Tuesday, August 2, 2016

3.August.2016 (Day 60)

Directions East



The day has finally arrived when I begin my long journey home back to the states, an eastward crawl that should get me back to my girls in ~28 hours.


Australia has been good to me, and the NT in particular will always hold a piece of my heart. The people up here and their laid-back attitude towards (literally) everything has been nothing but good for me.


Before coming to Australia, I had a particular vision for what it was like. I’ve found that many Yanks who haven’t been here hold a similar perception.

Scary Australia





I’m here to tell you, unequivocally, this just isn’t the case.



The sheer size and diversity of the place, the different landscapes, and the people, will all be near and dear to my heart forever.




The beaches…


Darwin, NT






Mangrove swamps…




Casuarina, NT






Outback…



Kakadu, NT




And sunsets…


Wave hill, NT




Have all felt pretty unreal.




And most of the ‘cultural’ experiences have been one-of-a-kind.


Daly Waters, NT






The wild feel of exploring Australia is something that has to be experienced.




From towering monoliths…



Jim jim falls, NT





Cascading waterfalls…




Florence falls, NT





To big-sky country so flat and open it seems to go on forever.




Somewhere along Hwy 11, NT








The stars…



Borroloola, NT






Fires…


Harrison dam, NT



And serenity of it all will always stay with me.



Kakadu, NT





The animals are too many to go over here. I could spend days recounting all the amazing wildlife I had the chance to interact with.

I set my sites very high with this trip. I didn’t actually expect to complete three different projects in only eight weeks. Even though I felt mostly overwhelmed by the work-load for the majority of the trip, I feel proud to look back on my accomplishment. The research I’ve conducted, colleagues made, and the chance to have an international experience, will no doubt be a huge boost for my career.

Thank you for reading along throughout this experience. It’s been a wild ride, full of ups and downs and a million different bumps and kinks (most of which I tried to sugar-coat for the blog). 


If I leave Australia with anything, it’s that, in the end, she’ll be ‘right.


31.July-2.August.2016 (Day 57-59)

Kakadu



I finished all my data collection on time, accomplishing what I set out to do over eight weeks in Australia.


The plan with my remaining days was to start on some data analysis. 

I wasn’t planning on working the whole time; I still wanted to go out a bit to see some of the NT before heading home.







The best-laid plans of mice and men

go aft awry.






First the pump that feeds the station water went out.
Okay, we’ll be stinky for a bit, no worries.


Then the internet goes south.
No distractions, time to get to work.


Bring on a power-outage.
Err, I can always read by candlelight.



And the straw that broke the camel’s back? 

It was a long-weekend in the NT so we’d probably need to wait 2-3 days to get everything back and running (If you’re wondering what the holiday was…’picnic day’...don't ask, who knows).



The universe was clearly pointing me away from the office for my last few days in Australia. 


A colleague and I took this chance to go camping for a few days in a local national park, Kakadu.



Thanks Universe, good on ya’.



I showed you some pictures earlier from Litchfield Park, which is nice. But most of it can be driven through in a day. 

Comparatively, Litchfield is a blip, Kakadu is huge!




There are aboriginal rock drawings that were drawn around 1,000 years ago when Europeans were, literally, still living in the dark age.



gunbim, Aboriginal word for rock art






Drawings were all over certain sites in Kakadu. My favorite (and coincidentally the oddest by far) was of Nabulwinjbulwinj (Nar-bull-win-bull-win) who is a dangerous spirit who eats women after throwing yams at them.





Nabulwinjbulwinj




Besides beautiful scenery, rock art, and animals. We were also on the hunt for some good swimming holes/waterfalls.



Jim jim falls did not disappoint for swimming (although the water flow this time of year wasn’t too substantial). Tucked deep into a canyon with walls hundreds of feet tall the cool waters were a breath of fresh air in the hot outback.




Jim jim falls, Kakadu, NT






Gunlam falls was just as impressive, the view from up top was, err, a little nerve-racking.



Gunlam falls, Kakadu, NT 







From up on high the view of Kakadu is enough to take your breath away.




Bury my heart in the NT






The scenery was incredible.



The animals?



Hands down one of the best spots I’ve been the whole trip!



Freshwater whipray (Himantura dalyensis)



Yes, you’re seeing that correctly. Australia has stingrays in the freshwater and much like the park they inhabit, these bad boys are humongous. At about 1m (3.3ft) across, there isn’t a lot known about them. I did find out that they eat fish and shrimps and much them down with over 40 rows of tiny teeth.




Red-collared lorikeet (Trichoglossus rubritorquis)



Aside from being beautiful, some of these birds were also acting a little weird. Not flying very well, and about half of them seemed to barely be holding onto their perches. I thought maybe there was some kind of disease in the population, but after a good ol’ google search it turns out this ‘drunken’ behavior is observed in wild populations every year in the dry season. No one really knows why, but I’m guessing they eat some type of over-ripe fruit that has started to turn boozey.

Drunken birds.

Only in the NT.




There were cool birds all over the place in Kakadu. Not all of them were hammered though, and most were concentrated around the limited left-over water and were easy to get some good pics.



There were stoic birds…


Channel –billed cuckoo (Scythrops novaehollandiae)






Beautiful birds…




Pied Imperial Pigeon (Ducula bicolor)







Goofy birds…


Partridge pigeon (Geophaps smithii)






What can only be described as menacingly ugly birds…



Bar shouldered dove (Geopelia humeralis)






And pretty much the most adorable birds ever!



Radjah shelduck (Tadorna radjah)







I can’t pretend that all we saw were birds and water holes though, the herps were out in full force too.






Yellow-faced turtle (Emydura tanybaraga)






Not to mention a wonderfully cute pair of goannas, looking out over their swimming hole.




Martens’ water monitor (Varanus mertensi)







Some were, ummm, a little less inviting into their swimming waters.


Freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnsoni)







We even had the chance to see some new snake species while out and about at night.


Black-headed python (Aspidites melanocephalus)





Macleay’s water snake (Pseudoferania polylepis)







And the biggie. 


One of the animals I had to see in Australia. 

Completing my trifecta, and the perfect punctuation to the last eight weeks (not to mention one of the coolest snakes ever)…



Death adder (Acanthophis antarcticus)




These snakes will lay buried in leaves, sitting for days and waiting for food to scurry by. They use their stubby little, grub-shaped tail to lure in prey. They possess the longest fangs of any Australian snake and are also the fastest strik. Unlike most of the other Australian nasties, they’re pretty mellow (and photogenic) and a force to be respected.





This has been an amazing experience and the last eight weeks have, mostly, flown by. I can’t stress enough how excited I am to go home though.

I’ve been away from my girls for waaaay too long and I’m bursting with joy at the thought of seeing them soon. After, ugh, ~26hrs of travel.

So close.







Friday, July 29, 2016

21-30.July.2016 (Day 46-56)

Why should we care? 




Data collection is complete!

It didn’t take as long as expected but I worked like a dog and managed to get it all done with a few days to spare.


Looking at my dragons-horde pile of samples is a little unbelievable…



There will be blood (errr, plasma)






I’ve always been terrible at those guessing games where you need to write down how many M&Ms, pennies, etc. are in a jar. You know, whoever is closest wins some silly gift.




Maybe you’re better at than me.



Any guesses?







I’m not exactly playing fair, because I didn’t even keep track.



I can tell you there’s around 837 little vials full of snake/toad plasma in the picture.
(120 cane toads, 24 children’s pythons, 60 water pythons, and another 15 water pythons bled on five different occasions, all in triplicate!)


I always make some extra vials for those ‘just in case’ situations, and it’s a darn good thing I do because I needed them plenty this time.



The basics run-down: I did four different tests on each animal (don’t let the words confuse you; they’re all very simple tests).


1) Osmolality- I ran samples through a machine that tells me how concentrated little particles are in water. If an animal is hydrated there would be a low number of particles, as it dehydrates the water goes bye-bye and the particle concentration (theoretically) goes up.


2/3) Lysis/Agglutination- I mix my animals plasma (toad/snake blood without the red blood cells, think of it as blood-water) with sheep red blood cells to see how well immune particles in the plasma can attach (agglutination) and kill (lysis) whole sheep cells.



Lysis/Agglutination




This is my best-friend, as 96-well plate. You guessed it; there are 96 little holes in each plate. This is a view from up on high of some of the action. In each row (left to right, A-H) is a different animal sample mixed with sheep red blood cells. In each column (up and down, 1-12) is a different ratio of animal plasma to sheep cells. At the top there is almost equal parts animal plasma to sheep cells, as it moves down there is the same amount of sheep cells but less and less animal plasma.

The wells that have a red dot in them don’t have much going on.

Look at row B, there is nothing but red dots. This animal isn’t very good at killing sheep cells. The animals in rows C and E are pretty darn good and the animals in rows A and D are somewhere in the middle.


4) Bacterial Killing Assay- this is the test that always intimidates people, but I’d like to think it’s the easiest to understand. Once again, I use my friend the 96-well plate and create the perfect combination of nutrients to grow E. coli overnight. And it grows really well.

Into some of the wells I’ll add the nutrient juice, the bacteria, and some of my animal plasma. Wait 12 hours. And then check to see how well the bacteria grew while soaking in animal plasma. There are a lot of errors that can occur in this test which is why I think people are scared of it. Contamination from bacteria floating all around the environment is the biggest risk (I am adding the perfect bacteria growing juice after all). As a backup I do everything x3. In case I made a mistake, there are always a few backups.

Bacterial Killing Assay




The top right corner is one of my controls, it has NO bacteria growing in it, it’s nice and clear (remember I do everything x3, so it’s the three wells in the top right corner). Just to the left of the ‘no growth’ control, is the ‘zany growth’ control. These wells don’t have any plasma, just bacteria and da’ juice. There are an out of control amount of E. coli in these wells.

The rest of the plate is full of my animals plasma mixed with bacteria. You can see that some of the animals in the middle did a really good job and the wells look clear. Others? Not so much.


Those are my main tests. Simple right?

With these (plus field date like size, mass, sex, etc.) I have all the basic info I need to start answering some of my questions.



Now I know:
1) How hydrated is the animal?
2) How does its immune system perform?



And I can start on data analysis to help the most interesting question:
3) How are these two factors (hydration and immune function) related?


But (there's always a but), the question I get the most still remains:


Why should we care?




The truth is, no one has any idea how hydration affects immune function (or vice versa).



Remember how I told you osmolality is the concentration of particles inside your plasma? 

Some diseases, like cholera, kill millions of people because they lose too much water. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of how you lose that water; suffice to say it exits quickly and violently. People basically die from dehydration.

There are also other diseases like diabetes that kill you from too many particles (blood sugar).

I simplify my experiments by telling people I work on hydration, but osmolality is really two parts. How much water and how many particles.  


This explanation has turned out to be much longer than I had planned. Time to bring it all home.

My experiments and my questions:

Water pythons- Held without water for 5 weeks, and bled throughout the process.

As these animals dehydrate, how does their immune system change? What about WPs living in the wild? Do they dehydrate through the dry season, and as they dehydrate does their immune system change just like it does in the lab?

Cane toads- Caught from four different sites (2 desert, 2 tropical) corresponding with their invasion history (from east to west).

Is there a difference in osmolality in toads from wet/dry habitats caught in the wild? How long will it take toads from the different sites to dehydrate? Are toads in the desert resistant to dehydrating? Similar to the WPs, as the toad dehydrate how does their immune system change? Will any of this information help explain how the heck these toads are racing across the Australian deserts?

Children's pythons- Caught in the wild throughout the dry season.

Does the dehydration experiments we do at ASU have any ecological relevance (ie how dehydrated do these animals get in the wild)?



At the end of the day I’m really only investigating a small piece of the puzzle. I have a million other questions that this data might help answer.

I should stress that this project is in no way finished. I have mountains of data to parse through and enough data analysis ahead of me that my head might explode. 

Hopefully it will help our understanding of some important unknowns though. 

It's time to start packing up and preparing for the long journey home. It's been too long and I'm bursting with excitement at the idea of being with wife and daughter again.




Wednesday, July 20, 2016

20.July.2016 (Day 45)

As good as it gets



Tonight was the last night I've scheduled for myself to go out looking for snakes. 

I’ve been working extra hard to get the last few and the colder weather isn’t helping much. 

It’s really come down to the wire.

At the start of my trip I would have shrugged away the thought of finding two water pythons and one children’s python in a night.

Child’s play.

With the recent change in climate in the top end, however, I’m anxiously optimistic at best.



If you believe in that sort of thing, a full, blood-red moon hung on the horizon. An omen of good or ill I really didn’t know.


Wierdos always come out during a full moon


(I guess exhibit A is yours truly, a nervous biologist frantically searching for pythons)





The night did not start out as planned.

The back roads had higher than usual traffic.




THE WORST. See you at dinner, cow!






It was another cold night, and the one animal I did see was sleepy like everything else around here these days.



Do not disturb






But the winds eventually changed a bit and I managed to find two water pythons while wandering around in the bush.



Okay, one more snake to go. Come on Brusch, get in the game and find this thang'.







I’m not a religious man, but you better believe I was praying to whatever god that a snake would find its way to me.







Be careful what you wish for.








I am now confident of two things:

1) Thoughts/wishes/prayers need to be very specific
2) I am truly cursed at finding the smallest example of animals









The smallest children’s python in existence





Curses! You’ve got to be kidding me! This little fella couldn’t have been more than 20cm (~8in). Don’t think for a minute that I didn’t seriously consider nabbing it up.





I probably could get blood out of it if I needed….

A snake is a snake, right…

I’m pretty sure they haven’t laid eggs this year yet, so it’s probably an adult…




These are the thoughts of desperation.




Luckily the combined voices of all my mentors superseded my frantic wish to grab it and I had to say goodbye. Comparing this animal to the other 23 (actual adults) I've caught would have been silly at best.





Ugh, one snake short. Not the end of the world.

 Time to pack it up and head home.

Start the car, drive back to the field station with my head low and my tail between my legs.





Without getting too deep into the subject, whatever power controls the universe has a weird sense of humor.




The most beautiful snake I’ve ever seen





Boom.



120/120 cane toads
75/75 water pythons
24/24 children’s pythons


I came, I snaked, I toad-ed.


[Mic drop]










Tuesday, July 19, 2016

18-19.July.2016 (Day 43-44)

Full moon, no stopping 



We have an excellent guard dog on the way to our house. Err guard bird. The barn owl I showed you earlier…


Barn owl (Tyto alba)






…is there every night. Screeching constantly, especially as you get closer to an old dead tree along the path that must be where it rests every night. It’s comforting to know that if anyone is walking around outside you’ll quickly know it; the screeching won’t end until you’ve gone back into one of the buildings.



I had always assumed they just didn’t like anyone else in their neighborhood.



Turns out the reason was far cuter,




Babies!



Spittin’ image of yer mum




Watching two fledglings clumsily walk around and learn to fly is just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Judging from their size I’m not sure I’d classify them as ‘babies’ anymore, but watching them fumble over each other and start to flap their wings is totes adorbs




Last night a fellow middle pointian came out to help in the search and we managed to bag two more little buggas. In return I helped him scout out a field site  at a local national park called Litchfield.





This place



Is



Awesome!



How I just found out about it is beyond me. Because we went during the day to scope the scene it was tourist-ville, but there were still plenty of amazing sites.





Magnetic termite (Amitermes meridionalis)




All of their mounds are on a north-south alignment to minimize exposure to the sun. Each mound is full of arches, tunnels, chimneys, insulation, and nursery chambers for their young.


The drier parts of the park were full of them and it felt like going through a graveyard.



A walk among the tombstones






A little back-story about one of the reasons I was so excited to come out here.

Coming from Phoenix I get used to being in the pool at least once a day (what else are you going to do when the thermometer starts blowing its top?), but being in the NT, virtually every body of water is crowded with giant salties.

I was given a little reprieve on my trip to Cairns, but only enough to wet my appetite, not satiate my need to swim around and feel free in the water.


Enter: Litchfield



What we were looking for was smaller streams that feed into the river. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have time to take a quick dip in the local swimming hole.


From high above on the canyon walls I could tell this place was going to be legit.



Buleys Rockhole





And from the bottom, while a bit crowded, it was everything I could have hoped for from the local ‘rockhole’ (which must be Ozzie for watery paradise).


Swimmin’ hole





The water felt amazing. I would argue it was the perfect temperature.




Swimmin hole (Part II)




Even though the falls were flowing pretty good I doubt it was strong enough to bathe the combined filth of 5+ weeks of field work off me, but I sure gave it my best shot.

Nature’s filth-be-gone








You’ll have to admit, I’ve been pretty good above not over doing the selfies on the trip so far.




Those days are behind us.



As a millennial it’s in my blood to see something cool and immediately think ‘hmm, now how I going to capture this moment and include my face +/- a silly expression???’



Because I had a partner in crime today, the selfies did flow!



Shameless waterfall selfie #2,856






Idiot-grin selfie #14,976





Shameless waterfall and idiot-grin selfie #12






Of course it wouldn’t be a selfie extravaganza + me in the water (not the best swimmer admittedly) without a drowned-rat epic-fail picture






An ever graceful mer-man





Getting to some of the farther-out areas of Litchfield were, ummm, interesting to say the least.



video






Tonight I’m going for the last of my snakes. Only one more children’s python and five more water pythons. It’s a full moon and the NT is burning in the distance. Anything can happen.