So… What does a field ecologist do?


By Anusha Shankar

I wanted to be a pilot, stage actress, psychiatrist, and teacher when I was younger. When you put it down on a CV or in a statement of purpose, your life has to seem like a carefully constructed tapestry. But to you, living your own life, it is usually more of a patchwork quilt of skills and experiences you’ve cobbled together. I never dreamed I’d be studying birds in South America. Well, here I am, my third time in Ecuador, this time for 7 months straight, working on hummingbird physiology, ecology, and behavior in the field. I can finally say I’m hooked. I love it.

That’s not to say all this has been easy. I am not a physiologist by training, and it has taken me a long time to feel ownership for my PhD project. But after struggling to get permits, visas, equipment; learning Spanish with no formal training; making mistake after mistake after mistake, and experiencing hummingbirds and the vagaries of the Andes for months on end, I own this, it is mine! As I read somewhere, a PhD is more a test of endurance than of intelligence or specific knowledge – you’ll come out tough and able to handle most of the things the world can throw at you. Field biologists, in addition, have to be adaptable to an extreme degree.

I think one of the toughest but most fun parts of it all is learning how to substitute ‘necessary’ comforts with things more readily available in a remote field site. My team and I have built a shower using a holey bucket because water pressure was too low, soldered phone and laptop chargers back together when they broke (no Apple/Motorola/Toshiba store in sight!) and rolled cans of water downhill so we’d have drinking water. We put hot water bags in our beds every night because we don’t have heating, use logs as exercise weights – because who’s going to carry dumbbells on a plane. And always, always, we stand/sit/lie in the weirdest positions to get cell reception on a phone or tablet. All in all, you get to immerse yourself in a new culture, with a new language, new people, without your usual support systems, and somehow make science happen.

Charger and Shower.jpgHow does science happen for me? When I am in Stony Brook, normally for 7/12ths of the year, I sit at a computer and analyze data, write, attend meetings- as do most grad students. In the field, I lead a polar existence. My team and I get up at about 5:15am and go open nets to catch hummingbirds (I am not a morning person, so UGH for the first half hour). Once we catch a bird (we usually use only males, so we don’t disturb possibly nesting females), we bring it back to our station and process it- we record its weight, fix a tiny metal band on its leg to identify it, and take morphological measurements. We then perform an experiment to record some aspect of its physiology- for instance, how its metabolic rate varies with temperature, or how much it can feed maximally, or how much energy it consumes to hover; and then we let it go. We then spend the rest of the day putting up cameras at flowers (to see which birds use which flowers to get energy), collecting nectar data from flowers, or recording hummingbird behavior. In the evenings, we usually net for birds again and run an experiment all night to see how much energy the birds use at night.

Fun fact: Hummingbirds, like some small mammals, can go into torpor at night. This means they switch from maintaining a constant body temperature, like us endotherms do, to being like ectotherms – like lizards – which allow the environment to determine their body temperature. This saves them a significant amount of thermoregulatory energy at night. So we record their energy use all night to see how the use of torpor changes for different species and temperatures.

Why do I do all this? My immediate goal is to make an energy budget using birds in their natural environment. This energy budget is a model of how much energy these birds spend on things like sleeping, finding food, and just perching on a branch, to understand what factors (e.g. temperature, flower availability, other hummingbirds) influence hummingbird energy use. The ultimate goal is to predict what a species would do in a range of conditions- for instance when temperatures rise further with climate change, or if resources decrease due to habitat destruction. Hummingbirds are tiny and run out of energy very quickly because they hardly store any fat. So if we understand how they manage their tight energy budgets, we can work up to more complicated energy budgets in other organisms.

I’m quite happy with how my patchwork quilt is shaping up, and excited to see what other field adventures the future holds. Along the way, I hope to get as many people interested in field biology and ecology as I can!

Anusha Shankar is a PhD student at Stony Brook University. She studies how hummingbirds balance their energy expenditure on a daily basis. She studies them in the deserts of Arizona and the Ecuadorian Andes. She loves salsa dancing, reading fiction, mentoring students, and walking around new places. For more on her research and a blog about field stories where this story originally appeared, visit:

Photos by Anusha Shankar

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