Research on… Research?

When most people think of research, it typically conjures up images of men and women dressed in stark white lab coats, swirling bottles of strange chemicals and staring at computer results before suddenly finding the cure to an ailment. Of course, this really isn’t how most research is done- not the part about being in a lab, but usually the work is much more rigorous, with rewards we may or may not have anticipated. Ecological studies really aren’t much different from that. A null hypothesis is formed, the methods aligned and soon the researcher is on their way to finding out if their thinking is supported in the data. But how does one figure out which methods to use?

In our group project, my teammates and I were faced with such a dilemma. We are interested in the species richness across the town of Gamboa, especially when concerned with small lizards and salamanders. Although two very different animals, they both fill an ecological niche as small predators and prey for larger carnivores. How to catch these guys, however, was a problem. How to catch a lizard which lives to climb? The typical pitfall trap seemed to be our answer but supplies weren’t as handy as we would have liked. Usually, large buckets aroun six to eight inches deep, with steep, slippery walls are used. Flush with the ground, any animal small enough to fit into the mouth typically falls in without even knowing what happened. In our case, we have plastic cereal bowls.

Yup, that is are what we’re going to have to use to catch our quick-footed reptilian friends. Even slower moving salamanders could eventually climb out of this two inch deep dish. So, of course, we had to improvise.

Rather than getting to work right away on our actual research project, our group had to do a little research on the methods we were going to use. How could we make these bowls more effective in catching our target species?

The first suggestion was to actually use plastic bottles, rather than bowls. Dug straight down into the ground, the bottles are small and slender, working as a nice funnel straight to the ground. This is basically how regular pitfall traps work as well, just on a smaller scale.

The second suggestion was just digging straight into the ground and setting the bowl into the large hole. This would also mimic the larger bucket method, as the bowl has more surface area, but our main concern here was dirt. These lizards and salamanders live with dirt their whole lives, so why would a little hole be that big of a deal? Bring in- the garbage bag! Dug out in the same way as the regular bucket, but with a garbage bag taped to the sides, this method was made to hopefully keep the slope more slippery. With less to grab hold of, lizards and salamanders wouldn’t be able to escape our pitfall trap, and we can continue with our projects.

Even though this isn’t as rigorous as an actual researched setting, we still kept out methods as close to similar as possible. All methods were tested on the same stretch of the same building, so our species count shouldn’t vary too much. While we couldn’t control every variable, such as the weather or time of day, we still wanted each container to be in the same sort of location. This way, we can tell which seems to work the best out of all of them.

“Studies” like this help to improve on already known methods of collecting samples and data, and while our endeavor isn’t really to further the scientific community as a whole, it’s still beneficial to realize that you really can do research on anything, even methods of research!

3 thoughts on “Research on… Research?

  1. Hi Todos,
    Just so you know, the EEOB Dept is enjoying your posts! Good luck with the research projects.

  2. Interesting! Experimental scientists must go thru this process of evaluating & defining best techniques to be used in their studies. Sometimes defining the methods & techniques becomes to focus of the study. Even when the concept is well-known (catch animal in pitfall traps), we always have to adapt the techniques to the kind of animal, the terrain, the weather, the time we have available, etc. And like everything else we do in science, the process must be well-documented to make our study repeatable. I would like to know the results of your experiments. Were you able to collect your target specimens? Which method worked best, if any? What recommendations do you have for scientists interested in repeating your experiments? What are the pitfalls of your pitfall designs? Thank you!

    • Well… We actually ended up scrapping this experiment. We adjusted our methods after the first day to a flexible duck-tape based trap that was larger, but they ended up filling up with water or collapsing. Then we tried styrafoam cups and lids to cover to keep the rain out, but never caught anything. I’d say pitfall traps aren’t really a good plan for a two week trip, especially if you only have one week to really gather data. The only specimen we collected were two beetles, a centipede and a worm of some sort. Definitely not enough data for a presentable project.

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