Category Archives: endocrinology

From field mouse to lab rat

After spending about 300 days in the field, I returned to civilisation enriched and ready to tackle the next challenge on my journey as a PhD student. I had learned new skills, habituated foxes and picked up a substantial amount of poop, but I was VERY happy to return to a place where I could drive down the road for a supersize BigMac with Fanta whenever the cravings hit.

Labwork, beautiful, endless labwork

Labwork; beautiful, endless labwork

However, I realized again there is no rest for the wicked as I started my lab work. For endless weeks it was my fate to be drying faecal samples, pulverising dried pellets and finally extracting the hormones, getting used to a brand new routine (working by daylight, instead of starlight).

Who knew that returning to Pretoria and doing lab work would isolate me more than being in the field? I would drift away into my own poop-filled world before the distinctive aroma of carnivore faeces shocked me back to reality. After a few monotonous weeks of solitary extractions, I was surprised to find a friend from Zurich visiting the lab for a few days. Through all the gossip catch-up and b(sh)anter we bounced ideas off each other before he made his long journey back home. I was alone again and focussed to get the job done as the end slowly crept closer.

Before I could close the lab door behind me, I had to burn my samples to complete the process. Nothing prepared me for the smell of burning bat-eared fox poop at 450°C.

Protection is essential in the lab.

Protection is essential in the lab. Maybe laundry pegs for the nose would also help?

I am sure I was the most unpopular person in our entire building as the smell of smouldering organic matter overtook us all, filling the halls with a lingering odour. It was all worth it in the end when, after 14 months of sweat and stress, I was holding the newly extracted (non-smelly) hormones in my hand.

As I carefully store all the tubes of extract, I realise that these little tubes will make up a substantial part of my PhD thesis (and future). I now have to wait a few more weeks before I get the final faecal samples from the field. Once I’ve finished the preparatory lab work, I can finally start the analysis of my hormone samples. I miss the field; watching the sun set as I head out for the night and, sometimes, watching the sun rise after spending the entire night observing foxes. I thought I would return to civilization with a bronze glow; alas, I extensively worked on my moon tan and it seems I will continue doing so as I will spend all my time in the lab, until the end of my PhD.

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A double edged sword — Ruan

Similar to other PhD students in behavioural ecology, I spend months in the field and have to sort out the various and inevitable problems that come with remote fieldwork. Our supervisors trust us to do a good job of keeping the project going and getting all the necessary data. They cannot really keep a heavy hand on us – email correspondence is about the only way of managing contact. Except when you hear the words, casually dropped, “I am coming to the field.” This almost always strikes fear into the heart of a student. What are they going to think about the progress I made? Will they agree with the way I sorted out some of the problems? Would they have done things in a similar way? Will they be happy?

 

A hard-working PhD student in action

A hard-working PhD student in action. Photo credit: Elizabeth Wiley

Approaching my seventh month in the field, I was anticipating the excitement of the breeding season that was expected to be in full swing by the time I arrived. Judging by the number of insects flying into my face and up my shirt, I did not think we were experiencing a drought. However, my worst fears came true…there was no evidence of breeding, and no pups! This is definitely not a good sign for someone whose PhD is based on paternal care. The extreme conditions and apparent food shortage (?!) have had a detrimental effect on the foxes’ attempts at successfully producing pups this year. Whatever the reasons might be, I needed some guidance, and the remoteness of our study site has made contact with the outside world challenging to say the least. I was actually relieved to hear my supervisor was planning on dropping by. Maybe she could steer things in a better direction.

We had endless discussions on potential solutions to my dilemma… As part of such a new project, I was a little restricted in terms of finding new angles within the range of data we have collected so far. We finally settled on the “simplest” solution — I would include home ranges and marking behaviour, mediated by hormones, in my thesis. Of course, this easy answer now meant I have to follow foxes for the entire night in order to get a better idea of the distances these little guys travel. I started to prepare for endless long nights in the field.

And then it happened… one of our vixens, Bertha, took me to a secret den, where I found our first three (and so far, only) pups of the season. The excitement was tangible, even if I was abashed at being ‘out-foxed’ by the apparently virginal Bertha for a while. Of course, my supervisor left just after this wonderful event, and the problems are lining themselves up yet again. We’re doing full-night focals to collect that extra data. But very, very soon, we will be able to follow the first ‘project’ pups in our nightly observations. And we remain at the combined mercy of fickle Mother Nature and technology, constantly messing with our most carefully made plans.

 

Finally -- bat-eared fox pups enter the picture!

Finally — bat-eared fox pups enter the picture! Photo credit: Ruan de Bruin