Student Field Research, Student Research

Field Season at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab

Andriana Miljanic (C’17) is spending part of her summer in Crested Butte, Colorado as part of Professor Brosi’s field research team. She is documenting her experience for us in mini-blog posts and pictures each week. We are thrilled to follow along with Andriana as she studies in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Blog post 1:

Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) is a magical place hidden in the Rocky Mountains. Surrounded by untouched wilderness, hundreds of scientists come together to do research at RMBL each summer. They come from across the country, each pursuing different research projects, all related to the environment. Within my first here I realized why people rave about this place. Wherever you stand you are surrounded by beautiful mountains, views, and nature in all its glory. RMBL and its surrounding areas are home to hundreds of species of wildflowers, making it an ideal spot to study plant-pollinator networks.

The Brosi team and I have been working to establish our study sites. We have identified appropriate areas and have begun to set up transects that will enable us to sample wildflower and pollinator abundances, and observe their interactions. I have begun to learn to identify the different species of wildflowers, bumblebees, and butterflies. One of the first species of wildflower I learned was Lupinus argenteus! (See photo)

Blog Post 2: July 1, 2016

Highlights of this week at RMBL included marmot pups and flora treasure hunts! New this week was the herbarium, a collection of preserved plant specimens. I learned how to preserve the plants that we had collected using a plant press. That is also where I saw a family of marmot pups living underneath the porch! It has been really fun to watch them run around and interact with one another. Our treasure hunts have been to find and collect certain plants for the RMBL and Emory herbaria and the flowers from these plants which are needed for Karen Bell’s pollen barcoding project back at Emory. Searching for these specific plants around RMBL has been fun, but finding and identifying the correct plants was a true challenge! We were able to successfully find and collect almost all of the plants on our list!

Back to our primary work: we spent several days practicing techniques and finalizing our protocol. We then did a practice run through our protocol at one of our sites and (hopefully) worked out all of the kinks. We were all set to establish our remaining sites and it rained and rained. Hopefully the sun will come out and we can finish setting up our sites!

Blog Post 3: July 8, 2016

July 4th is a big thing at RMBL. The night before everyone made a costume out of Veratrum leaves. On the fourth, after RMBL’s annual 1/3 marathon, everyone put on their costumes and we walked in the Crested Butte parade. It was a lot of fun and everyone looked very silly!
After July 4th weekend, things got very busy. We finished setting up our study sites! One of our sites is in Virginia Basin, which is a long and hard hike uphill. However, it is totally worth it. The view is beautiful and the biting flies aren’t as bad up there! We have also begun to collect data. We are surveying the flowers and pollinators in our study sites. We are also surveying their interactions. We watch to see which pollinators land on which flowers. We have been collecting the pollinators and bringing them back to the lab to be identified. Our data collection has been taking much longer than we anticipated, so we have been spending a lot of time in the field.

Blog Post 4: July 15, 2016

This past week flew by, but the flies didn’t! We caught more than 800 flies! We spent a few days in the field conducting flower surveys and interaction surveys, and collecting pollinators. We were surprised to find that most of the flowers in our Gothic Town site had gone to seed since we had visited it last week. Hopefully new flowers will be in bloom next week. Since we collected so many pollinators, we had to spend a couple of days in the lab processing our data, but we are headed back out into the field tomorrow!

One of the exiting things about working at RMBL is that scientists share their work through weekly lectures. This week, Dr. Gerardo Ceballos came to RMBL to give a talk on the Sixth Mass Extinction. He discussed the importance of population extinctions as well as species extinctions. Dr. Ceballos is well known for his work in conservation. He proposed the first Mexican endangered species act, and many other policies to promote conservation and protection. It was very interesting to hear him speak, and learn about ways to promote conservation.

Blog Post 5: July 22, 2016

There has been quite a bit of rain this past week. The rain has forced us to spend most of our time in the lab, as pollinators are not active in the rain. We have been catching up on processing our data; after we bring the insects we collected back to the lab we have to give each insect a unique specimen number. Since we have been catching an overwhelming number of insects we were behind on assigning them specimen numbers. We have been trying to get out into the field as much as possible despite the rainclouds. Yesterday we were in the field when dark ominous clouds suddenly filled the sky. We quickly finished up and raced back. Our luck held out, but as soon as we got into the car, it started to pour!

On my continued wildlife encounter series—Monday night, a bat flew into my cabin! After flying around for several long minutes, it stopped and perched itself on my ceiling (see photo). My friend, a bat expert, caught it using a colander and a book.  We managed to keep it contained until – oops – it escaped in the living room and began flying around and around again. Eventually, it flew out our front door and was once again free!

Blog Post 6: July 29, 2016

Wow! It seems impossible to believe I have been at RMBL for 6 weeks! The time has passed so quickly.  Today I caught five bumblebees—that is my record for the number of bumblebees caught in one day! We mostly catch flies and hemipterans, so it is very exciting when we catch a bumblebee! When we catch bumblebees, we place them in a cooler for a few minutes to calm them and then mark them with different colored paint. We then set them free.  That way, if we catch the same bumblebee again we will know that this was one we previously caught.  This bumblebee pictured here is a Bombus flavifrons and the pink and purple dots are the unique identification markings we added.

This evening was the community art show. I entered two of my favorite photographs.  It was interesting to see that so many scientists here at RMBL are also artists. The art presented took all different forms – from performance art to paintings and photographs. My favorite art piece was titled “I wish you knew…” It was collaborative piece showcasing a variety of anonymous testimonies all focused on social injustice and inequality. As a work of art, it made a powerful statement. One of the most valuable aspects of being at RMBL is getting to know so many scientists and learning so much about them both as science professionals and as real people with varied interests and talents. 

Blog Post 7: August 5, 2016

This week was our last week out in the field collecting data. We will spend next week in the lab processing and packing up all of our data to take back to Emory. We expect to spend several months in our lab at Emory identifying all of the insects we have collected.

It is amazing how our field sites have changed throughout the summer. Each week we saw changes in both the plant and insect communities.  One of the most striking experiences has been to watch the police-car moth’s lifecycle. In June, we observed many caterpillars and now, as August begins, these moths are very abundant in our sites and all over RMBL.

As the summer wraps up, the REU students at RMBL have begun presenting their summer research. It has been so interesting to watch the presentations and learn what other students have discovered here this summer.

Tonight is the “No Talent Show,” an annual RMBL tradition in which people come out to perform silly acts! I am looking forward to it!

Final RMBL Blog Post:

We managed to process our data and pack up the lab much more quickly than anticipated, so we decided to go back into the field! During our last week, we conducted bumble bee population surveys. This data contributed to a long term project that the Brosi Lab has been conducting for the past six years. At our Judd Falls site I caught (and later released) a Bombus occidentalis, a species that is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. B. occidentalis are easy to identify in the field because of the white fuzz at the tip of their abdomen, however they are a rare find so it was exciting.

To celebrate the end of the field season we climbed to the summit of Gothic Mountain! It was a long and hard but rewarding hike, complete with three false peaks. Our perseverance was totally worth it as the view from the true peak was beautiful! It was a fun way to end our amazing summer in the Rocky Mountains. I am thankful for this experience, and I look forward to seeing what the data we collected tells us!