Field of Science

Science in theory and practice

My current field work deals with the ecology of a hemiparasitic plant, which is both green and photosynthetic and an obligate parasite. To try and determine why its both green and parasitic, and test our evolutionary stable strategy hypothesis, which differs from the switch-hitter and way-station hypotheses, my collaborator and I designed an experiment. The simplest and most logical treatment was eradication of the hemiparasite.

Hey, sounds so simple "in theory", but in practice its turning out to be a pain, in the back. The hemiparasite is a very successful on our prairie study site, i.e., numerous, and what with other treatments and all combinations, together with replication, the subject of this research must be eradicated from over 50 one-square-meter quadrats. And that alone is not enough because of the root zone (it's a root parasite), so a 50 cm wide buffer zone must be cleared of the hemiparasite around the study quadrat. That's a total of 4 square meters per quadrat! Under good conditions and working quite hard, two of us can do 3-4 quadrats an hour. This amounts to an awful lot of dirty, down-on-hands-and-knees work just for this one treatment. The picture shows the high-tech equipment used in plant ecology, and the recently removed hemiparasitic plant.

This is the problem with field work. You make sound, logical decisions, and get started and it's like grabbing a tiger by the tail. You can't let go or you lose everything, your whole investment. And it's a five year experiment so the treatments must be checked and redone every year.

But that's the way science goes, and what it takes to demonstrate if your ideas are correct and the old ideas wrong. The effort and time explain why so few long term field experiments are done. And I do not recommend such work to young colleagues who lack tenure.

And it's not the work I mind, but just that it's at ground level, and it's much further down, and back up again, than it used to be. Of course, the solution is to have a squad of young backs while I sit back in my research director's chair and point to the next quadrat. Any volunteers?

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