Friday, October 19, 2012

Early environments, parental care, and the importance of touch

The conditions that we experience early in life can have profound effects on our future physiology. For example, during the winter of 1944 the Netherlands suffered a famine because the Germans blockaded food and fuel from reaching the country. Mothers who were pregnant during this time gave birth to babies that had thrifty metabolisms, which unfortunately led to a high rate of diabetes, obesity, and other problems for these "Dutch Hunger Winter" children. Because the prenatal environment was nutritionally lacking, it made sense to shift towards a thrifty metabolism, but when the environment changed a thrifty metabolism phenotype proved to be detrimental. But what the Dutch Hunger Winter children proved is that our physiology is plastic during early life, and that conditions during this time will influence our future physiology.

In addition to affecting metabolism, early life nutritional states can also influence other physiological parameters. Zebra finch chicks grow at a slower rate if their parents are inattentative and do not feed them often enough. If brood sizes are enlarged (which causes chicks to face increase competition for food), barn swallow chicks will have decreased immune responsivness as adults and male collared flycatchers will face decreased, future reproductive output. While these examples all show that adequate nutrition is important for young animals, they also show that the quality of parental care can play a large role in physiological development.

Touch is another component of parental care that has been shown to profoundly affect post-natal development in mammals. This was shown in a very crude experiment by Emperor Frederick the II of Sicily (reign 1220-1230). Frederick wanted to know what language was the "natural" language of humans, so he devised an experiment where he had some infants placed in isolated rooms where they would be unable to hear any human speech. Maids were hired to clean and nurse the babies, but the maids were not allowed to spend any more time than necessary with the infants in case they accidentally talked in the infants presence. Frederick believed that when the infants reached an age where they could talk, they would reveal the "natural" human language (most likely, he thought, Latin or Greek). What happened instead was that all the infants languished and died. And so we now know that if babies are deprived of touch, if they are denied love and affection, they will most surely die very young. (Here's a happier research example on the importance of touch; premature infants are often placed in fancy incubators because they need special respiratory equipment, protection from infectious diseases, etc. But even with this special care, many infants still fail to thrive or require longer recovery times than expected. However, by gently stroking an infant's legs and arms for just a few, short periods everyday, researchers found that growth rates increased by 50%!)

Researchers have also shown that touch is very important for the development of young rats. Rat pups that are not licked and groomed enough during the first week of life will develop hyperactive stress responses, meaning that these pups will have high corticosterone (CORT) levels in response to stressors. Additionally, these pups will have poor negative feedback, which means that it will take them longer to decrease their CORT levels after responding to a stressor. Overall, pups from low-licking and grooming mothers will be exposed to more total CORT during their lifetimes, which may make them more susceptible to stress-related pathologies. Which leads us to this question; how does low-licking and grooming cause pups to develop hyperactive stress responses?

A hyperactive stress response is characterized by high stress-induced CORT levels and poor negative feedback. Poor negative feedback is often due to low levels of CORT receptors (think about it this way; during a stressor an animal has a surge in CORT, but after the stressor passes they need to decrease CORT production. Parts of the brain know when to shut down CORT production based on how many CORT receptors are bound. So, if you have fewer receptors, it takes longer for enough CORT receptors to be bound so the brain "knows" when to shut off CORT production).

OK, so pups with hyperreactive stress responses must have lower levels of CORT receptors, and this is exactly what Liu et al. (1997) found. However, CORT receptors are not permanent fixtures- they are constantly being recycled all throughout the body, so how can an event early in life cause a permanent change in receptor expression levels? The answer is at the level of the gene; basically, conditions early in life can affect how accessible the CORT receptor gene is to transcription. Weaver et al. (1997) found that the promoter region of the CORT receptor gene was highly methylated in the hippocampus. DNA methlyation occurs when a cytosine is converted into 5-methlycytosine, and this conversion makes it more difficult for transcription factors to bind to the promoter region, thus inhibiting transcription.

Another interesting thing about pups from low-licking and grooming mothers is that they will grow up to be low-licking and grooming mothers themselves. An elegant experiment by Francis et al. (1999) showed that the low-licking and grooming trait is inherited through behavioral processes, not genetic processes. Basically, Francis et al. (1999) took pups from low-licking and grooming mothers and switched them with pups from high-licking and grooming mothers (this is called a "cross-fostering study"). When the pups grew up, their own licking and grooming frequency was determined by the licking and grooming behavior of their foster mother, not their birth mother. The low-licking and grooming trait is thought to pass behaviorally because it's been shown that increased levels of CRF (corticotropin releasing factor, an important stress hormone that stimulates release of ACTH which then causes increased secretion of CORT) inhibits maternal behavior.

For further reading: As always, I highly recommend the book "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" by Robert Sapolsky (I shamelessly borrowed his examples of Emperor Frederick II, premature babies, and the Dutch Hunger Winter children). Some great, foundational papers on maternal effects on the development of the mammalian stress response include; Liu, D. et al. 1997. Maternal care, hippocampal glucocorticoid receptors, and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal responses to stress. Science 277:1659-1662. Francis, D. et al. (1999). Nongenomic transmission across generations of maternal behavior and stress responses in the rat. Science 286: 1155-1158. Weaver et al. Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior. Nature Neuroscience 7:847-854. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Degus eat money; all about grant proposals

(The first half of this post is a general introduction to what grants are and how I applied for them. The second half of this post is advice for students writing grant proposals.)

Scientific research requires thoughtful preparation, careful execution, and painstaking analysis. It takes a lot of time to design a good experiment, carry it out, analyze the data, and then finally communicate the results. But what many people don't realize is that scientists have to spend additional time and effort to just get the money to do their research. This money is typically in the form of grants, which can be from the government (like the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, etc) or independent organizations (scientific societies, conservation groups, etc).

Typically, the Principal Investigator (the head of the lab) is the person in charge of securing research funds, while the graduate students, post-doctorates (post-docs are researchers who already have their PhDs), and technicians are in charge of carrying out the research. If a graduate student or post-doc wants to pursue a research project that's unrelated to their adviser's current grants, then they usually have to find their own research funds. That's what happened in my case, so by working on other scientist's grants and applying for my own funds, I've been able to carry out my research in Chile.

During my first field season in Chile, my collaborator from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (Dr. Loren Hayes) funded my research through an International Research Experience for Students (IRES) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). After my first field season in Chile I knew that I wanted to return, so I started applying for other grants (the IRES grant can only fund each student one time).

The first big step was finding grants; through a series of internet searches I found about 11 grants that seemed likely to fund my research project. The first place I looked at was my own university, Tufts! The Tufts Graduate School has several grants-in-aid of research that they award every semester. While small (max. of $700), these grants are a great springboard and have a high funding rate. The Tufts Graduate School also has a list of grants on their website (, which helped me find a few more funding opportunities. 

My adviser and thesis committee also recommended a few grants to me, like the NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, the American Mammalogist Society grant-in-aid of research, and the Sigma Xi grant-in-aid of research. And by chatting with other students in my department, I found out about grants available from Graduate Women in Science and the American Philosophical Society. After more internet searching, I also found grants from the Explorer's Club, the National Geographic Society, the Animal Behavior Society, and the Society of Comparative and Integrative Biology (the reason I'm listing all of these grants is so that it might be useful for other students in my field).

Then, the next big step was actually writing the grants. Writing the first grant was the most difficult, and then it got a lot easier from there since I could reuse sections from my first grant. Here's an outline for a basic grant:

1) Introduction- The first few sentences should discuss the unique phenomenon that's related to your project. You want something that will immediately interest your audience and make them agree that your project is going to help explore an important scientific question. The introduction should then continue, with each sentence logically building on the last, until you find a good place to introduce your study system. And then the introduction should continue on, narrowing and narrowing until you finally get to your hypothesis, and then don't be afraid to state your hypothesis in bold letters, italics, or whichever way you think it will best stand out!

2) Methods- This section should be brief and to the point, avoid going into too much detail! You want to convince your audience that what you're doing is feasible, but you also don't want to spend a lot of time describing your techniques. Don't forget to include the important facts like place of work, time frame, and number of animals. Try to present your steps in chronological order- this makes the section more logical and easy to read.

3) Expected Results- State what you think you're going to find, don't be afraid to use different fonts to make parts of this section stand out. Depending on the length of the grant, this can also be a good section to discuss the broader impacts of your study. How will this study make a novel contribution to your field of research? Are you going to do any outreach activities? Are you going to mentor or collaborate with other people?

4) References- Grants usually have word or space limits and you almost always want to write more than you're allowed. So, for once, avoid parenthetical citations and opt for superscript numbers. You can also save space by limiting the number of citations you use- the reviewers want to know that your statements are backed up, but they're more interested in what you're planning to do in your project.

Here are some general tips for writing grants;

-Ask for your letters of recommendation well in advance.
-Double-check that you've followed ALL grant guidelines! Many organizations will toss out a grant if you forget a section, use the wrong format, etc.
-Give yourself a lot of time to write your first grant, then the next grants will take much less time.
-Ask other students in your department if you can read their funded grant proposals. This was probably the most helpful thing for me, I learned a lot by reading other people's grants!
-Ask your peers to read your grants over, it's good to get a first round of editing before you send your grant to your adviser.
-Try to submit your grant at least one day before the deadline. Sometimes there are problems with the website because of high traffic and you'll experience technical problems, don't cut it close!
-Spend a lot of time on your grant budget. There's usually no space limit for your budget justification, so go ahead and lay out every detail if you can. I usually make a list of costs, and then I write a few paragraphs explaining how I calculated each cost.
-Start writing grants early in your career, it's best to start when you're an undergraduate! The more practice you have, the better. Many universities have undergraduate research grants, and 1st/2nd year graduate students should definitely apply for the NSF graduate research fellowship.
-Because your first grants will most likely not be funded, apply BEFORE you really need research funds so you can get feedback and improve your grant writing skills.
-That being said, don't let grant writing get in the way of your research, try to write grants only when you need the money or when you have the time to write grants.
-Don't be discouraged by rejections. There's a lot of rejection in science, and the best scientists are those that don't brood over failed attempts and instead jump back up and try again. Be persistent. 

I hope this post was informative and helpful. Grant writing isn't the most exciting thing to write about, but I spend quite a bit of time writing grants and it's an important part of scientific research, so I felt that the topic was appropriate for my blog.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Measuring Stress Hormones in Wild Animals; Different Techniques and Their Comparative Advantages and Disadvantages

Measuring circulating levels of stress hormones (cortisol, corticosterone, etc.) in wild animals can provide valuable information for many types of studies. For example, conservation biologists may want to determine if high levels of snowmobile traffic are associated with increased cortisol levels in elk. Behavioral ecologists may want to know if white-faced capuchins (a type of monkey from Central/South America) have lower levels of cortisol if they come from a troop with a high level of social support. And physiological ecologists may be interested in whether Galapagos marine iguanas have a corticosterone rhythm driven by photoperiod or tidal cycle (*see bottom of page for more details).
In order to measure levels of corticosterone or cortisol (CORT), researchers need to obtain blood, feces, urine, saliva, feathers, or hair from their animals. Here’s some information about each method and their advantages and disadvantages:


This is the most common way to measure CORT concentrations. Because hormones circulate through the blood, this method provides researchers with the most functional measure of CORT. Since CORT has a very high concentration in the blood (compared to other hormones), blood samples do not need to be very big (for degus, 30uL of whole blood is usually enough to determine baseline CORT). The downside to using blood samples is that within 3 minutes of encountering a stressor, an animal’s CORT levels start to increase. So, if a researcher wants to determine baseline levels of CORT, they must get a blood sample within 3 minutes of capture.
Another downside of using blood samples is that each sample is only a snapshot of an animal’s stress response. In order to get a more integrated picture of an animal’s stress profile, researchers usually take a series of blood samples over the course of 1-2 hours. That way, they can see the rise from baseline, the peak of the CORT response, and then the gradual decrease caused by negative feedback.
After obtaining a blood sample, the samples must be kept chilled until they can be spun in a centrifuge (you want to spin within 24 hours of collection). Once the samples are spun, the plasma or serum (the clear layer on the top) needs to be drawn off and saved for analysis. The plasma or serum must be frozen at -20˚C and can be stored for several months. These requirements are fairly reasonable, but sometimes field sites are far away from cities. Last year I worked in a national park that was pretty remote, so I had to manually spin my samples with a hand-crank centrifuge and store my samples in a cooler full of ice. Luckily, steroid hormones like CORT are fairly sturdy, so lengthy processing times aren’t a big deal.
Finally, to process the plasma samples, researchers need to run a competitive binding assay called a radioimmunoassay (RIA). Basically, known amounts of radiolabelled CORT and CORT-antibody are added to the sample. The radiolabelled CORT and normal CORT from the sample will compete to bind with the antibody. The unbound radiolabelled CORT is then washed off, and the radioactivity is measured. The more CORT you have in your sample, the more it will bind with the antibody and displace the radiolabelled CORT. Therefore, the higher the CORT in the sample, the lower the radioactivity. RIAs are fairly straightforward but require some special equipment, so they usually have to be run in laboratories that frequently measure hormone concentrations (like my lab!). The enzyme immunoassay (EIA) is another way to measure hormone concentrations and requires less equipment, but is generally more expensive to run than a RIA.
As an additional step, researchers may also want to measure levels of corticosteroid binding globulins (CBG). CORT binds to CBG in the bloodstream, and it’s thought that only unbound CORT is “free” and able to bind to cell glucocorticoid receptors. Therefore, the functional measure of CORT is the “free” CORT, so some researchers also measure CBG levels to determine the relative amounts of unbound CORT. However, it’s still under debate as to whether only unbound CORT can bind to glucocorticoid receptors, and it has also been pointed out that without CBG, CORT would be unable to circulate through the whole bloodstream and reach all the cells in the body.

My blood samples are collected in little, glass microhematocrit tubes. I put them in plastic tubes with clay in the bottom so the bottoms of the microhematocrit tubes are plugged. I then put three plastic tubes in a conical tube which are stored in a cooler full of cold packs.

Loading the centrifuge with my samples.

After spinning the blood sample, it separates into hematocrit (the bottom red stuff) and plasma (the top, clear stuff). The plasma is what has the hormone, and that's what I draw off with a glass Hamilton syringe (shown on the table).

I pipette the plasma into a plastic eppendorf tube which then goes into a -20C freezer.


            CORT can pass from the blood to the saliva, and salivary samples are actually a common way to measure cortisol levels in humans. While captive animals can be trained to lick, chew, or drool on something, obtaining sufficient salivary samples from wild animals in non-invasive manner is most likely impossible. However, it usually takes 20 minutes after a stressor for CORT levels to increase in the salvia, so taking salivary samples could give researchers more time to collect a sample after capture.


Another way to assess CORT levels is to measure the metabolic products of CORT in the feces. However, because this method measures the metabolites of CORT, it doesn’t have quite the same functional value that a blood sample does. There are several steps involved in breakdown of CORT, and CORT metabolite formation can be affected by sex, season, metabolic rate, and diet. Therefore, experimental power is lost when using fecal samples for CORT analysis because animals cannot be compared between different seasons, locations, or sexes.
The main advantage of using fecal samples, however, is that they’re fairly non-invasive. Researchers can follow individuals and collect feces, or in the case of small mammals, check traps after a certain period of time and collect any feces from the bottom of the cage. Using feces to measure CORT levels is also great for repeated sampling, since frequent blood sampling and other more, invasive measures can change an animal’s stress response.
Using fecal samples to determine stress hormone levels makes a lot of sense if you’re working with an animal that’s endangered or difficult to capture (like an arboreal monkey). Another advantage of using feces is that they represent an integrated measure of CORT exposure; if you know how long it takes for an animal to form a fecal pellet, then you can estimate their total CORT exposure over a period of several hours.
Collecting feces is usually pretty easy, but investigators should always try to obtain fresh samples from a known individual. If this isn’t possible because the study animal is hard to find or lives in an aquatic environment, then dog trackers can be used. The Wasser Lab at the University of Washington (my alma mater!) uses canine trackers to find feces from whales, tigers, wolves, and other, elusive endangered animals (
 Storing fecal samples can be tricky; temperature, storage liquid, autoclaving, and storage time can all affect fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) concentrations. Sample mass can also affect FGM concentrations, as very small samples have disproportionally higher FGM levels. Getting an adequate sample mass can be difficult when studying small animals like songbirds, mice, etc., so many studies have to combine several fecal samples in their assays.
After homogenizing the fecal samples, FGM concentrations can be measured via RIA or EIA. Another downside of using fecal samples is that the CORT-antibody may not bind with all the different CORT metabolites. Therefore, researchers usually need to do a validation experiment to determine that increased CORT levels in the blood correspond to increased FGM concentrations in the feces. One advantage of using feces, though, is that by measuring levels of metabolites the researcher is essentially measuring “free” CORT, so there’s no need to measure levels of CBG.
Like feces, urine also contains glucocorticoid metabolites (and some unmetabolized CORT). In the field, however, it’s very difficult to collect urine samples in a non-invasive manner, so urine collection for CORT analysis is rarely used outside of the laboratory.


             Believe it or not, you can actually measure CORT in feathers. During molt (feather growth), each individual feather is vascularized, and CORT from the blood can be deposited in the feather. After the feather stops growing, the blood supply is cut of and, supposedly, no further CORT can be deposited in the feather. Therefore, feathers provide a good, integrative measure of CORT during the period of molt.
            Plucking a feather is easy to do and there’s no time limit, unlike blood sampling. Using feathers can also be non-invasive if the researcher obtains naturally molted feathers. And another big advantage of using feathers to determine CORT levels is that feathers from dead birds can also be assayed (like museum specimens!). Also, feathers do not need to frozen or stored in any specific manner.
            The big downside to using feathers for CORT analysis is that we’re still not too sure what form of CORT we’re actually measuring. Different antibodies have been found to have different levels of success during feather CORT analysis, which has made researchers unsure whether they’re measuring CORT, CORT metabolites, or other molecules similar in structure to CORT.
Another downside to using feathers is that, like feces, there’s a sample mass bias where smaller feather samples have disproportionally higher CORT. Getting a large enough sample can be difficult because researchers don’t want to compromise a bird’s flying ability, and there’s also the problem that different feathers are grown at different times, so pooling certain feathers together may not be appropriate. Feather mass requirements can also prevent researchers from examining portions of the feather (sections near the end of the feather are older, and thus represent a different time period than sections near the bottom), but a recent study found that different feather sections didn’t correspond to the CORT concentrations in the blood at the time of their growth, anyway. Feather CORT can be measured via RIA, but the preparation is a real pain (you have to mince the feather into little, tiny bits).
            CORT can also be deposited in hair during follicle growth. One advantage of hair samples is that they can represent CORT exposure over a very long period of time. The downside to hair samples is that it’s hard to collect a large enough sample in a non-invasive manner. And, like feathers, there are still a lot of questions about what the antibody is actually binding to in the assay. Another disadvantage to using hair is that the sample could be contaminated with other, CORT-containing secretions, like saliva or sweat.

            So, I’ve tried to give a basic, if somewhat extensive overview of the different ways to measure CORT in wild animals. After I was almost done writing this blog, I came across a great review paper that includes everything I mentioned and more: Sheriff, M.J. et al. (2011) Measuring stress in wildlife: techniques for quantifying glucocorticoids. Oecologia 166:869–887. Also, here’s an excellent review on fecal CORT: Goyman, W. (2012) On the use of non-invasive hormone research in uncontrolled, natural environments: the problem with sex, diet, metabolic rate and the individual. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 3, 757–765. And finally, my favorite feather CORT paper: Lattin, C.R. et al. (2011) Elevated corticosterone in feathers correlates with corticosterone-induced decreased feather quality: a validation study. Journal of Avian Biology 42, 247-252.

*(Photoperiod vs. tidal rhythms: most animals have daily stress hormone rhythms that are related to foraging opportunities. For humans, the morning is an optimal time to forage, so our cortisol levels often peak right before we wake up, and these increased cortisol concentrations help us go out, run around, and collect some food. For marine iguanas, corticosterone concentrations are influenced by time of day AND tidal cycles. This is because marine iguanas need to eat algae in the inter-tidal zone and the algae are most available during low tide, but because iguanas are ectotherms and need to bask in the sun before and after swimming in the inter-tidal zone, foraging is only possible during the day. However, this relationship still needs be teased apart, since the observed CORT peak during low tides could also be influenced by food intake.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Most of my degus have given birth! Which means that things are busy in the field and I have been spending lots of time implanting cortisol pellets and collecting baseline blood samples. After I finish implanting my cortisol pellets, I will need to put radiocollars on my female degus so I can determine social group composition. While you can usually tell which degus are in which social group by seeing what burrow they're trapped at everyday, this isn't totally reliable and the best way to determine social group composition is to see who spends the night with each other in the same burrow.

The radiocollars I have been using have good signal strength and long-lasting batteries, but the collar itself irritates the degu's necks and I usually have to remove the radiocollar after a few days. So, in order to protect my degus necks, I have been remodeling some of my radiocollars. My talented friend Cecilia figured out how to do this, here's the step-by-step process:

Original radiocollar- the thin wire digs into the degu's neck, and the edges from the crimp can cut the skin.
To improve the radiocollars, we decided to replace the wires with wide, brass bands. So, for the first step, we cut strips from a sheet of brass.
Next, we marked where we wanted to put the holes. We first used a small hammer and chisel to start the holes and then an electric drill to finish.

We then smoothed the edges of the holes with a sander attachment.
Next, we soldered a small screw to the end of the brass band and then sanded down the soldered area.
We had to remove part of the transmitter to reduce weight and create a better fit. The original transmitter is on the left and the altered transmitter is on the right.
Using superglue and Poxilina (a type of cement-putty), we attached the brass band to the transmitter.

And finally, we put heat-shrink-tubing over the transmitter and lower parts of the band.

This actually took quite a bit of time, but I always enjoy the opportunity to make and alter my research equipment. You never know what sort of new skills you'll learn when you go to graduate school....

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Matorral

The habitat I work in is called the "matorral." Similar to the chaparral of Southern California, the matorral is characterized by a Mediterranean climate (meaning, wet winters and hot, dry summers). The field site that I work in used to be an experimental agricultural station owned by the Universidad de Chile. Now, the site is used by sheep, cows, a variety of different biological researchers.

View of my field site on a clear day (you can see the Andes in the background).

The exact type of matorral habitat at my field site is called "Bosque Espino," which is Spanish for "spiny forest." It certainly is a spiny forest, mostly because of the prevalence of acacia trees called "espinos." Espinos are actually thought to be relatively new to Chile; legend has it that Inca traders brought the espino seeds into Chile only a few hundred years ago. When the Spanish first arrived in Chile espinos were not very abundant, but by clearing land for farming and introducing cattle (which spread espino seeds during grazing), the advent of agriculture has helped the spread of the espino. Spiky, spiny and stunted, espinos are ugly and a pain to work around. However, I grudgingly appreciate the espinos when spring comes and they blanket the entire landscape with their delicate, yellow-green leaves and golden blossoms.

An espino beginning to leaf out
Up-close picture of an espino, the spines are hard to see, but believe me; they're there.
While the matorral is not exactly a biodiversity hotspot, I've still found my field site to contain an amazing number of animals. At my field site I have seen 34 different species of birds, 7 different species of mammals, and 4 different species of reptiles. The wildlife guide I've been using doesn't have a great plant or insect section, so I haven't been able to keep a good checklist for those organisms.

I've recently been reading Charles Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle" so I can compare Darwin's perceptions of central Chile's fauna with my own. Unfortunately, Darwin didn't write much about central Chile, probably because he was more smitten with the flora and fauna of Southern Chile, the occurrence of a large earthquake while he was on the coast, and the geology of Northern Chile. However, I did enjoy this quote concerning my favorite bird, the Moustached Turca:

"Of birds... the Turco is not uncommon...with its tail erect, and stilt-like legs, it may be seen every now and then popping from one bush to another with uncommon quickness. It really requires little imagination to believe that the bird is ashamed of itself, and is aware of its most ridiculous figure. On first seeing it, one is tempted to exclaim 'A vilely stuffed specimen has escaped from some museum, and has come to life again!'" (pg. 287)

Darwin's description is pretty true, although I highly doubt that turcas are ashamed of their themselves. Here's a picture of a moustached turca that I caught in one of my degu traps:

I actually catch quite a few birds in my traps, here are a few more pictures:

Common diuca-finch, known as "Diuca"

Chilean mockingbird, known as "Tenca"

Long-tailed meadowlark, known as "Loica"

Rufous-collared sparrow, known as "Chincol"

I hope to use my new videocamera to film some of the different animals at my field site, so check my future posts for some cool video clips!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Living the Chilean lifestyle

It had been 9 months since I’d left Santiago, and while I knew that things would seem much more familiar than when I’d first arrived in the city in June of 2011, I hadn’t expected that it would be so easy to get back into a comfortable routine. I suppose everything is easier the second time- this year I had a better idea of what supplies I should bring down with me and what items would be easy to purchase in Santiago. Finding stores, speaking in Spanish, and navigating the subway were a lot easier than I remembered. I was worried that it would take some time to refresh my stick-shift driving skills, but thankfully it seems those skills are more akin to riding a bicycle. Running errands and getting things organized went so smoothly that I was ready to head out to the field after only two days in the city. 
Shopping at "Jumbo," the Chilean version of Costco.
Of course, having helpful Chilean friends also made it easier to get back into the swing of things. When I arrived in Santiago, I took a taxi to the university where my good friend Juan met me and helped me store my supplies in the lab. Juan then promptly took me to his apartment where he and my other friend, Paola, cooked me lunch. My friend Cecilia then picked me up and took me to her house, where I will be living for duration of my field season.

Cecilia and her family live in the community of La Reina, which is one of 37 different communities (comunas) in Santiago. La Reina is an upper-middle class neighborhood that is East of the city center.

Cecila's family's house
One thing I’ve noticed about Santiago is that people tend to be concerned about security. Most apartment buildings have someone controlling the main doors 24 hours a day. At the university, I need to pass by a guard outside the university, pass by another guard to get into the Departamento de Ecología, and then use a keycard to enter the third floor of the building before I can finally access the lab. As for the neighborhood I’m currently living in, most houses have bars on the windows and are surrounded by walls and electronic gates. So why is security such a high priority in Santiago? I don’t think the crime rate is particularly high in Santiago, so I think it may be more due to the fact that Chile is proud to be the most prosperous country in South America and thus tries to emulate other wealthy nations. This may also explain why there’s so much bureaucracy in Chile. For example: when I renewed my visa last year I had to wait in line to get a number, then wait till my number was called, and then fill out a form that I had to take downstairs for photocopies. Then I had to go back upstairs to get a bill, take my bill to a bank that was a block away, pay the fee, and then bring that receipt back so they could finally stamp my visa.

Although there’s lots of security and bureaucracy in Chile, the people here are really quite warm and friendly. Most Chileans are very patient with me as I speak in garbled Spanish and wildly gesture around. One of the other things I really like about Chile is that the “machismo” culture, which is still very prevalent in many other South American countries, seems to be absent here (except for construction workers). 

The best part of this field season, though, is that I get to live with a Chilean family. My host family consists of my friend Cecilia and her father, mother, and younger sister. Cecilia is a veterinarian and has been working with wild and captive degus for many years. Both of Cecilia’s parents are now retired, and her younger sister is currently finishing law school. Cecilia’s family also has a golden retriever named Canela (the Spanish word for cinnamon) and black cat named Cuchipipi (which is a nonsense word).

Me, Cuchipipi, and Canela
The whole family sits down for dinner every evening, usually around 8:00pm. Dinner fare is pretty similar to what you find in the United States, and I’ve eaten several tasty meals like chicken with mashed potatoes, fish and rice, and ground beef casserole. I’ve also had some dishes that are more unique to Chile like empanadas, pureed garbanzo beans with a fried egg and hotdog, and jello with sweetened, condensed milk. Dinner conversation is always a lot of fun and we often spend time comparing English and Spanish words and phrases. My Spanish is slowly getting better, or at least it seems like I can talk a lot faster than I used to!
I’ve included some picture of my host family and their house. Check back next week for a post on the natural history of the mattoral!

My bedroom

The living/dining room

My host father (Jorge) and mother (Sylvia)

My friend Cecilia. This picture was taken at a restaurant called "Fuente Alemana," which serves sandwiches piled high with meat, mayonnaise, and other tasty things.
I had a "lomito italiano." This pork sandwich is called an "italiano" because the mayonnaise, tomato, and avocado represent the colors of the Italian flag.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Chile 2012!

Watch out, degus. I'm coming back.

It's true, I'm returning to Chile for more delightfully degu-dominated field research! When I left Chile at the end of October in 2011, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to return to finish some of my projects. Luckily, my grant writing paid off and I now have sufficient funds to pursue another awesome field season! I am so thankful for the grants I've been awarded, and I'd like to thank these organizations; the Tufts University Graduate School, Sigma Xi, the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Program, the Animal Behavior Society, the American Mammalogist Society, and the Tufts International Research Program. In addition to these funding sources, my continuing field research is also made possible by the support of my collaborators; Dr. Loren Hayes (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) and Dr. Luis Ebensperger (Pontificia Catolica Universidad de Chile).

I'm arriving in Santiago on August 7th, and then I'll be spending the next four months trapping, sampling, and observing degus at the same field site I used last year. I've spent the last few weeks ordering supplies, drafting up research schedules, and figuring out how I'm going to pack everything. I'm almost ready to go, and I'm especially looking forward to seeing my Chilean friends. I should also mention that I'll be living with a Chilean family during the next four months; my good friend Cecilia has offered to let me live with her family, and I'm looking forward to improving my Spanish, eating delicious Chilean dishes, and getting more exposure to Chilean culture.

Stay tuned for more posts!

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