Often we think of science research and experiments as something that is done in a lab with certain equipment, computers, and microscopes. For field researchers, that is not the case as you will see throughout this post.
The type of research that we are doing does involve working in a lab, entering data into a computer, writing lab reports, and looking into microscopes at times, but the majority of this research is being done out in the ecosystem.
When we go out into the field to look for caterpillars we must, blaze a trail (sometimes through very thick undergrowth with a machete), set up a 10 meter by 10 meter plot, hunt for caterpillars, put the specimens we find into bags, and do an estimate count of the vegetation in our plot area. Think of the plot area as a 10 meter by 10 meter by 2.5 meter cylinder. The vegetation estimate is the hardest part. We use our math skills to try to estimate how many leaves are on EVERY plant in the plot area and then estimate what percent of the plants have been eaten by the caterpillars. I'll have to demonstrate how we do this when I get back to school. In the meantime, I would like you to pick a plant on our playground, the next time you are outside, and see if you can figure out a way to estimate the number of leaves on the plant.
Field work is hard work at times. Yesterday, our group spent nearly four hours in kayaks just looking for a good place to hunt caterpillars. Because of some recent flooding, we were never able to get out of the kayaks and go caterpillar hunting. We did see plenty of golden orb spiders. They kept getting on my kayak and paddles as we paddled through the swampy areas which was a bit eerie, but also very very interesting and adventurous. We were disappointed not to find any caterpillars, but that is all part of the process. (Later in the afternoon, we tried again on dry land, and found some very interesting specimens.)
Tomorrow during our video conference, I'll explain why 7 teachers from around the country have come to New Orleans to help these scientists collect and study caterpillars. I'm learning so much that I can't wait to share with you. I also have some very unusual caterpillars to show you. One thing that I have learned here is that I did not know how to look at nature very carefully before. There is a whole world of wonder out there that used to just look like trees, plants and leaves to me. Now I realize that they hide an entire little diverse world of living creatures.