Life of a Field Ecologist

It took Chena Desai, PhD student at the Ecology and Environment Lab, six months to shadow Hyenas, her model organism. Her guide, Ratna Ghosal, Assistant Professor, Biological and Life Sciences division, School of Arts and Sciences, had hinted at it being a challenging model to pursue but never dissuaded her from doing so. “I was very sure I wanted to study Hyenas because I knew not many studies had been conducted on them. I wanted to study their social behaviour,” says Chena. Six months later, all she had managed to observe of the elusive animal was the tail of a solitary one. “I was distraught. Six whole months and a tail! Professor Ghosal just comforted me, saying several others had similar stories to narrate and steered me towards Cichlids. I wasn’t so sure. I hated fish.”

Chena learnt the hard way that being an field ecologist is not the easiest of career choices to adhere to. “But I stuck on. I love being on the field and now I love fish. I often wonder why I didn’t choose Cichlids as my model organism earlier. But it’s a path you have to tread to know what could work and what could possibly not,” she says. She joined the lab as a Master's thesis student in 2019 and as a PhD student in 2020. For her PhD dissertation, she is studying the causal relationship between environmental stimuli and ecological processes, in terms of niche occupancy and species interactions, using two congeneric, Cichlid species under manipulative, laboratory conditions.

It may appear to be a slow-moving afternoon at the Ecology and Environment Lab in the Biosciences Research Laboratory building, tucked away from the busy Commerce Six Roads in Ahmedabad. The mood, however, is ebullient despite the immense data that the three PhD students, a PhD candidate, a Master’s thesis student, and an undergraduate research programme student are processing currently. “Handling data and analysing it is the most critical part of research in our lab, almost 60 per cent of our work. But it is the most daunting part of a field ecologist’s life. The most thrilling part in our life is the one when we are on field,” says PhD student Brinky Desai. She should know. As someone who has been chasing the Mugger Crocodile as her model organism since 2015, Brinky divides her time across the state of Gujarat. Her doctoral research focuses on understanding the ecological adaptation of Mugger Crocodile populations across three geographically diverse habitats within the state. “Crocodilians are called the survivors from the dinosaur era. That’s the reason I want to analyse different aspects of their adaptation strategy,” she says. While most of us spent our lockdown at home, this field ecologist spent months during the Covid lockdown at the Madras Crocodile Bank, in the company of the Mugger Crocodile. 

It’s not just adventure all along - Suman Mallick can reassure you on that front. The PhD student’s model organism is the Sailfin Catfish, an exotic species native to Amazon basins which has been introduced to India for its algae-scavenging ability that prevents harmful blooms in ponds. Suman has spent hours using unusual tactics and persuasion techniques to procure fresh batches of his model organisms from fisherfolk. “I have baited them (the fisherfolk) with the lure of business proposals. I have also spent several early morning hours standing in ponds waist down in water because I needed to get my fish at that precise moment. I have shed tears when my fish have caught a disease or have had to be experimented on. I just share some inexplicable bond with them,” he says. Suman’s research focuses on various interactions between native and exotic species when introduced in a non-native environment.

The labmates who arguably spend all their waking hours on field or in the lab share a close camaraderie. “Even when we are unwell, we can’t stay away from the lab. Our discussions are about the living creatures around us. We understand the loss the other feels when something is amiss with their model organisms. We wait to share stories with each other and no other researchers understand this level of near-madness that we live with,” says Chena. As field ecologists, they often find themselves being envied by other researchers who assume they take off on vacation every few months. “This is not a vacation. Of course, we enjoy our field work but we are not on a break. We are up at 4 and sometimes late into the night. It’s excruciating work while we are on field, crawling on all fours to get through barbed wire fencing, getting scratched in the process, waiting for muggers to do their business so we can collect the scat, waiting endlessly to collect data, data, and more data - it’s a tough job,” adds Brinky. “Passion feeds the hard work you’ve got to put in and there is no shortage of that. We know we’ve got each other’s back,” says Suman.

Dangers for field ecologists may be many but one learns to tackle them with experience. “Yes, they say humans are more dangerous than animals but I’ve had the best experience with people too. I usually move around on my bike within Gujarat and I am trained to handle a drone which helps me with my model organisms. People usually are fascinated seeing a biker girl with a drone. Works in my favour!” says Brinky. Suman agrees. “I have at least 10 fisherfolk or breeders in my network right now. They help me and rely on my advice when it comes to managing their fish population in case of an attack or a disease.”