Archive from October, 2013

The Famous Pancake Experiment

Hmm…how best to preserve our samples? DNA is a long and fragile molecule and it can be tricky to keep a biological sample is protected enough to ensure a high quality genetic sample. One of the easiest and best methods is to keep the sample in a cool, dry environment; so how best to preserve pika hair samples that are stuck on packing tape? Time to hunt around the lab for some supplies.

There’s always a truckload of 15mL tubes in pretty much any lab worth its salt, but if we store the samples in a sealed tube, how will they ever dry? Answer, there needs to be some desiccant inside of each tube. The downside of this of course is that the desiccant will stick to the packing tape we used to get the hair sample. We needed a membrane that would separate the desiccant from the sample but still allow air to flow between the two.

Kimwipes are about as common in genetics labs as fleas on a stray dog and just might do the trick. So we cut these tissues into small sections and jammed into each tube like loading an old musket. This seemed to work well so we produced them en mass.

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We were, however, worried that this would prohibit air exchange between the desiccant and sample. Thus began the famous pancake experiment of 2013. The desiccant is normally a blue color and turns bright pink when it absorbs water. We needed something to test dry, and the morning’s breakfast sounded perfect. A small piece of pancake inserted in the tube should turn the desiccant pink if air is exchanging across the Kimwipe and drying out the pancake. We inserted a small piece of the pancake and waited eagerly for signs of pink. To our great relief after a few hours the desiccant showed signs of turning pink and, the morning after, half the desiccant was wonderfully pink. The only downfall, we lost a bite of a tasty pancake, but it was all in the name of science.

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To Snare a Pikachu

Packing tape, check. GPS, check. Food, water, check. Time to set off on the trail to our first sampling site. We selected sites based on a number of criteria, accessibility being one of them but not necessarily top on the list. This means that we generally had to do a lot of bombing through the backcountry, but the upside was lots of great scenery.

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Once we get to the talus patch, it’s time to start looking for signs of pika. We can’t just put our snares anywhere in the talus, so it’s best to look for locations of recent pika activity. Pika are territorial creatures, so if you snare at a site that they use and have claimed as their own, your odds of getting a sample are far higher. If you look close enough in occupied talus, you’ll see signs of pika, such as haypiles, pika pellets, and sometimes you’ll even see the pika calling. These are all good spots to snare.

When we find signs of pika we need to set up snares. The snares we set up are “hair” snares, meaning we don’t want to catch and actual pika, just its hair. To do this we use plain old ordinary packing tape! Constructing a hair snare is a lot like making a Lego structure. Some people more dexterous than I are able to roll the tape by hand; When I tried this, I usually ended up just getting the tape stuck to my arm hair, ouch.

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I found rolling the tape is far easier if you use a wooden dowel for the center. You just roll it sticky side out on the dowel and it’ll pull right off, then just cut the tape tube to the desired length. Now it’s just a matter of building a snare that is tight enough that pika hair will get caught, but subtle enough that the pika will still run into it. This takes a lot of practice and time, each snare takes about 45 minutes to set up. We’d try and setup about 20 of these snares for each site and hope that at least 12 get hit.

Okay, several rolls of packing tape later (not to mention countless hours) you’ve got your snares set up. Now, it’s time to wait and hope for the best. We’d leave the snares set for a night or two before we check them. I’m not gonna lie, checking hair snares is an emotional roller coaster! You feel awesome when you get a hair sample. It’s the coolest thing in the world when your snare worked out. But when you check three or four snares in a row and get nothing, you feel like clubbing the closest pika! At any rate, we check all the snares and hope for 12 samples. Got ‘em great, clean up all the tape and go home. No luck, time to set more snares and do it all over again.

All in all, this was some of the best fieldwork I have gotten to do. The scenery was great, company was wonderful, and best of all, after some trial, and error the methods worked! We got over 200 samples from the Northern Cascade Mountains over the summer!

Site Selection: North Cascades Pika Project

For the first month of our field season we’re busy selecting sites for our study. Site selection is an important step in any research project and often involves hours of field exploration just to select the correct sites. In an environment such as the North Cascades National Park, where the terrain is steep and often dangerous, the selection process becomes even more important. Our goal over the next month is to find four elevational transects, each that include pikas living at low elevation sites of around 1,000 feet up to high elevation sites of 8,000 feet and at sites in between. Sounds like a lot of steep hiking in our future!

Study Area: North Cascades National Park

The pika research team is at it again in 2013 and this time we’re tackling the challenging terrain of the North Cascades to look for pikas. This year we’re interested in the genetic differences between high and low elevation pikas. When asking elevational questions such as this there’s no better place to conduct a study then in one of the most dramatic settings in the world, North Cascades National Park, in north central Washington. North Cascades National Park (or NOCA as we call it) is an ideal study area for us because of the drastic elevational range in which the pikas live. Pikas live at elevations of 1,000 feet all the way up to 9,000 feet here in NOCA. Should be a fun summer!