New Job- Bringing Back the Blog

Well I haven’t posted on here in well over a year, but there hasn’t been much megatransect-ing happening for the past year either. I’ve been in the U.S. working, saving $$ and paying student loans, and job searching. Well that has all come to a close because….About_YPlogo-300x256I have a new job! Most of you reading this most likely saw it on my Facebook page already, but I am the new Program and Development Director for the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program. This position is much more conservation-focused than others that I’ve had, as I won’t be doing any field work or data collection. Instead I will be managing GPOCP’s various conservation projects- working directly with the Indonesian staff, planning and strategizing, writing grants and communicating with stakeholders. I’m really excited; I’ve only met a couple of people that I’ll be working with on Skype but they seemed very knowledgeable and excited about working together, and I can’t wait to meet them in person! If you’re interested in the conservation projects, check out the “Conservation” links on the GPOCP website. There is a lot of great work happening, ranging from environmental education to assisting with investigations of illegal orangutan trade in the area. I’m sure I’ll write about each of the projects and programs more in depth at some point, but that’s a good overview.

I’ll be moving to Borneo (the western province, Kalimantan Barat) next month- leaving June 17th, to be exact! Needless to say, since I got the job I’ve been very busy trying to get everything in order- finishing up students at my current job, making sure I get new visa pages in my passport, scheduling doctor and dentist appointments before my insurance runs out in August, trying to find new international medical insurance… the list goes on. In a couple of weeks I’ll be heading out to Boston to meet Dr. Cheryl Knott, the Executive Director of the program, for training and to get a jump start on reports and grants that need to be written.

Long story short: Moving to Borneo. New (awesome and perfect) job. Bringing the blog back at the request of my family. Stay tuned for adventures in orangutan conservation and Indonesian wanderings!

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A Pilot Study, Data Entry, and some Cheesy Pasta…

Well the title of this one about sums up my week! It was a pretty standard week in the forest, as I did a couple of days on orangutan work and then a few on various projects around camp.  Cis, Ari and I also piloted the new research project that I’ve been working on, which was quite fun.  The new project is on how the microtopography of the forest (the small hills and valleys that in part characterize peat swamp forest) dictates which tree species can grow where.  Some trees like the hilly bits, some like the low watery bits, and its possible that some have no preference; the goal of this project is to gather information on which species prefer which habitats and what this means for forest ecology.  I’m pretty pumped about this because it is the first project I’ve designed essentially on my own (in terms of the methods and compiling the background information) and from the pilot work we did I think it will work out quite well!  Of course now I’ve spoken too soon and I’m sure some major issue will come along, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there I suppose.

In other news, I’m in town for a few days enjoying cheesy pasta, sprite, and relatively non-mosquito free nights while doing some data entry, compiling our monthly report, and researching papers for another project.  Tomorrow will be another sweaty market day- Riethma (our friend/accountant/guru for all things Palangkaraya) and I are going shopping for new office chairs.  Between all of us living in the house here we’ve broken 3 chairs over the past couple of months, and while these occasions add comedic value to our days, we’ve decided that its time to fix the problem and buy some better chairs (see below)

Yep, I broke this one

Yep, I broke this one

In the meantime, for those of you who haven’t yet, check out my Whats Happening Wednesday blog post on the OuTrop blog!  The link is here: http://outrop.blogspot.com/2013/02/whats-happening-wednesday-6-putting.html

Sampai nanti lagi everyone, and for those of you in Amuurica I hope you’re not entirely snowed in!  (Insert appropriate joke about the snowstorm being named Nemo here)

Say Cheeeeese

Well another week and a half has come and gone and I’m back from the forest (have been for a couple of days actually, but who’s counting?) I’ve been doing a bit of work on our camera trapping project recently, and it occurred to me that people may not know exactly what this means.  So, it’s time for a science lesson!

This may or may not be obvious to most of you reading this blog, but a camera trap is essentially a battery-powered camera that can be placed in an environment- in our case, mounted on a tree in the forest- in order to opportunistically collect data on wildlife.  The cameras have motion detectors so that they automatically take photos when animals walk by.  Camera traps are especially useful for gathering information on species richness (the number of species) in a given area, but with the right placement and sample size (number of photos taken) they can also be used to collect data on population size/density of a given species. Photos from camera traps can even be used to identify individual animals, if each individual in a population has distinctive markings.  Camera trap sampling has a lot of pros: after the initial time investment of finding good places to put them the cameras don’t require much additional labor, they collect data 24/7, and the photos are great for public outreach.

In Sabangau we currently have 20+ cameras set out in 12 locations, with data downloaded every two weeks.  Adul is our local camera trap project coordinator, and going out with him to change the cameras is one of my favorite jobs around camp- he can be quite silly, and we usually have lots of fun just walking around the forest.  Plus, coming back to camp and checking the memory cards is a little bit like Christmas; you never know what will show up on the photos!  The best days are when we get photos of interesting behavior (macaques mating? a clouded leopard climbing down a tree? we’ve seen it!) or of animals that rarely get caught on the cameras.  The major focus of the camera trapping project is felids, and to date the data have shown that our forest has 4 of the 5 major species of Bornean cats.  This information is invaluable for the continued conservation of Sabangau.  The cameras also occasionally catch humans as well, and Adul and I have become quite good at identifying people in the photos from their legs alone (it also keeps us on our toes…. we’re all careful to stop and think about where we are in the forest if we need an, ahem… “comfort” break!)

Anyway, enough talk- let’s see some photos!  HERE is the link to OuTrop’s brand new Best Photos of 2012 video, made by yours truly.  Check it out to see some of the wildlife of Sabangau, as well as to get an idea of what the forest here looks like.  As for me, it’s back to office work on this rainy Tuesday afternoon 🙂

Guest post: Jess Stitt, orangutan intern extraordinaire

This post is a little bit different than normal in that my friend Jess and I decided to a do a one-post blog swap, so here is a post entirely in her words!  Jess is also from the U.S., and we in fact have some friends and places in common.  She’s been here since August and is about to ship out back to the homeland, potentially to start a Ph.D. in the fall.  Anyway, I gave her some prompts for this post, which are written here in bold, and here are her responses.  If you want to see MY guest post on her blog, head on over to jessmstitt.blogspot.com

More from me in a bit, right now I’m off to make some noodles for lunch!

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Hello everybuddy! My name’s Jess, and I am the Orangutan Intern here at OuTrop! I get
to work and hang out with Cassie, stomping around the swamp all day in Borneo, which I
think is a pretty sweet deal.

What do you do every day?

My job is to find and follow orangutans. This means I basically have free reign over a
national park to spend my time wandering around, playing hide and seek with orangutans
in the tropics. If I find one of the big red apes, I get to follow them as they go about
their daily routine. During this time, I take data (alongside another researcher) on
activity budgeting, ranging behavior, and social encounters to get a better sense of
how orangutans live their lives. The project I am working on is specifically looking at
social networking in female orangutans, studying the interactions between individuals.
The goal is to gain a better understanding of where this population of orangutans falls
on a sociality scale, ranging from highly social to completely solitary, and what the
motivations are for social behavior. I keep sending the female orangutans Facebook
friend requests to get more info on their social networking habits, but no luck so far.

TeresiaMain

Jess may make bad jokes (a lot of bad jokes) but she takes amazing pictures- here is Teresia, an orangutan who I have actually spent a lot of time following lately, and her 1.5 year old yet-to-be-named infant

What is your favorite and least favorite thing about your job?

Well, my favorite thing about my job is my job. I have wanted to study great apes in the
jungle since I was a young girl inspired by Jane Goodall. This work here is really cool,
because we are following wild orangutans, witnessing their natural behavior, and they
are okay with playing this game of hide and seek with us. Following the same individuals
over time, I start to notice personality differences, and hanging out mostly with females
means I get to spend a lot of time with their adorable offspring, too.

I also love that I am witness to an incredible amount of biodiversity, living here and
spending so many hours out in the field. I really love the array of creatures I see in a
given day or week, and I’m always looking for new species.

However, the toughest thing about my job is spending all those hours out in the field.
Orangutans get up at dawn and go to bed at dusk, meaning the researchers have to get upan hour before dawn, and sometimes don’t end the day until an hour after dusk. It can be very physically and mentally draining to spend 12-14 hours in the field in one stretch,
especially if you do it several days in a row.

If you could be anything in our forest, what would you be?

If I could be anything in this forest, I would be a Tumih tree. This is a tree that appears to
be softwood, so it grows relatively fast, and gets quite big and tall. As a tumih, I would
tower over the forest, getting to sit and watch life go by. Being a tree means I would get
a nice long lifespan (especially since I don’t think tumih wood is commercially viable),
with great views, and get to witness the changes that occur over a century. As an added
bonus, because of deep furrows in my bark, epiphytes love to grow on me. They add
a little bit of weight, but give me a gorgeous, awesome living green coat. Orangutans
sometimes climb me to eat these epiphytes, and gibbons and kelasi like to sleep high up
in my branches, away from the dangers of lower down trees. I am sure an occasional sun
bear, civet, and clouded leopard use my open canopy for lovely lounging from time to
time too! Tumih, or not tumih – that is the question I know the answer to.

DSCN0841

Jess hard at work taking data

New Research! #nerdalert

Well, with volunteer season over and the year wrapping up, it would seem that my time here in Borneo is coming to an end.  Except for… wait for it… it’s not!

I’ve recently finalized my plans and will be staying here now until May, and transitioning into a slightly different role with OuTrop.  We’re going to have some staff changes around here in a couple of months, so for the rest of my time here I’ll be filling the combined role of assistant manager and project scientist.  On the managerial side, I’ll be dealing with administrative, financial, and logistical issues relating to the day-to-day workings of the project.  On the scientist side… well that remains to be seen!  I will be the only non-primate specialist at camp, so I essentially have the opportunity to do any forestry research I want.  My main jobs will include wrapping up some old projects, continuing work on current projects (like the seedling planting work we’ve been doing) and thinking about/establishing future research projects for team forestry.  Ideally, we would like to come up with a new project that can be completed during the rest of my time here, so the clock is ticking.  This month I’m going to do a lot of reading and thinking about possible questions and experimental designs so that when I come back from vacation in January I’ll be able to hit the ground running and start data collection. This will be great both for OuTrop’s forestry research and for me, because then I will have another self-directed research project to my name.

So, it’s time to think of ideas!  I’ve got some general themes in mind, but they’re big topics: herbivory, seed dispersal (possibly post-dispersal seed predation?), and the influence of microtopography on species distribution in the forest.  If anyone out there reading has good papers on any of these topics, feel free to email them to me- I’ve now lost my university journal access (damn you Columbia for taking it!) so I just have to count on the good will of others to get papers sent my way.

In the meantime, it’s back to camp tomorrow to do a bit of butterfly work and get the newly planted seedlings (all 1,300 of them) measured before the water gets too deep.  After that… bring on the data entry!

Herbivory in a tropical peat swamp forest

Herbivory in a tropical peat swamp forest

Reforestation/Seedling Project

As I have mentioned before, Nick and I have been planning a reforestation project at Sabangau. We’ve been doing a lot of planning lately and are finally ready to start planting seedlings this week.

About 50 years ago- according to the people who live in Kereng- there was a massive fire at Sabangau that created the forest edge that we see today.  The burned area left behind is now overgrown with some small shrubby trees, sedge and pitcher plants, and a lot of thick, very tall grass.  Conditions in this area are harsh; during the wet season everything is flooded and during the dry season plants are subject to scorching heat and direct sunlight.  We’re interested in testing a number of different species, most of which are pioneer species but a couple of which are more interior forest species that we just happen to have on hand and ready for planting, to see which species can survive in this habitat.  If there are one or two that really take to it, then in the future these would be used in a much larger-scale replanting project that would hopefully help restore some of the burned area to forest.  Smaller-scale projects like this have been done at Sabangau in the past but this time we are going to cover a much bigger area, use more seedling species, and plant a larger sample size of each species.

The plan is to plant 225 seedlings on each of 6 transects.  The first transect is 50 meters from the forest, and the furthest 300 meters.  We’re planting 30 seedlings of each of 7 species on each transect, as well as 15 seedlings of a control species that naturally grows out in the burned area anyway.  These seedlings will be monitored over the coming months and years to collect data on mortality and growth rates.  This is a really exciting project, both from a nerdy experimental “we want to see what happens when we do this” point of view, as well as from an on-the-ground conservation point of view.  If we can, in the future, restore some of the forest in Sabangau, the methods will be applicable to other places in the surrounding area.

This project is our focus for the upcoming week, and it’s going to be a lot of work!  We will probably have to carry seedlings out in the very early (aka when the sky is still dark) morning so that planting can start as soon as the sun rises.  We have to start early because otherwise it just gets too hot to work; between the hours of about 10 am and 2 pm working conditions just aren’t safe out in the burned area. But, hopefully we can get all 1,350 seedlings planted in the next 5-6 days… sleep deprivation be damned!  I always say that I would much rather study trees because you don’t have to wake up super early to go find them in the forest like you do primates, but I guess this week all of camp will be waking up early for work! Wish us luck…

Part of the burned area outside of camp- our planting area is a bit less photogenic than this, though!

Days Off and My New Pet

Hey all!  Today is my second day off since the volunteers got here, so I came into town to use the internet and catch up on a few things.  The long weekend is coming in a few days but that’s not really a break for me, so I got to take a few days off now.

Things at camp have been busy as usual- but the vols have been doing well, and they’ve gotten to see some amazing stuff, including a tarsier and an interesting interaction between a juvenile orangutan and a loris.  It’s just been primate central lately!  The other day I also saw a pack of 8 hornbills, which was really exciting.  I don’t have many animals left on my must-see list anymore.  Aside from primate stuff (booooring, I know), Nick and I have been pretty busy planning our reforestation project.  We are going to plant 1,350 seedlings in the degraded area outside the forest next week in a large-scale experiment to see which tree species might be best for restoring that particular area.  It’s the perfect time for it right now because the rainy season is coming, so there is less of a chance that the seedlings will die from the heat/sunlight.  I’ll update more on that after we’ve finished it, but we’re almost done measuring and tagging the seedlings we plan to use, so things are coming along nicely.

And in other news, I have my first parasite.  Wooohooo!  Its not that uncommon for people in camp to get hookworms once in awhile, and it was apparently my turn this week.  The good news is that it just takes a few days and a few pills to get rid of it.  The bad news is that in the meantime he’s (yes, I’ve decided it’s a dude) just crawling around under the skin on my leg and leaving a nice trail. If you’re curious, google “hookwork in skin”- although don’t if you don’t like gross stuff- and look at the first picture! Mine actually isn’t that bad, you can barely see the path, but it’s the same idea.  Luckily he should be nice and dead by tomorrow, but in the meantime it’s pretty itchy.

Okay, I’m off to have a nice lunch and walk around the mall before heading back to camp tonight, but hopefully I will have a chance to update more later this weekend.  Sampai jumpa lagi…