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Monster Quest 2016

For the past decade, a group of herpetologists from across the country have gotten together every summer to hunt herps in an event colloquially termed ‘Herp Quest.’ The exact location and quested herp varies from year to year, though generally focusing on rare herps in the desert southwest. For the past several years, Herp Quest has been held in the Kingston Mountains of the Mojave Desert in California in search of a California Gila Monster. Gila monsters are found in northwestern Mexico, Arizona, and southern Nevada, and although their range extends a bit into southeastern California, they are only rarely found there. The difficulty in finding a gila monster is compounded by the fact that they spend the vast majority of their lives in underground burrows, only occasionally coming to the surface to feed and mate. This is perhaps why the group has not yet been successful…


from left: Becky Chong, Bob Thomson, Levi Gray, Brittney White, Amber Wright, Kyle Edwards, Anthony Barley, me, Ian Wang

In addition to hunting monsters, there is also an ongoing research project between Bob Thomson and Amber Wright at UH-Mānoa and Greg Pauly at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. Folks associated with this project are spending ~2 weeks  traversing a handful of sampling locations throughout the Mojave collecting various lizards and surveying lizard populations. Consequently, this year’s Monster Quest was held near Kingston Peak, just north of the Mojave National Preserve, which is the one of the team’s sampling locations.


View from our campsite near Kingston Peak

Monster Quest, then, is a conglomeration of actual scientific research, ‘freestyle monstering’ (which sounds like a mash-up of the Monster Mash and the Thriller dances, but is actually just wandering around looking for gila monsters), general herping (same as ‘monstering’ but just looking for any herp), and campfire camaraderie fueled by bourbon.

We found all sorts of awesome animals. Some of the ones pictured below were formally collected (killed and preserved for current research and long-term museum collections), others were tissue-sampled (a small clip of the tail is taken and preserved), and others were just admired, photographed, and released.

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For me, not being a herpetologist and never having been to a herp quest, there were a lot of new experiences. I’ve done my share of field collecting, but it functions in a fundamentally different way when you’re collecting plants. Most of these animals were caught with a noose (a short loop of string on a telescoping fishing pole), or (for the larger ones) simply grabbed by hand. I am terrible at both of these methods. I hesitate, my hand-eye-coordination is poor, and I feel bad for molesting the animals. Consequently, I relegated myself mostly to photographing 😀

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Becky (left) and Levi (right) coordinate on noose-ing a whiptail

The good news is, I had a fabulous time getting comfortable holding the animals. If you’ve ever worked with live animals, you know there are right ways and wrong ways to hold living things that don’t really want to be held. You want to make sure they are stabilized and safe without injuring them or yourself. You also want to take a cheesing photo with them because they are so cute and adorable.

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I wouldn’t say I was ever afraid of snakes, per se; however, I am definitely not super comfortable around them. And (prior to this trip) I would have said I could never hold a snake without my holding its head so I’m sure to not to be bit. That, however, was before I met the sweetest and most snuggly gopher snake (photos above). I held that snake for over an hour, and she curled up in my arms, laid her head on my shoulder, curled around my neck, and even gave me little snake kisses (which I maintain was not ‘testing my tastiness’ as others suggested :-D). I absolutely fell in love with her and named her Snakey McSlithers. Gopher snakes are not part of the research project, so she fortunately was released back to her home after our snuggles. A couple of the herpers on the trip, Adam Clause and his undergraduate student Ben Thesing, set up some professional shots of many of our animals (complete with lighting set-up and arranged backgrounds – it was impressive), and I plan to get in touch with them to get myself a quality photo of Miss McSlithers.

Don’t worry, we didn’t *only* see herps. Despite its reputation as a desolate wasteland, the desert ecosystem is very much alive. We saw a variety of desert birds, mammals, insects, and plants. The packrats were a bit annoying considering they ate all our tents (not a joke – one ate a hole in a tent and then camped out there until the tent’s owner returned to sleep).  I really wanted a good picture of a jackrabbit. I had a desert ecosystem pop-up book as a little girl, and I loved the page about jackrabbits (yes, I was a nerd even then). Jackrabbits are, however, quite difficult to photograph, unless you prefer your shots blurry and of mostly back legs. Ian also found a tarantula hawk wasp, which are beautiful and super cool – gravid females sting and paralyze a tarantula, then lay an egg on it and bury it in a burrow; the wasp larva then feeds on the (still living) tarantula until it pupates into an adult and burrows out of the spider’s abdomen. Remarkably vicious, considering adult tarantula hawks eat nectar.

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While I was playing with snakes and photographing flora and fauna and having a refreshing Bud Light Lime after freestyle monstering, the actual science was happening. Greg Pauly led the crew to prepare the samples we collected during the day. Prepping involves recording all the data on the animals (species, sex, weight, length, collection location, etc), humanely euthanizing the animal (in the same way the veterinarian does for a pet), surgically removing the liver (for DNA analysis), and injecting formalin to ‘set’ the animal into a hardened pose for long-term curation. The photos below show the collected animals at various stages of this process.

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In addition, Bob, Amber, Greg, and Anthony performed transect surveys of lizard populations. At each of their sampling locations in the Mojave, the group performs three transects. A transect is just a straight line across the landscape along which you take data. Often, this is just counting the numbers of different organisms or species you see. In the photos below, you can see the four align themselves along a particular direction, spread out, and walk some distance (I don’t remember how far), documenting the herps they see along the way. This is the least invasive data collection, and provides population estimates across space and (when repeated every year) through time. Each of the researchers carries a GPS unit while walking the transect – Amber uses these to make really cool color-coded maps of all the transects performed each year.

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On Sunday, we drove back to Las Vegas. The research team will continue on to the other field locations, but the rest of us flew back home for our own jobs 🙂 On the way, we stopped to see a unique rock art installation, called Seven Magic Mountains. Kyle gets full credit for bringing this little bit of culture to Herp Quest.

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You can see the full photo collection of the trip at the Thomson Lap Flickr Stream.

Neucastle Tamalegeddon 2016


Making masa

To celebrate the end of the semester, and Emilie’s successful Master’s defense, the Wright and Thomson Labs (collectively called the Neucastle Lab) got together for the first annual 2016 Tamalegeddon*! I’m assuming this is going to become an annual event because it was delicious and tons of fun.

There are a lot of steps to the tamale-making progress:

1) Find all the ingredients. This is harder than you think in Hawai’i. After some searching, we did find masa at one of the grocery chains, and corn husks at Mercado de la Raza.

2) Make the filling. Bob braised some pork shoulder for carnitas on his own, so this was a super easy step for the rest of us.

3) Make the tamale dough. I thought this was going to be harder than it was. Bob and I made two batches – one with lard and carnitas broth, and the other with shortening and veggie broth. We have a variety of dietary restrictions in the Neucastle Lab, so we covered all the bases.

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Bob provides a tutorial on tamale assemblage

4) Assemble tamales! It helps if you have a small army of minions for this part, which we did. Our tamales were comprised of carnitas, soyrizo, queso fresco, and roasted serrano and jalapeño peppers.

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5) Cook the tamales. With separate steaming pans for the veggie and meat tamales, we managed to get our whole batch cooking at once! While waiting, enjoy a mango margarita or three.

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6) Eat the tamales! Obviously the best part. I always enjoy a big group of friends gathered around a table eating and drinking and being merry 🙂


* Note: Bob gets full credit for the cool name.

Photographic Mark-Recapture of Gold-Dust Day Geckos in Hawai’i

As you read the title of this post, you may be wondering to yourself how someone with a background in dendroecology and biogeochemical cycling got herself involved in a project on mark-recapture of lizards. This is a reasonable question, the short answer to which is, she married a herpetologist. The long answer is outlined below 🙂

The Beginning Since I only teach in the mornings this semester, I often work from home in the afternoons. I quickly noticed that our front lanai is frequented by a number of a rather adorable lizards, easily identified as Madagascar gold-dust day geckos, Phelsuma laticauda. Their common name comes from the ‘dusting’ of yellow along their back behind the head. Mostly out of casual boredom, I started photographing them, trying to figure out if I was seeing the same one or two over and over, or if they were all different. These little guys are super adorable and not so shy that you can’t get a few good photos every now and then, which quickly filled up my Facebook page. I lured them with oranges, I made a gecko blind out of the bathroom window, I even caught a couple of them having a romantic moment on the lanai roof…..

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Geckos love oranges

To help assess my lanai’s population size, one of my Anthony’s herp colleagues at UH-Manoa, Dr. Amber Wright sent me a paper on a new technique called photographic mark recapture. In 2012, some scientist out of Dartmouth published a paper on using pattern-recognition software to non-invasively assess population sizes of giraffes. Essentially, you ‘mark’ the animals by identifying their particular pattern in a photo, then ‘recapture’ by rephotographing the population at a later date and identifying which animals you’ve seen before and which are new. The program the authors developed is called Wild-ID and is available online for free. Amber sent me the paper, and I got started identifying the Gerhart-Barley Lanai (GBL) gecko population. Though not as large as the giraffes, the day geckos have unique markers on their backsides in the form of red splotches. Some are different enough as to be identifiable by eye. Others are quite similar, though, so the program is helpful. So far, the GBL population consists of nine individuals (see photos below). UH Manoa biology grad student Áki Lárusen had the fantastic idea of naming geckos ‘Paddy’ in reference to their awesome toe-pads, which allow them to walk up walls and ceilings. All GBL geckos are now called Paddy (or Paddington Gecko, if we’re being formal) until I get to know them well enough for a unique name. You may wonder if I am joking on that, so I will tell you now that I am 100% not joking.

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When Obsession Becomes Science My lanai gecko-hunting became a frequent topic of conversation, which is how I discovered Amber was putting one of her undergrads, Bailee, on a proof-of-concept project to see if this sort of ID would be feasible for real work on the gold-dust day geckos. As the only person who, to our knowledge, had used it on this species, I started showing Bailee the ropes of how to use the Wild-ID program. This initial how-to quickly became me joining the Wright Lab for their preliminary work on testing photographic mark-recapture against traditional methods. Currently, we are working with a population of geckos living near the Biology building on the UH-Manoa campus. We capture the geckos using a noose (which is harder than it sounds – they are curious, but timid little things), then we record their sex, weight, and length. To test the mark-recapture methods, we take high-resolution, up-close photos for the Wild-ID program, mark each gecko’s neck with a unique color pattern of non-toxic paint (which will last only until the gecko next molts), and mark each gecko with a unique pattern of visible implant elastomer (VIE) tags (which are longer-term than paint, but not always permanent).

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Why use photographic mark-recapture when there are clearly other methods proven effective?

There are FOUR geckos in this picture.

There are FOUR geckos in this picture.

1) Taking photos is less intrusive and physically invasive. VIE tags require injection of the elastomer under the skin, which doesn’t technically hurt them (they don’t even flinch when the procedure is performed), but would be nice to avoid if there’s a less invasive alternative. Having to catch geckos involves snagging them with a noose (which I imagine is upsetting) and handling them a lot, which can damage their tails (geckos can lose tail parts as a defense mechanism against predation) or injure them in other unintended ways. With the paint tags, we could do the ‘recapturing’ by photo since they are visible on the back (assuming the gecko hasn’t molted), but the VIE tags require physical recapturing since the tags are on the gecko’s underbelly. Photographic mark-recapture avoids all these problems. With a good SLR and a macro lens, you can get fantastic photos (see Bailee’s below) without even startling the geckos.

2) Taking photos doesn’t impact the geckos interactions with each other or other species. The paint marks potentially make the geckos more conspicuous to predators (although they are already rather brightly colored), or more/less desirable to each other as mates.

3) By avoiding all the time, energy, and costs associated with traditional marking, you can potentially get a much larger data set. On our couple of trips to the UH-Manoa population, we see far more geckos than we are able to capture and tag, meaning photographic mark-recapture might give us a much larger pool to work with. Currently, we have VIE tagged and paint marked 12 geckos in two trips. On the second trip, we didn’t recapture any of the geckos from our first trip, and in subsequent photo forays, we have only once rediscovered a tagged gecko. This suggests we haven’t yet really made a dent in the UH campus population with only 12 tags. Bailee is focusing on testing the Wild-ID program to make sure it correctly identifies photos of different geckos as unique individuals, and identifies photos of the same gecko from different observations as the same individual (thereby avoiding false positives and false negatives, respectively).

See how many unique back patterns you can ID in our photos of the campus population!

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2013 Pollen Trap Collections, Konza Prairie

This weekend marks the 5th annual Paleoenvironmental Lab pollen trap collection at Konza Prairie!

For the last five years, Kendra has managed 28 pollen traps located throughout Konza. Tauber traps (see diagram below) are made from PVC pipe and are buried flush with the ground, such that only the top of the trap is visible. The traps have a small opening at the top through which pollen can enter throughout the season. The pollen is stored in the underground bucket or jar until your resident field scientist comes to dig up the track and rinse out its contents. In addition to capturing pollen, traps at Konza also collect charcoal deposited when plots are burned in the spring. The pollen and charcoal data can then be coupled to local vegetation surveys and fire histories to assess the degree to which pollen and charcoal records accurately reflect local species composition and disturbance history.

taken from pollentrapping.net

taken from pollentrapping.net

The process of ‘collecting’ the traps consists of 1) finding the trap, which is by far the most difficult and time consuming considering they are buried flush with the ground in waist-high prairie grasses. Once found, all you have to do is 2) pull the trap out of the ground, 3) rinse it out and collect the water (full of pollen and charcoal, as well as dirt, plant parts, and the occasional dead bug), and 4) replace the trap in the ground, along with some thymol to keep the bugs out.

This year, we had a large crew, including paleoenvironmental lab members Scott McConaghy, Kyleen Kelly, Julie Commerford, and yours truly, and assisted by honorary lab members Ian Howard, Claire Ruffing, Brent Campbell, and a friend of Julie’s who drove down from Minnesota just to learn the pollen collecting process! I also got some help from my K-State First mentee Brittney Houck, who proved to be the world’s most patient field assistant while I set out to prove that education level is in no way correlated with ability to read and interpret GPS devices.

On Thursday, Brittney and I collected four traps along the bison loop (which, as its name implies, is the region in which bison graze the prairie). While looking for the first trap, we noticed a lone male who was clearly interested in our presence, but who kept a reasonably safe distance. While driving to the next trap, we stopped to take a picture of a rather lovely fall prairie view and noticed the same bison not far behind us. Brittney got a particularly nice photo of him, then we went to find the next trap. While collecting the second trap, the same bison came wandering up the road and hovered nearby, slowly getting closer and closer until we finished and took off (rather hastily) to the truck. It is unclear to me if he was just curious, or felt we were intruding on his space. Regardless, the other two traps on our list were outside the bison loop, and so he was unable to follow us through the gates.

On Friday, Scott, Julie and I set out for six more traps along the non-bison portions of the prairie. Scott dropped us off and took off to grab a couple himself. Julie and I utterly failed to find the first trap. She was standing in the EXACT GPS location of the trap and we still could not find it. We came back later with Scott and did find it – the GPS location had been slightly off, so it was not user error as we had suspected 🙂 Other than that, all six traps went fairly smoothly!

Today, the rest of the crew is out finishing up the last 9 or 10 traps. Then, Scott will painstakingly filter each traps contents (usually about half of a gallon jug) to remove all the dirt, plant parts, and other junk. After the contents are filtered, we can analyze the remaining pollen and charcoal from each trap, to incorporate into the larger multi-year data set!

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University of Kansas 2013 Commencement


Me and the Gerhart fam at the hooding ceremony
L to R: Denise (mom), Me, Rocky (nephew), Tai (sister), Bruce (father)

I defended my dissertation with honors at the end of March, but only this weekend officially graduated from KU with my PhD! The KU commencement has two parts. On Saturday, PhD candidates attend the formal hooding ceremony at KU’s Lied Center, where each candidate is recognized on stage, and hooded by their academic advisor. Masters students attend a separate hooding ceremony, and each academic department coordinates its own ceremony for bachelor degree recipients. This allows every student to have their name announced, and cross the stage to receive their recognition without the events taking 15 hours.

Anthony (husband) and I, in front of the campanile, prior to walking the hill.

Anthony (husband) and I, in front of the campanile, prior to walking the hill.

The second event, walking the hill, is held on Sunday and involves every student graduating from KU that year. This event is far less formal. Students decorate their mortarboards (some of the architecture and engineering students get rather ambitious in this regard) and carry bottles of champagne. We gather on the top of the hill, near KU’s iconic campanile. There is an urban legend that a KU student cannot walk through the campanile or he/she will not graduate. At this event, we all file through the campanile together, then walk down the hill towards the stadium. The sidewalks are lined with the friends and family of all the graduates. The graduates reach the stadium, then walk the length of the football field, which is lined with professors in full regalia. Graduates, friends, and family then gather in the stands for the formal commencement address and conferring of degrees. Or, graduates, friends, and family skip this part to begin the barbecue, beer, and lawn games portion of the graduation 🙂

This was my second KU commencement, having earned my bachelors degree from KU in 2006. While the hooding ceremony is meaningful in its own right, walking the hill really solidifies the sense of community between KU graduates, regardless of department or degree, and sets the tone for celebrating our collective achievements together. Rock chalk, Jayhawk – go KU!

Annual Paleo-Environmental Lab Camping Trip


This weekend (May 3-5, 2013), the paleo-environmental lab went on a camping trip to the Red Hills region of south central Kansas. We camped overnight at both Cheney Lake and Clark County State Fishing Lake, toured the 43,000-acre Z-Bar bison ranch (owned by Ted Turner), learned to build fires in 20 mph wind gusts, grilled our dinner without the aid of cooking instruments, star-gazed, and utterly ignored all social norms of personal hygiene. It was a fabulous weekend and I look forward to next year’s annual excursion!

Field Blog Coming Soon

Check back here for exciting updates on field work, including the Novus workshop at the H.J. Andrews Experiment Forest (May 22-25, 2013), Isotopes and Paleoenvironments II short-course at Konza Prairie (May 27-31, 2013), and dendroecological sampling of endangered white bark pines in Grand Teton National Park (June, 2013).


Isotopes and Paleoenvironments II Workshop
May 27-31, 2013; Konza Prairie, Kansas

Novus Workshop, May 21-25, 2013 H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest

Novus Workshop
May 21-25, 2013; H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest