Greetings from Arizona!

Hello again!  I’m sorry for the long delay of this post; I’ve been in Arizona for two and half weeks now and haven’t updated!  This is because a) I’ve been keeping extremely busy, almost entirely outdoors, and b) the internet here is just AWFUL.  It’s a chore to do anything with it, seriously.  But I’m having an AMAZING time! I figured I’d cover all the basics concerning my trip for family, friends, and any other interested readers right off the bat, and I’ll be sure to post more details later.  Without further ado…

1)  Where I am.

I’m conducting my work at the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS, which we pronounce “swers”), which is an extension of the American Museum of Natural History.  The station is located several miles outside of the tiny town of Portal, AZ at 5,400 feet in the Chiricahua Mountains.  Contrary to everyone’s convictions, I am NOT in the desert!  Portal’s biotic community (known here as “the flats”) is considered semidesert grassland, but here it is Madrean evergreen forest, meaning lots and lots of green trees and shrubs that are absolutely beautiful.  It is, however, very hot and very dry – the monsoon season will come in July.  Daytime temperatures range from about 85 – 105 degrees, and it can get down to the 40’s at night.

The station and the mountain backdrop.

Driving up to the station grounds!

There are three main groups of people here at the station:  researchers, volunteers, and classes, the latter being college or high school classes that come here for about a week as part of their curriculum.  There are also some campers and hunters that are in the area, but they aren’t at the station.  Overall, human population levels are quite low.  To put some things in perspective: we’re about a 3 hour drive from Tucson, 1.5 hours away from the nearest hospital, and about an hour away from any cell phone reception.

2)  Why I’m here.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m here for summer research.  I wrote a grant proposal for my project and it was accepted by the school, who offered me a generous grant and stipend.  I’m working under my mentor, Stacey Weiss, a biology professor at UPS.  She teaches Ecology (she was actually my prof) and Animal Behavior, and her major field of study is, well, behavioral ecology.  She’s been coming to this station for over 20 years and thus really knows all the people and her way around, which is great for her students 🙂

As for why I chose to do this, there are several reasons.  The number one is simply because I love biology and know I want to go into research for my career, so the earlier I start the better.  This is also the single best thing I can do to prepare for grad school, which is definitely in my future.  Plus, I was really interested in Stacey’s projects and extremely excited to go someplace completely new and have a chance to explore nature.  I’m here with two other UPS students doing research, Tony and Jay, rising seniors who are both awesome.  I’ll most likely reference them in future posts.

A male virgatus, paint coded as part of our census work.

3)  What I’m doing.

The broad area of research I’m doing falls into two main fields: behavioral ecology and chemical ecology.  Wikipedia, the handiest of resources, defines behavioral ecology as “the study of the ecological and evolutionary basis for animal behavior, and the roles of behavior in enabling an animal to adapt to its environment”, and chemical ecology as “the study of the chemicals involved in the interactions of living organisms.”  Reptiles are particularly relevant for study in chemical ecology because they utilize chemical cues in so many facets of their lives, everything from feeding to defense to mating.  Stacey’s study organism is Sceloporus virgatus, aka the striped plateau lizard, so this is the lizard that I’m researching as well.  Put broadly, I’m looking at how this species utilizes chemical cues in their communication with each other.  More specifically, I’m determining whether the skin lipids (a specific type of chemical cue) are used in a mating context, as well as attempting to determine the type of information they contain.

4)  My typical day.

I’ll be honest, it was a rough adjustment.  I went from spending 8 hours on my butt in the library to 8 hours on my feet in the field every day.  Stacey works us (and herself, I might add) hard while we’re here; we don’t get days off, ever, unless for injury/sickness or if the research unexpectedly leaves us some free time.  And, if we  want to eat, we don’t get to sleep in, either.  Meals are served three times a day, and the kitchen is only open during that time.  The great news, though?  The food is delicious. Here’s a typical day for me:

7:30 am – breakfast is served
9:00 am – arrive at the field site, a couple of miles from the station
Noon – take a break from work for lunch (at the station, this is when lunch is served, but we’re typically gone all day, so we bring sack lunches)
5:30 pm – leave field site
6:00 pm – dinner is served
7:00 pm – shower (I look forward to this all day – we get absolutely filthy in the field)
7:30 pm onwards – data entry

There are other things going on after dinner too, whether it’s a formal presentation by the researchers here, or a friendly game of horseshoes between the labs (I’m not joking).  We also watch movies, play board games, go on hikes, or just hang out together over a couple drinks (for those over 21 of course).  And when I say we, I mean the community here – we’re kind of like a big family.

By 10:30 pm, I’m usually exhausted, and crash in bed to start all over again.

Overall – it’s been wonderful, one of the best times of my life.  I’ll post more details later, but for now, you all finally know the basis of what I’ve been up to.  ‘Til next time!

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