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How the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted field research

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For the past 17 years, Dan Blumstein and his research team have skied into the Crested Butte Mountains of Colorado to conduct their annual scientific observations on yellow-bellied marmots. In 2020, the coronavirus is threatening to shut down this research and other types of field research throughout the world. (Image courtesy of Gina Johnson)

For the past 17 years, Dan Blumstein and his research team have skied into the Crested Butte Mountains of Colorado to conduct their annual scientific observations on yellow-bellied marmots. In 2020, the coronavirus is threatening to shut down this research and other types of field research throughout the world. (Image courtesy of Gina Johnson)

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

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For the past 17 years, Dan Blumstein and his research team have skied into the Crested Butte Mountains of Colorado each April to begin their annual scientific observations of the yellow-bellied marmots that live there.

“Every morning, we’re up and look and look and look for any sign of burrows being opened and then wait for animals to emerge,” Blumstein said. “As soon as they start coming out, we begin identifying them to understand who’s out. We began doing social observations on them.”

Blumstein is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA and runs the marmot project at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. He and his team work on various marmot projects starting in spring and continuing until the beginning of fall, at which point, these animals — which look a little like groundhogs — go back into hibernation.

Dandelion is one of the yellow-bellied marmots studied by Dan Blumstein and his team, at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. (Image courtesy of @TeamMarmot at The Rocky Mountain Biological Lab)

Throughout that time, the researchers follow the animals. They document how the marmots live, how many babies they have, when they die, and how they die — following these creatures from furry cradle to grave, so to speak.

Although Blumstein’s observations have been occurring since 2003, the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab has been studying the behavior and population biology of yellow-bellied marmots, in one way or another, since 1962. This April would have launched another year’s worth of data on the playful creatures. But the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into that plan.

“Probably in February. I started realizing that we’re gonna have some issues this summer,” Blumstein said.

Crested Butte, where the lab is located, experienced a pretty widespread outbreak of COVID-19. The county effectively shut down in early March. That forced Blumstein and his team to cancel some plans, at least for now.

“The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory has been going since the ‘20s,” Blumstein said. “People studied things through the Great Depression. People studied things through World War II, people studied things through the Korean War. We all studied things through the 2008, 2009 global economic downturn. And this is really the first thing that [is] stopping research.”

A disruption for the ages

“This is the longest-term dataset on marmots,” Blumstein said. “It’s one of the longest-term datasets on mammals. And it’s one of the longest-term datasets in the world on anything.”

From field observations over more than five decades, the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab has developed a remarkable demographic record that chronicles marmot population increases and decreases. The scientists can use this data to look for both environmental and social factors that might influence the marmot population over time. That provides an opportunity for researchers like Blumstein to better understand why some individual marmots are able to survive longer than others and which social factors may come into play.

“We’ve recently discovered that unlike in humans, where being social actually makes you healthier and less likely to die and therefore live longer lives, more social marmots actually live shorter lives, which is fascinating,” Blumstein said.

The more social a marmot is, the more likely it is to go into hibernation with its furry friends. This may sound very cute, but just like human roommates might, the hibernating marmots get on one another’s nerves. They disturb one another’s hibernation, and this disruption can cause the marmots to burn energy at a higher rate, a faux pa[w]s for marmots trying to survive the winter on limited reserves.

Blumstein said the marmot study has also provided a window into how climate change affects animals’ behavior. The Colorado site has been getting warmer, and the marmots have on average been getting up earlier in the year.

But in 2020, the coronavirus is threatening to shut down the long-running marmot observations altogether.

Blumstein isn’t alone in experiencing this kind of unprecedented disruption. Many scientists who conduct field research have been forced to change their plans or cancel them altogether because of the pandemic.

“We got to the boat on a Friday and we’re supposed to go out that next Monday, and in between Friday and Monday, the trip got canceled,” said Kaitlin Frasier, a project scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

Frasier studies marine mammal acoustics, traveling with her team by boat out into the ocean with two or three high-frequency acoustic recording packages, or HARPs. They drop the HARPs overboard at specific locations they’re interested in studying.

Kaitlin Frasier studies marine mammal acoustics. She travels with her team by boat out into the ocean with two or three high-frequency acoustic recording packages, or HARPs (yellow machinery pictured right). They drop the HARPs overboard at specific locations they’re interested in studying. (Image courtesy of Kaitlin Frasier)

“They sit on the seafloor and record for about a year at a time, and they collect all sorts of sounds that marine mammals make underwater,” Frasier said.

From those recordings, Frasier and her team try to understand how climate change is affecting marine life. They’re able to track where animals go and how animals respond to their environmental conditions, and can also use the recordings to monitor animal population numbers. To do any of this work, however, Frasier needs to have data covering a long period of time, so that she can take note of natural variations and assess the impact of different events.

“We have, for example, in the Gulf of Mexico, a 10-year time series that we’ve been maintaining since the Deepwater Horizon spill,” Frasier said. “And this spring we were supposed to start collecting the next 10 years of data.

Frasier and her team were supposed to retrieve several of the devices to install new batteries and collect the data from their hard drives.

“So, you know, there goes that time series for now, there’s going to be a huge empty blank spot in the middle of that dataset, which isn’t the end of the world. But the longer it goes on, the less useful those data become.”

The field expeditions would have given them enough space and life to collect another year’s worth of data, but many of those trips were canceled.

Kaitlin Frasier and her team were supposed to retrieve several of the devices to install new batteries and collect the data from their hard drives. The field expeditions would have given them enough space and life to collect another year’s worth of data, but many of those trips were canceled. (Image courtesy of Kaitlin Frasier)

“We’re trying as best we can, when possible, to still get out on small boats and service instruments that are within reach,” Frasier said. “But many of them [the HARPs] are just so far off shore that you need big government vessels to get out there. So those are just waiting for us.”

A gap in the data, when continuity is key

Missing out on these field experiments for a few months won’t be a huge problem, Frasier said, but it becomes a bigger issue if the disruption goes on for a longer period. When the gap in the data spans over a year, the devices’ batteries die and the internal systems that signal the oceanographers about the devices’ location will fail. Without any way for the researchers to locate them, the devices will remain on the seafloor, abandoned like the decaying Titanic.

Blumstein and Frasier are the first to admit that their research setbacks don’t rank among the most significant effects of the pandemic, but this type of data collection is still important and its absence could have ripple effects over time.

“If you’re trying to establish how the ocean is storing carbon and then you have this gap of a couple of years, it can totally change your estimates of how much the ocean is influencing climate change,” said Claudia Geib, a freelance journalist based out of Massachusetts who focuses on environmental and marine science.

That’s the case for a lot of the research that’s being halted now, Geib said: The value of the data is highest when it is collected consistently, so that scientists can rely on it to successfully project future trajectories.

“If you don’t have that, you’re going to be not publishing data, you’re going to be not influencing the policy that might rely on that data,” Geib said.

Some of these research gaps might have more dire repercussions than others, she said.

“Actually, the horror story that was the spookiest for me was speaking to a guy who does research on emerging diseases,” Geib said. “He’s looking at how malaria is spread in Cameroon, when deforestation allows birds and other species to move out of their normal habitats and come into contact with humans. It’s very spooky to think about the fact that we’re missing out on data that could then contribute to the next pandemic, the next disease that jumps from animals to humans just like this one did.”

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Repercussions from the lack of data gathering are still unknown, in part because everything is changing so rapidly. A lot of places in the United States are starting to open again, including parks and beaches. Blumstein might still be able to perform some of his observations at the beginning of the summer, and Frasier might be able to retrieve her castaway recording equipment.

But the one thing they and Geib agreed on is that the disruption would affect early-career scientists the most.

“A lot of the new experiments I was going to try out this summer actually are pretty critical to my dissertation, at least how I have it laid out currently,” said Kwasi Wrensford, a third-year Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley.

Kwasi Wrensford is a third-year Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. A lot of the new experiments he was going to conduct this summer were critical to his dissertation. (Image courtesy of Kwasi Wrensford)

Wrensford has been studying the effects of climate change on two types of chipmunks that live in the Sierra Nevada in California, the lodgepole chipmunk (Tamias speciosus) and the alpine chipmunk (Tamias alpinus). How these species react to climate change could provide an insight into how humans can adjust to the stressors brought about by it.

This summer, he was planning on going back to the Sierra Nevada to install digital Passive Integrated Transponders or PIT tags that would help him track these chipmunks better. With the PIT tags, he could estimate how individual chipmunks survive from one year to the next and the factors that influence that survival.

Kwasi Wrensford has been studying the effects of climate change on chipmunks that live in the Sierra Nevada in California. (Image courtesy of Kwasi Wrensford)

“If I’m not able to get that this summer, it will seem unlikely that I’ll be able to get that done in time to finish my Ph.D.,” Wrensford said.

It’s not just timing, it’s about funding too

Sarika Khanwilkar is an early-career scientist stuck in a similar situation. She’s a student at Columbia University, also in the third year of her doctorate, studying forest degradation in India. She was in that country at the beginning of the year, before the coronavirus outbreak spread.

“I was in India, in January. I was on a Fulbright student scholarship, and I was supposed to be there until the following January, January, 2021 at least,” Khanwilkar said.

This summer, Khanwilkar was going to start a project in which she planned to place sound recorders in the forest to measure biodiversity. But as the coronavirus outbreak picked up speed, she realized she couldn’t stay in India anymore.

Sarika Khanwilkar, pictured here, was going to start a project in which she planned to place sound recorders, like the one in this picture, in the forest to measure biodiversity. But as the coronavirus outbreak picked up speed, she realized she couldn’t stay in India anymore. (Image courtesy of Pooja Choksi)

According to Khanwilkar, third-year Ph.D.s are in one of the trickiest spots to have their field work interrupted.

“The cohort above me, they largely have finished their field work if they had any international field work to do. So they’re at home, working on their data, analyzing, writing it up, and then I feel like the cohorts below me are also still developing their ideas,” Khanwilkar said. “I’m at this weird decision point where I have to decide: Am I willing to give up doing field research because it has become basically impossible in order [to] just get my Ph.D. and be done with it in that five-year time frame? Or am going to have to go out and find a year of funding so that I can continue my Ph.D. but still have field work incorporated into it?”

Funding is a big part of what makes this so hard for these students. Not only are their careers possibly delayed by a year, but even the funding they had already secured isn’t necessarily going to be there for them next year. They’re going to have to reapply for it, and just because they had their field work interrupted this year, doesn’t mean that they’re going to receive preferential treatment.  In fact, they’re going to be competing for that funding with the students in the cohort below them.

The U.S. State Department has announced that as of June 2020, it will end all Fulbright funding. For Khanwilkar, it means that even if she had stayed in India it would not have been possible to conduct the field research she had planned.

“One of the strong points of being … a Fulbright researcher is your ability to have that support when getting permits to work in certain places,” Khanwilkar said, “which can be one of the largest hurdles to doing field research in a foreign country. And once that support was going to be over, there really was no reason for me to stay in India. So now I’m back living with my parents, which isn’t something that I thought would ever happen.”

Sarika Khanwilkar is an early-career scientist. She studies forest degradation in India. She was in that country at the beginning of the year, before the coronavirus outbreak spread. (Image courtesy of Pooja Choksi)

Field work is important for early-career scientists like Khanwilkar and Wrensford because they haven’t been doing the conference rounds year after year, they don’t have a funding record, and they’re not even close to the security of a tenured position. They’re just not big shots yet. Their field work is one of the best ways for them to get noticed professionally.

“This could have a really negative impact on their career development because it’ll create problems for their ability to publish papers and get grants and be able to keep their jobs,” said Ian Billick, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, where Dan Blumstein conducts his marmot research.

Billick is also concerned about what this type of large-scale disruption of field work will mean for the future of our world. He said field work is very important to our understanding of biology, and specifically the type of biology affecting us all right now.

He said take the hantavirus for example. It’s spread by rodents and it can cause respiratory disease in humans.

“We know that the hantavirus, which has been a very serious virus, a lot of the critical epidemiology was worked out in field stations,” Billick said.

Billick sees this pandemic as an opportunity for the world to wake up to the seriousness of the environmental issues that we’re dealing with and to start investing in the science that’s going to be needed to manage the environmental challenges. He noted that we have already made tremendous advancements in technology that we can apply to environmental monitoring — but that this application will require greater resources than are currently being provided.

The amount of money the U.S. spends on field research is essentially nothing, Billick explained. In fact, this very lack of investment in the sciences might be one of the reasons we were caught by surprise when the coronavirus appeared. Given all the scientific advances made in the past few years, he feels we could have been better prepared. There is no reason that we should be surprised by any new organisms, whether it’s viruses, bacteria, or other pathogens sweeping through the environment.

“We need to invest in long-term research well beyond what we’re currently investing in,” Billick said. “We need to be able to identify emerging diseases. We need to understand the interface between wildlife and disease. The coronavirus … emerged at the interface between humans and wildlife, you know, bats and pangolins. Field stations are one of the best places to understand how that interface is working.”

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