Possessed By Car Gremlins. Or Maybe Just Pure Evil.
Over the last few months I have found myself standing by the side of the road, hood popped and hazards ablaze, more times than I have fingers to count them on. It’s almost amazing the imaginative way that the Guamobile finds something new to fall apart every time. I mean, really incredible. The new diagnosis for my mystery problem that was causing the engine to die multiple times a day – the one that WASN’T solved by $500 worth of repairs I shelled out for – is that the starter is failing. You can’t get starters on Guam, so one is currently flying over the great blue sea courtesy of eBay. Problem is, I personally haven’t paid the couple of hundred bucks it cost to get the part and during the few weeks I’ve been waiting for it to arrive, my engine has been running just fine. Did magic car fairies fix the problem and I’m now okay? Do I shell out the money for the part knowing that the starter will probably conk out again as soon as Randy the Automechanic gives the part to someone else?
So, new problems galore: a few days ago, driving up Ritidian road on my way to work, the engine gremlins did it again. Sputtering, gurgling, and horrible smells errupt from my engine as my car shuddered to a stop. Miles from work, miles from the airforce base, a road that leads to pretty much nowhere; I’d headed off to work early and it would be hours before I could expect anyone else to drive by. My cell phone, of course, was out of prepay minutes so calling or texting for help was out of the question (classic horror story, that one). Deep dark despair was setting in when suddenly …! My wondertastic roommate of awesome pulls around the corner – a knight in a rusty Toyota. Between the two of us, we manage to get my car down to the office. Honestly, I probably used up about a year’s worth of good karma having Elden appear to rescue my butt.
So, one of the fun thing about my car is that the device that pops the hood has broken off (overuse, I’m sure) so we couldn’t even check out what was wrong. Finally, more people start showing up and with a combination of three male coworkers, two pliers, and a helluvalot of elbow grease, we pop my hood to discover that giant holes have worn through my ancient radiator hoses. Tom, one of the guys I work with, can fix just about everything and managed to chop the bad bits and re-rig up my radiator into working condition. The good thing (silver lining silver lining silver lining – I gotta believe in something) about this particular breakdown is that I consequently popped a bottle of Prestone into my trunk for future hose failure. Yesterday, surprise! Driving home from work this time, my check engine light suddenly goes crazy, the engine temperature gauge flies through the roof, and my car once again dies by the side of the road. Thinking that I’m prepared, I wrangle the hood up to find that … no hoses are leaking. Nothing appears to be wrong. Except that my ride is dead. Guess what? Cell phone is out of minutes AGAIN. Why do I do this to myself? Why don’t I buy a phone plan? Oh, yes, I remember. I can’t afford one because my car EATS my paycheck. Hah. I’m about to despair when I hear a blaring horn and Tom, my Chamoran guardian car angel, pulls up behind my Honda. Honestly, what I do without my man-peeps, I really don’t know. We refilled my radiator and he, the doll that he is, followed me all the way home to make sure I made it in one piece. His official diagnosis is that the thermostat for my coolant system is malfunctioning in ways that I pretended I did but don’t actually understand. Taking it in to the mechanic tomorrow. I’m becoming BFF with the mechanic’s secretary, a delightfully chatty older lady who wants to teach me how to make apple butter pumpkin pie and keeps lending me pots and pans. We’re pretty tight. We should be, I see her all the friggin’ time.
I’m also in the process of churning out grad school applications and writing up an NSF proposal. Deadlines for that are fast approaching, so my baseline level of stress has been through the roof to start with. Now with all these additional life problems… bah. Application fees are expensive. My computer died last week, and repairing it was, you guessed it, expensive. My hard-drive has also bitten the dust for reasons unknown, and I’m going to have to wait for next pay period to even think about getting that checked. Elden calculated this morning that since we’ve been here, we’ve each earned about $5,000. And yet I checked my bank account yesterday to find that I’m hundreds of dollars down from what I started out with. Guam is a black-hole money eating island of broke.
In non-bitchy science-related news (yeah, like you read this for anything other than the drama): our Big Cheese, Julie Savidge, is currently visiting the island. This lady is the amazing insightful researcher who figured out that the Brown tree snakes were the culprits wreaking all this ecological havoc in the first place. Because reptiles had never caused such substantial changes to an ecosystem, people were not very receptive to her ideas when she first presented her results and she really had to fight to prove her theory. Today, she accompanied us when we went up to Anderson Air Force Base to watch a demonstration of the USDA’s snake-sniffing dogs. There’s a giant kennel of Jack Russels which run 24/7 checks on anything and everything that leaves this island to make sure no snakes tag along for the ride and invest other areas. It’s amazing to think that all of these dog trainers, all of us in the BTS lab, so much money and effort has been put out by the government, by different universities – we’re all here because of her. So many people’s livelihoods now revolve around a discovery she made. And rather than power-tripping like no other, she is actually a humble, funny, and sharp lady. We had a lab potluck after leaving the base and having the opportunity to interact with her was a real treat. She’ll be conducting studies over the next week involving fire ants as a control mechanism for invasive geckos, so I’ll get some one-on-one field time with her in a few days that I’m really looking forward to. What an inspiring human being. Here are some pictures of puppies.
You should click on these pictures. They get bigger. Who doesn’t want to see a man stuffing a small dog into a piece of military equipment in all its detailed glory?
With Halloween on the horizon, I am pleased to inform everyone that night vision goggles actually ARE as amazing as they appear to be in every single zombie movie of ever. Crystal-clear imagery in the darkest dark? Check. Everything washed in a weird green glow? Check. Unfortunately tendency to fail at first sight of the Undead? … Didn’t have the opportunity to test that one out I’m afraid, but at this point, I’m pretty convinced that just about everything I’ve seen on television about this equipment is true, so – check! Officially the world’s most fun field equipment.
I got to play around (… don’t tell the military I used that term) with these nifty goggles while conducting some snake survey work in caves on the Navy base. A friend of a friend had a friend in the military who managed to snag two pairs of $10,000 Navy Seal night vision goggles for us to use for our descent underground. Let me reiterate – these clunky-looking black opera glasses were worth TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS. As in, more than my value as a human being. Didn’t anyone warn the army what a klutz I can be? Obviously they never talked with Dr. Lever about my “Hood of Doom” failings with expensive lab equipment. Anyhow, goggles and I survived this particular evening intact. Our mission: to search for and remove snakes from the cave-residence of an endangered bird, the Mariana swiftlet. The particular cave system we were exploring were on the small side, a couple of caverns housing only a few hundred birds. For an hour, we meticulously covered every inch of the cave, searching for snakes and (fortunately) skunking out. What we did find, however, was absolutely fascinating - artifacts left over from when the caves were used as a refuge in WWII, ancient Chamorran petroglyphs – and, of course, we got completely covered in guano. All in all, a completely successful cave-venture!
The rest of this week has also been pretty successful on most fronts. Elden and I found the source of the obnoxious 5 AM crowing – a rooster that lives in the apartment complex next to ours. Current plans are underway to abscond with it for chicken-soup and sleeping-in purposes. We attended a bonfire at a beach called “Pirates Cove” on Friday, where rum, good company, and baby eels more than made up for lack of marshmallows. Saturday, I signed up for SCUBA lessons and hung out with some of the Navy rescue divers, before heading off for live music and G&Ts (For the record – NOT an old man drink. A malaria-conscious person’s drink). Best of best, though, was that I got my first opportunity to take a decent hike the next day, when a friend and I ventured into Lonfit Valley.
We spent a good part of the day tromping around up and down the Lonfit river, rappelling up and down steep and slippery slopes, and swimming around in beautiful blue waterholes. I dove off a waterfall! … Almost. I mean, I considered it. For almost 20 minutes. Before deciding that it was a really really bad idea.
I can’t believe someone just jumped from outer space and I can’t convince my body to jump off a waterfall.
A crazy busy couple of weeks, on all fronts. We moved into our new apartment, which is delightfully ghetto. Yesterday, I was sitting on our porch watching two small children sitting on their air conditioning unit, three units up, shooting cars with a BB gun. Also, I’m pretty sure that our next door neighbors are not in fact people, but rather, a large colony of roosters. Anyhow. Also, the Guam-bomb-mobile I bought from a nice little old lady who only took it out once a week for groceries has failed epically on me. Driving merrily through the pothole minefield on the way from from work, my engine completely died, necessitating rescue by Elden, Rebecca (a coworker), and – I kid you not – the US Airforce (God bless America?). Elden followed me home and assisted as the engine conked out three more times. $500 later, I’ve got clean O2-sensors, a tuned-up engine, new spark plugs, and goodness knows what other magic under the hood, only to break down twice more DRIVING HOME FROM THE REPAIR SHOP. Of course, whenever the mechanics drive it, it behaves perfectly. What a persnickety little … gah.
So – critters! The days of skinking had the atmosphere of a high school sports day. We set up shop inside the closed population of snakes we maintain in Anderson airforce base (“the snake pit”), a rectangular set up with two-dozen odd transect lines running along the length. Arriving bright and early in the AM, we each set up along every other line, distributing sticky mousetraps at 2m intervals down our particular transect. During training, we were warned at great length about getting OURSELVES caught in the goo, and, as both instructors happened to be men with particularly impressive flowing locks, great emphasis was put on not getting your hair anywhere near the skink traps (Fortunately, we all made it out manes intact). How the project was supposed to work was that at thirty-minute intervals, you raced down your track, checking each trap and carefully peeling off any poor lizard unfortunate enough to get trapped by dousing the creature in mineral oil, and stuffing the lizards in numbered bags so that they couldn’t be recaptured. We kept tallies of the different species we captured during the four runs we accomplished each day, releasing all the little hostages after our final run was through. And I’ll have you know that the term “run” is not a euphamism – when you have 30 minutes to check 15-odd traps, and it takes a good minute or two per skink-peeling, and you catch up to 12 skinks a go… We would line up like sprinters at the start of our tracks and wait for the count down before taking off into the forest. Trapping is pretty reminiscient of the La Brea tar pits, except for herps and tiny insects as opposed to smiledons and dire wolves (same dif, really).
And for some reason, the smell of the glue makes the slugs go crazy and they came out in droves and droves and droves. I have never seem more invertebrates in one place in my entire life.
Other news: I apparently can’t find my camera, or there would be pictures with this. I also had my first ride on a motor cycle and fainted in a movie theater (curse you, spurty red corn-syrup and your ability to make my body go into complete shut-down mode!)
Coming to you from the island of Guam, here’s another episode of “The Down-Low on Snaking”, this week featuring: Island Wide Visual Survey (IWVIS).
So the goal of this project was to collect 100 snakes from each of eighteen different locations around the island and then compare data on size, reproductive status, gut content, and general health between different types of habitat. By the time I jumped on board, the only sites left were urban in nature
(read: we spent our quote-unquote field nights poking around people’s backyards).
Remember that scene in E.T. right after the government has figured out that some kid is hording an alien in his closet? Normal neighborhood in suburbia-land suddenly gets invaded by scientists in their space-man hazmat suits and crazy NASA equipment. I feel we kind of channel those space-man scientists when we, decked out in with our field slacks, snake hooks, million-lumen headlamps, and backpacks overflowing with GPS’s, morphing equipment, batteries, and miscellaneous snake-handling who-knows-what, descend with the growing darkness upon the most mundane cul-de-sacs Guam has to offer. I have also cultivated a refined understanding of what postmen feel like being constantly pursued by dogs in the course of duty. This is a field hazard I never in my wildest (or, well honestly, most humdrum) dreams would have anticipated facing. Not that IWVIS is dull, but poking through people’s rhododendrons for tree snakes lacks the Indiana Jones aspect that crawling around in the Snake Pit or through some of our other sites invokes. Anyhow – dogs.
Mostly mean. Barking for impossibly long periods of time. Snake hook doubles as warding-off stick. Lots of pit bulls, lots of boonie dogs, but the worst? Pugs. Hands down. One yard we search I have mentally dubbed the “House of a Thousand Pugs” because I literally do not have enough phalanges to count the swarming masses of tiny puntables. The sheer number of itty bitty yippy things is absolutely terrifying.
During the course of the evening, we make our way through up as many backyards as we can hit before 10:00 PM. These Guamians kindly volunteered to have us do science on their property, although the added bonus for them is that we bag and remove all the snakes we catch. Although we do a field morph, we also re-stretch and measure our snakes back in the lab and then give them the (humane) chop so that we can poke around in their innards for stomach contents and fat. One of my delightful coworkers who I adore is BIG into necropsies and nothing gets her more excited than finding a partially digested Anolis or baby chicken in a snake’s GI tract.
Currently, we’re four snakes away from closing up the entire project, so we’re concentrating more and more on working in our closed experimental snake population. We’re also starting skinking on Monday, followed by ratting, and then a bad-ass sounding project which I gather involves crawling around caves using military-grade night vision goggles to document snakes chowing down on endangered swiftlets (this will more than make up, in my books, for urban searches. Go go gadget night vision!)
I’ve finally managed to get a hold of (note: no hot-wiring was involved in obtaining this vehicle) a beautiful sea-green little Honda Civic! It’s a bit on the safe and reliable side, so I’ve bought a bunch of trilobite decals on eBay to pimp it out. I’ll match my car! It will be sickeningly adorable. I’ve also managed to slip in some quality beach-and-snorkeling time, and have, of course, already scraped up both my knees on coral. I’m a walking (or swimming, as the case may be) disaster.
Anyhow! Things online to check out:
New science article on spider densities in Guam hit the web a week or two ago and got picked up by NPR. If any of y’all have been checking out my FB pictures, yes. SPIDERS. Everywhere. A regular Shelob’s lair of webs that are absolutely impossible to break through in some places. Plenty spiders.
I’m totally legit now. It feels a bit weird.
Now I know you guys follow “Science” like I follow “US Weekly”, but in case this article happened to slip under your radar…
The Great Guppy Experiment!
(click the link, folks – you won’t regret it)
A reporter from Science came and bummed around with my last research project for a few days and ended up delivery this very lovely article all about guppies.
So: now for the fun bit. There are TWO pictures of me in this article.
Holy snake-vomit, Batman. A lot has happened in the last week or so. Where to start?
They’re really been putting us through our paces at Snake HQ – we’ve been subjected to an intense two-week training schedule during which time we learn EVERYTHING and become Boiga pros and win at life. Or, that’s how it was sold to me. Long story short, we’ve covered just about every type and method of snake work that we’d have to undergo throughout the next year, so I figure I’ll take my time going through each little thing we do because, hey! I’ve got a year and we probably won’t be doing anything particularly more exciting than what’s been covered between now and next August.
One of the projects that I’ve enjoyed working on most to date (primarily because it has involved 0% labwork, 0% snake-sacrifice, 100% field time and large quantities of lube … #13yroldboy) has been capturing snakes for a road-crossing study and setting them up with transmitters for radio telemetry.
Shane, the Ph.D. student that shares the Potts Intern house with Elden and I, has been looking at how snakes move throughout the island. For his study, we got to spend a really smelly morning stuffing live mice into small cages, stuffing the small cages into large snake traps, and then trooping through the forests along a pair of roads in the nearby air force base to set up our handy work in the great outdoors. For some reason, the boys got pruners and I didn’t, leaving me to fight my way through the horrendous vine tangle armed with only my wits (or lack thereof). Note to self: usual bull-headed approach of just charging through does not work with Guamese vines. TOO STRONG TRY AGAIN. Shane also set up counters that record how many cars cross the road, when, how fast they were going, and all sorts of interesting car-related data.
That evening, we patrolled the same two roads and this time, instead of simply morphing any snakes we grabbed, we also got to lube up tiny transmitters and slide them into the snakes’ gullets. That gives you a week or so of signal before the snakes crap them out. This may seem a little unfortunate for the poor snakes, but it doesn’t seem to affect their behavior in any substantial way and is light-years better than the old method of implanting transmitters, which involved nabbing snakes, transporting them back to lab, putting them under, slicing them open, surgically sticking in the device, and hoping they recovered. A mouthful of Western Family Lube seems like ice cream and unicorns in comparison.
Day Two involved going back and checking all the traps, feeding transmitters to any unfortunate who fell for the whole “mice in a trap” deal, and then returning all those pesky little rodents back to their happy lab life. FYI, snakes in traps get a bit pissy after a while. Grabbing Gloves are highly recommended.
Also, Shane’s field vehicle looks like a space craft with the giant 17 foot radio telemetry ensemble rigged to the back.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch:
Elden and I have signed a lease for a new apartment; I wish I had pictures – it’s called the “Taj Mahal” and decorated in ’70s Vegas-style faux-Indian tackiness. Super psyched! We’re on the third floor and have a tiny balcony, which, if you lean out over the railing (ideally with someone grabbing your shirt so you don’t fall off) and kind of twist your head a bit (until you hear cracking noises) you can see the ocean! We’re practically beach front property! (not) Anyhow, move in date is next weekend, so the pressure to actually own our own cars by then is extreme, to put it mildly. It’s been quite a trial on that front, but those are #adultissues that aren’t half as exciting as #snakeissues (except for that one ’91 Mazda Miata I checked out with the red shag carpeting on the inside… such a pimp car. Too bad I wouldn’t be able to fit my snake hooks in the back!).
Mission: Survive Week 1
Status: Nearing completion
Twenty-five hours after leaving Cleveland, my new BFF Elden and I stepped foot onto the hot, muggy, rainy tropical Pacific island that is going to be our home for the next twelve months.
Elden is a new hire, like myself, who I met up with in Honolulu. Science tattoos up the wazoo (not literally… well, at least as far as I have seen o_o), a Subway addiction, and an amazing hat. A pretty baller kid and, from what I’ve experienced so far, also a kick-ass scientist. We got picked up in Guam by Boss-Lady MJ and her husband, Jake. After a brief drop into the grocery store (a gallon ice cream is $8.00 – whaaaat the hell; unfortunately, this is also a horrible care package item. Bah!), we got situated at Potts, our temporary field home.
(They informed us recently in the office that the very stylin’ orange and green decor in Potts courtesy of lead-based paint. I guess I should stop licking the walls?
The field station/office itself is located at Ritidian Point, which is as far north on Guam as you can get without falling into the ocean (which I actually plan on doing quite often – it is a literally a hop, skip, and jump away from our front door). We’re situated under a very imposing limestone cliff riddled with caves and, word on the street, there’s some petroglyphs lurking around here somewhere.
Our office place is pretty swank. The building itself (from the outside, a formidable windowless bunker) is shared with the Guam National Wildlife folk. We have offices, rooms for keeping mice, rooms for dissecting snakes, rooms for storing scary paperwork, our own showers, a tiny gym, a kitchenette … I mean, screw finding my own place, I could quite happily bunk down with the mice! Elden and I each get more desk space than we know what to do with (he is planning on decorating his area in Lady Gaga; I’m personally thinking of going for a Simon Pegg-ish type theme). Word on the street is that there’s an aviary full of endangered fruit bats hidden in the compound! (Soup?!)
Most of the hoops they’ve been making us jump through so far are paperwork-this and military clearance-that. Phone conferences, briefings, signing away more of my soul than I know I had available… but it’s finally all coming together. Only benefits packages and time sheets to go! (Holy crap, I sound like such an adult right there) Fortunately we’ve been able to spend the last two nights getting our herp on, which has kept me from going completely around the bend. Decked out in snazzy orange vests (only the classiest) and armed with a backpack full of lube, probes, and less forward data-collecting devices like measuring tapes and weighing scales, our coworker Bjorn has been teaching us how to find, capture, and process our snake-y friends. We’ve spent a good seven or eight hours out at night now and bagged a good number of snakes. Catching them is surprisingly easy and so far, neither of us had been chomped. I thought that getting bitten would have been a rite of passage, an initiation if you will, into the grand world of BTS biology. Howevs, these guys are so simple to grab that it actually seems to be more impressive to brag of a clean record.
Apart from the snakes, there’s a couple other night critters that we’ve gotten good looks at. We found the only native species of snake on Guam, the blind snake Ramphotyphlops – a tiny critter no more than a couple inches long that squirmed epileptically across road. We’ve encountered giant hermit crabs and ginormous coconut crabs; several different species of invasive gecko and skink, and more spiders and moths than you could count (more on that later!).