Trial by fire

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My apologies for how long it has taken me to update the blog. The last few weeks have been a little eventful and I’ve struggled with how to best present what has happened in the past few weeks. When we read published articles, often is absent the amount of tireless effort, sweat, and hardship that went into science. Our scientific field is just as much failure, if not more, than success. And I have since decided that it is important to share that angle of research. Because we all, as scientists, go through ups and downs both in our personal and academic lives. What is important is that can move past it and salvage what we can. So, from the beginning since the last update:

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Since April, we’ve had ~150 captures (a few repeats mixed in there), 111 behavioural assays done (since the last update) for experiment one, 30+ implants out for experiment two, and a cage built to pilot year three. On paper, these details point to a good year. And indeed, the efforts of Doka, Ian, and I have laid the foundation for potentially two really exciting articles to come out of this season.

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Our fairywren army was deployed this past month to complete half of my behavioural experiment. The goal here was to explore the adaptive significance of divergent female coloration. To do this, female mounts were coupled with a female song (rather than a duet as had been used in the past) in order to determine how males and females independently and jointly respond. More often then not, what we found was high coordination by males and females in response to treatment. Oddly enough, however, when we were over halfway done, males started to display some signs of courtship to our treatments. During these rare occurrences, males would either puff up their shoulders to show up their ornaments or carry flowers towards our paper birds. Some male went the sneaky route during this time. Others carried a petal and sang while seated right next to their mate. Ah, fairywren love.

This experiment did not go without it’s hiccups though. Halfway through the repeated assays (around when each bird had 3 or so repeated trials), a series of fires started to be set off in Garuahi village. It had, until that point, been two weeks without rain and the winds felt like they were near tropical storm strength. This isn’t unique to Garuahi though – all throughout Milne Bay Province, people (mostly young men in their 20s) set fires during these times. No one really knows why – perhaps they’re bored? These fires initially stress me out due to the fact that it undoubtedly influences fairywren behaviour. However, I can comfort in the fact that my grasslands will remain grasslands due to the numerous fires. So ultimately, these fires had minimal impact on our study and were only a brief, momentary stressor. But they say things occur in thirds – and I still got two more in me.

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When the grass is taller than you are, but you still have behaviours to observe.

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With the completion of the Milne Bay half of this experiment, team PNG headed back to Porotona Village to have a few days rest before continuing on with experiment two. Well, rest is potentially slightly misleading – I have been (along with Jordan Boersma) attempting to get Doka a passport and a visa for the entire time that I’ve been in PNG this past year in order to visit my colleagues working with the red-backed fairywren (Blog found here; https://redbackedwren.wordpress.com/), the sister species to our white-shouldered. Doka has been an integral part of my field research as well as Jordan and Erik, and as such, it was important to me to facilitate his opportunity to experience a brand new world outside of PNG. Even if it is, unfortunately, in the middle of my field season. Anyway, he was set to fly out six days after arriving in Porotona. This was the primary reason we had gone back to the home village. Unfortunately, the day I arrived back in Porotona, I got an email stated that he was declined a visa. A major let down to be sure throwing a wrench in all of our plans (Don’t worry though, I’ve since replied and had his Visa approved). In the meantime, We (well, mostly Doka and Ian) built a cage to pilot the next field season. During this time, we experienced PNG in true fashion with a cell phone being taken by a small child. But luckily, we recovered it the next with help of Ian’s father tracking its position from the US. A close call to be sure.

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Back in Garuahi. With Doka – his flight for Australia booked in one weeks time. The entire field site smells of smoke. But now our goal is to catch birds and implant them with a drug that should influence the expression of their white ornament. Above is a pilot female – her left scapular has bronze-tipped, ‘dirty feathers’ that inspired this research. This color expression is typical in juveniles, but nearly all adults have pure white scapulars. Early results done so far this year point to an experimental inhibition of a proper molt in an adult female, but I only have these results for two females. We’re here in Garuahi to implant 8 more males and females and see if these results hold true.

This is the part that I’ve struggled with (1) if I should publicly share and, if so, (2) how to do it. Things were going well – we had 2 more pairs of birds to implant before taking a bit of time to let the implant do it’s thing as well as try out our cage. Unfortunately, that night, a group of six individuals cut the wire to the fence leading to our house, hopped over it, and caught us off guard by shining a torch in our backs. I’ll save the details, because it’s really not worth rehashing, but you can use your imagination for how things went down. In any case, most things were stolen, including nearly all of our most important field equipment as well as Doka’s passport. Why am I sharing these details? I suppose it’s different from earlier blog post. Well, to me, it’s because this is PNG. It is an ever-pressing concern here, but it could happen anywhere. But I’d like to be clear – PNG is hard but I love this country just as much today as I did two weeks ago. Everything, from the scenery to the birds to the plant life to the support from villagers throughout this difficult moment highlight it every day.

Everyone is safe. This is most important, and I want to stress that no physical harm was inflicted. The stress of the situation nearly had me call it quits for the entire season, though. But in the hours after the event, I had quite a lot of time to reflect without a phone or anything to get second opinions. But ultimately, I’m writing this from Port Moresby and I fly back to Alotau tomorrow. So, there is your answer. This ordeal, about 10 days ago now, is a massive setback. Setbacks are expected though, but they often prompt us to reassess whether or not the goal is worth achieving anymore. But science, as I opened up with, is full of setbacks. The challenge is getting back on tract after something beyond your control brings you down. And on that note, I will travel back to Milne Bay tomorrow, Garuahi the day after and I will spend two days to recover my implants, and more importantly, feathers for gene expression data. Because I’m stubborn, as a dear friend likes to remind me. But fret not, I have recruited a small army of people who I trust to help us and to watch over the field site for the two days we are there.

Oh, and the reason I’m in Port Moresby is because I’ve just come back from Australia – I went there for four days to repurchase field equipment. Fully stocked and good to go, Ian and I will complete this second experiment before we pack up and head to Western Province to conduct the Western Province half of experiment one. As for Doka, he’s flying to Port Moresby tomorrow. And Australia on Thursday. I’m excited for him because, baring anything else going wrong, our Papuan friend will experience a world that he’s only seen in movies and magazines. I only wish I were there with him to experience it. But he will be with my red-backed fairywren colleagues and in good hands.

On a final note, my apologies for not having more photos to share. Since the incident, I haven’t taken a single photo. But here are a few to hold us over.

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John

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Author: John Anthony Jones

Fairywren researcher, extraordinaire(ish)

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