with!  The smaller the population, the more likely that something like these freak events could have serious consequences for a population of animals.

Water voles give birth spring to summer in the year in the Scottish Highlands. The young of the year eventually decide to try and leave their natal (birth) patch and try to find a new nice little patch of earth to call home.  They have to travel across terrain that is hard for large animals like Ph.D. students to walk around in.  So if it can’t find a new place to call home quickly (or at least a vole equivalent of a hotel), it may never end up finding a home.  When there are fewer good spots left because humans built a house or put barriers up on streamsides, it can make it hard for a vole with a limited number of options to survive.  It can create a spiral that can lead to large areas going completely extinct.


Although this is a picture of a stream that lost it’s natural banks (courtesy of @mtbogan).  No animal is gonna burrow through those concrete banks.

It’s not all doom and gloom though.  Because of the hard work of many dedicated people, there are many local conservation efforts to reverse habitat and invasive species damage in the UK.  Read more about them here:

And more about mink in Scotland in general:

Article from the Scotsman:



So, what is a water vole?


This is:

The water voles (Arvicola amphibius) are a large, semi-aquatic rodent in the UK.  Scottish water voles have a slightly darker coat than their English counterparts, which may be explained by a different genetic background migrating to the UK from different parts of Europe at different times.  They are fairly short lived little animals that generally don’t live more than 2 years and a fully grown adult can be anywhere from about 170g to 300g. They are also been known as a “water dog” and you may be most familiar with water voles from the book, The Wind in the Willows.  Ratty was actually a water vole.

But Where does it live?

The live all over the UK and across much of Europe.  In the UK they are found near slow moving water in canals, streams, creeks (known as “burns” around here in Scotland), and ditches.  But they really like to have nice tall and grassy vegetation to eat and soft soil banks that they can burrow into. Imagine something like this ->


A Scottish “burn” with nice vegetation for water voles stream-side, yet surrounded by heather, nasty habitat for these little guys.

In the highlands of Scotland, these places are often fragmented into discrete little patches.  These nice little homes can be separated by miles by harsh unlivable habitat (although gorgeous, see below) for these animals.


The hills near Loch Muick in Balmoral. Hidden thoughout this big landscape are little pockets of good habitat, fragmented by other types of vegetation.

But there is a problem.  In the last several decades, the number of water voles have declined dramatically in the UK, some estimates have put it at 90% reduction from historic numbers.  In much of the lowlands where the biggest colonies existed in large habitat areas, human development has removed much of the available habitat and fragmented those remaining populations too much.  They have also been hit really hard by an invasive predator (more on that in a later post), adding to the troubles for them.

Why does it matter?

Beyond the inherent right to exist without worry of being pushed to extinction by our activities, voles can be important ecosystem engineers, by doing things like aerating soil with their burrows.

Another point is best summed up by a conversation with a “hill walker” (aka hiker) while I was returning from my first series of surveying for these majestic wee-beasties.  He asked me what I was about and I explained why I was out there, surveying for voles.  He replied, “Oh how are they doing, always seems like they are always getting eaten?”  This is a keen insight, as rodents often are a cornerstone of foodstuffs for other animals.  Water voles are prey for weasels, stoats, golden eagles, owls, herons, foxes, pike, and more!  They are important element in the ecosystems they play a part in.

So, I will leave you to mull over that and in my next H2Vole post, I will tell you more about how they have come to be in such a precarious situation in the UK.


For more information on water voles in the UK:

Field Season 2017

Welcome aboard everyone! I hope you enjoy the next 2 months of post here and on Twitter ( handle is @VAN_DLL ). If you are already following, you know I am a field biologist, if you just started following, now you know. I recently​ started a Ph.D. at UMass, and now am heading off again into the wilds to start my latest field season. I hope I can share some of this world’s natural beauty with you and share my sense of wonder if things we encounter along the way.

This year I am heading off to the Scottish Highlands to study the majestic water vole. What is a water vole? I will tell you all about it in the posts to come, but needless to say it is an aquatic rodent. Think muskrat but smaller and cuter. What’s a muskrat? You are on your own there! 

Although they can be a pest in some parts of Europe, the water vole is threatened in the UK.  I will be telling you its story along side the story of the field work too.  

There’s nothing like the field. Which is what I keep telling myself.  As a 6’5″ person made mostly of legs, the upcoming overnight flight to Heathrow is a daunting and tight situation (for my knees at least). I know it’s going to be worth it, the field always is.

See you on the other side of the pond!

Tic-Tac-UXO or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Today is a cross post from Dispatches From The Field! I am guest posting today and if you like this post, check out stories from other field researchers from across the world on their blog!  It’s a great site! Thanks for letting me contribute.

Dispatches from the Field

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome guest poster Joseph Drake, a PhD student from the University of Massachusetts, who tells a nerve-wracking story about his time doing fieldwork on a military base in the Sonoran Desert.

I brought the truck to a gravelly sliding stop.  A wave of dust washed past the truck and filled our open windows with fine sediment.  When the dust and coughing settled, I got out of the truck, stepped gingerly on the 2-track “road” the military had bladed through this section of desert and looked at what lay before me. Tanks to the left of me, bombs to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you. Wait, that’s not how the song goes. But it does do a fairly good job of describing our precarious situation.

Tanks to the left…

…and bombs to the right.

Some background: I…

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Writing From the Trenches: My Writing Journey… So Far

I recently guest posted on Scientist Sees Squirrel, a great ecology blog run by Dr. Stephen B. Heard.  So far it was has been a two part roller-coaster-type of affair (as far as science writing can be a roller-coaster-type of affair). Below are the links for both posts on Scientist sees squirrel followed by a snippet of both posts.  Check them out and check out Stephen’s blog, it’s great!

Part 1

“This is a guest post by Joe Drake, a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Joe’s own blog is The Secret Life of a Field Biologist, and you can email him at

Part I:  In Which Our Hero Enters the Wilderness

Do you know what was one of the most stupid things I ever said I could do? Start and then finish an NSF proposal over the course of a winter break.  My advisor and I sat down the day before leaving and hammered out a wonderful conceptual model for our project and eventual proposal.  We created Google docs to work from.  We were excited. We had a great idea. I said that I’d have a draft in two weeks.  I was an idiot.

This isn’t the story of long-ago writing lessons.  This isn’t the story of how I learned to write.  This is the story of a couple of weeks ago and today.  This is the story of how I’m learning to write.  It’s a story full of failures.  Some have already happened; many are yet to happen.  Many readers may have already learned from their own versions of these, or maybe like me, they have just begun to encounter such challenges.  Maybe my mistakes can help you along your writer’s journey*.”

Continue here:

Part 2

(Continued) From the trenches: How I’m learning to write (guest post)

Image:The PhD monomyth.  Compare with the monomyth narrative structure, the Hero’s Journey (’s_journey).   Adaptation by J. Drake.

This is Part II of a guest post by Joe Drake, a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Part I is here.  Joe’s own blog is The Secret Life of a Field Biologist, and you can email him at


Part II:  In which our hero returns…. “enlightened”?

Our story up to now: I am a student learning how to write (and to do science, which involves a batch of writing).  I haven’t been very good at it, and I’m still not that great, but through valiantly misguided (misguidedly valiant?) efforts, I’m here telling you how I’ve started to get better.  Perhaps this will help you too (for more details see part 1).

As a new grad student, I had just traded the world I had learned to know (as field biologist) for a brand new unknown.  I landed myself in the middle of nowhere: Lubbock, Texas.  Far from the areas I had done research.  Far from anything but dust storms, cotton fields, and BBQ (hey, it wasn’t all bad).

I had a very constructive and supportive environment in the Dr. Griffis-Kyle Lab, and thus a soft landing into this unknown.  My lab held writing group meetings and helped me develop good writing habitats alongside people willing to support them. They offered a helpful critique to enhance a well-executed bit or a hand when I fell flat on my face in failure.

My blog continued in bursts and fits and spurts. I tried (and still try, for that matter) to post regularly. I got into science outreach and communication and that lead me to try writing for even wider audiences.  Then I got to participate in different types of seminars that pushed my comfort zones and let me explore the literary side of ecological writing.  I got to present at the Sowell Conference and meet Barry Lopez and other great writers.  I started delving into authors like David Quammen, Rick Bass, Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, Stephen Jay Gould, and Charles Bowden.  I was inspired and educated more deeply than I could have thought.”

Finish reading here:

Thanks everyone and enjoy!

Books you should read before you ever pick up a SciComm book.

SciComm is huge right now.  Some people might even say tremendous.

[Sorry, inappropes, I know.]

There is a wealth of knowledge beginning to be produced and absorbed and applied about science communication.  And the discussion that all of this is producing is truly a forward and positive direction for science practitioners.  But, there’s a problem in the way many of my peers, other students, I have encountered are approaching it.  They approach science communication like it’s a science.  But it’s not*.  I argue, especially after attending an interactive seminar on science communication by Dr. Tim Miller of, that by in large, science communication is an art (Art? GASP!).

We are trying to launch into it with methods and it just doesn’t do it justice. We need to know more of the theory behind it and more specifically, how communication feels. You can’t boil it down to an algorithm and as much as we want, we will never always get it right now matter how hard we try.  Communication is a dialogue that gets people intrigued with what you have to say by making them emotionally invested as well. Sometimes someone just doesn’t care either through apathy or just plain having a bad day. although there are ways to ensure success even in the face of an “mentally escaping audience.”

Dr. Miller pointed out that the most important transactions in our lives are still generally done face-to-face.  And I think this super important.  In light of a social media rant from one of my friends, most people don’t know a scientist, or at least the don’t know they know a scientist.  There is the #actuallivingscientist tag, but I think that the most effective way for scientists to make people more aware of science is through face-to-face contact.  In the street, in the bar, at the grocery store, at a panel event, wherever.  We should still do all those other things like blog posts and social media, and articles and interviews, but face-time is still the  .

Full disclosure, before I ended up in the trajectory I am in now, I was heavily involved in the theatre and got a dual degree in both Anthropology and Biology.  The theatre and anthro really helped me gain an appreciation for narrative and the importance of the emotional, random, improvisational, and chaotic nature of effective communication. There are some books I read before I ever picked up a science communication book. The lessons gleaned from these helped me understand and retain the lessons I am relearning for my newest journey.  Even if you have read every scicomm book there is, there is still reason to read these too.  It’ll only help you get better.

Here is a list of some of my favorite books on communication:

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
    • My Dad, was a mechanic for the Air Force. But once he returned from Vietnam, basically decided to make his own schedule and from that point on has been successfully self-employed.  As I was about to leave for college he told me to read this book, because “No matter where you work or who you work for, you will always be selling YOU.  You must sell you in the interview, sell you in the day to day workplace, and sell you to your bosses, coworkers, and maybe eventually employees.”  Great advice from a great man (although I am a bit biased on that one).  If there is only time to read one book on this list, make it this one.
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
    • Like Star Wars? How about Lord of the Rings? Maybe you like murder mystery instead?  Well the thing they all have in common is the Hero’s Journey.  Campbell was a visionary that described the monomyth and the underlying narrative structure of much of human storytelling.
  • Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer
    • His manual for creative writing is mainly geared for scifi & fantasy, but it is so wonderfully illustrated and informative (with exercises!) that this is a great tool for storytelling.
  • On Writing by Stephen King
    • A more general memoir on the craft of narrative.  It’s kind of a classic.
  • Poetics by Aristotle
    • During the workshop, Tim mentioned that the idea of the realms of science and art being two separate worlds is a recently new phenomenon. But they didn’t necessarily start separated and don’t necessarily need to be now.  Some of the forefathers of science were also the forefathers of art. This is a great example of that notion.

I hope this short list** of texts pull you out of your comfort zone a little.  It will make you a better science writer to have these in the background and as resources. It will also give you some good context when you do start picking up scicomm books.  Remember, it all fits in with the intermediate disturbance hypothesis (ecology nerd joke alert).

* I think, however, that there is actually great benefit to be gained out of this pursuit.  We should study the idea and process scientifically***.  But it isn’t the end all be all approach; it won’t get us all the way there.  It can’t be truly understood through the process of science.  Using a formula to assemble parts that have been derived from studying communication will only get you part of the way.  It may work, but then again, it may fall flat on it’s head if the user can’t read an audience or hasn’t practiced or hasn’t….well you get the picture.

**I would also like to include The Elements of Style, Strunk ; On Writing Well, Zinsser; and Bird by Bird, Lamott, but you have to stop somewhere.

***After you have read the books in this list, I suggest using a great transitional book into science communication by Randy Olson named Houston, We Have a Narrative. Randy actually does wiggle out a fairly simple formula, and after I read this book, I found structuring my stories much easier.

hafoIXK.gifMy work here is done.

(Dis)connected in the desert: New scientific paper published

Hi everyone, just wanted to get the word out that a paper I co-wrote with Dr. Kerry Griffis-Kyle and Dr. Nancy McIntyre has been published in the ESA journal Ecosphere.  I am really excited for this paper to get published, there is a lot of good info in here.  It studies connectivity in the Sonoran Desert focusing on the mule deer and invasive bullfrog as a counterpoint. Some of my experiences and insights from the field and a lot of my Master’s thesis went into this work.

Drake, J. C., K. Griffis-Kyle, and N. E. McIntyre. 2017. Using nested connectivity models to resolve management conflicts of isolated water networks in the Sonoran Desert. Ecosphere 8(1):e01647. 10.1002/ecs2.1652


Field work studying water chemistry of some artificial and natural water sites.

Its main message is that species across a variety of taxa with experience decreasing ability to move across the Sonoran Desert into the future as climate change changes the landscape. Increases in temperature, changes in vegetation, and drastic shifts in precipitation will increase the resistance that landscape will pose to animal movement.  It will be harder for animals to travel in the desert, especially as fewer natural water locations such as seeps, springs, and rain fed waterholes dry up. The last point is crucial as these watery locations often hold a majority of biodiversity in the area and provide literal oases in the desert for local and migrating organisms.  This is a big deal for management.

If you will forgive me the following jargon filled sentences, there are some secondary information that was important to consider too. We used network analysis and least-cost path analyses, and circuit theory to study connectivity of the desert. During the analysis, we discovered that the scale in which the analyses occurred significantly impacted the results of the connectivity analyses (well duh, right? See figure below).  We developed a framework the suggests using structural analyses using network theory to identify areas inside of our full region connectivity analysis which to rerun all of the analyses over again on a more local scale, thus nesting a “local” scale analysis inside of the context of a region wide analysis.  We felt this was a good way to approach the study and an innovative look at the use of connectivity analyses.


From Drake et al 2016.

There are some surprising findings about which areas of the Sonoran Desert in the United States will provide refuge in the future too.  But you’ll just have to read it to find that out.  Check it out here (it’s open access so anyone can read it):

Thanks for checking it out!


Look to art to engage in science…Aka “How does that make you feel?”

I believe in science.  I trust it’s facts, it’s ability to be replicated; it’s ability to be put to the test.

I also believe in art. I trust that it is sometimes unmistakably unknowable.  I know it makes me feel.

If we have learned something from recent world events, it is that the way we feel about a thing sometimes is more important than what we can observe as truth.

My point is science and conservation in this day and age needs to make people feel something.  They have to believe in it.

For example, what do you remember from remember BBC’s Planet Earth or Life documentaries? Do you remember many of the facts from them? ANY of the facts in them? I have watched them a couple times, and what I remember is the feeling the images evoked. The awe, the wonder, the excitement, and yes, even sadness.  Those documentaries were art; they made me feel – and that’s what I remember.

Photos, videos, presentations, popular books, other media, and getting people involved are useful tools that can help spur people to feel about science.  I know I am not writing anything new here.  However, sometimes we forget that our words (as they are interpreted via media outlets) make people feel things.

Much of climate change science suggests scary things: species extinction, economic collapse, disease spread, sea level rise, etc… From different fields associated with biological conservation,  we hear news reports of emerging diseases, biodiversity collapse, and disappearing species we love.  And don’t get me wrong, much of this is scary, with dire implications.  But that can’t be the only conversation we have (with the public), because if it is, no one will want to talk to us.

I understand the scary things make good headlines. But I think that there is good work being done that shows scientific results that make people feel wonder and happiness too.  I don’t expect every scientist to be able to do outreach let alone a BBC documentary, but I feel like there are things we could do that would help on a local scale.  Instead of aspiring to be a Neil deGrasse Tyson of your field and floundering with expectations, actually become the Neil deGrasse Tyson of your lab, department, or community.

Most scientists I have encountered are creative, curious people.  Otherwise they probably wouldn’t have become scientists, those are kinda prerequisites for the job.  I know that in my immediate lab, it contains a woodworker, silversmith, 3 different musicians, a graphic designer, and brewers (don’t judge me for thinking a good beer is art, because it is).

Having been steeped and surrounded in my field for so long, I can no longer remember what it is like to encounter my type of work for the first time.  I don’t know if someone would be engaged, encouraged, discouraged, scared, or what there impression would be.  I do know that I have participated in interdisciplinary art shows that engage audiences to think about the world around in a distinctly scientific mindset. And this was in Lubbock, Texas, so I may state it could be possible anywhere.  After listening to people in the exhibit hall, I heard things like, “I never really thought about that.”, “Oh, that’s pretty.”, “I like that.”  It wasn’t anything fancy, but it did demand that people interpret a rarely acknowledged resource in a new light.  It was instructional to hear people’s feelings about the science-come-art abstractions. It was insight into how they perceived the world around them, specifically the parts of the world I cared about too.

I guess what I want from people is to cross some boundaries (again, nothing new, but come on, when was the last time you did?).  Not just across the university or with another state agency or what not, get into some seriously new territory.  Work with the theatre department to have them teach communication and presentation skills to young scientists.  Reach out to your local art gallery and see if they would host  an installation by scientist/artists in your university.  Use your photography skills to make nature more accessible so that people care more about a local piece of land that protects species and ecological services that they never new existed. Publish a zine about fieldwork or local natural resources conservation issues in conjunction with an undergrad or high school English class and a local bookstore.  Have a second grade class help create a sculpture that can be put in said parcel of land, that also doubles as wildlife habitat (think funky birdhouse installation or whatever you can come up with), or artificial coral reef that they could go and snorkel to and count coral recruitment.  Meet with the local rotary, give a presentation, ask for venues to display work.  Contact local sportmans’ clubs and see if they have any projects that could benefit both parties (river clean up? Use the trash to create that art installation or figure out if they have land you can use for a research project in return).

If we have enough people start  reaching out and engaging locally, whether it is as simple as a social media post of cute wildlife or as complex as involving local NGOs and elementary schools in citizen science and restoration, we can start getting people to feel good about science.  When people start feeling good about science, when what they think about conservation isn’t scary world-ending, species-disappearing headlines, we can get them to care.  Otherwise a lot of people will just though up their hands and walk away.  Even if someone don’t understand a particular topic, we need them to linger, to believe, and to ultimately have trust, like we have, in this adorable monster we call science.


Another adorable monster, look at it!!!!!

P.s. I may be completely wrong.  I often am.  But at least, I think we should try. I think it may just be worthwhile.