One of my 'field' sites (Photo credit: A Savage)

**Get your ‘jazz tarsi’ ready, folks – Our post-doc Amy Savage recently completed a Broadway tour, and has a few tales to tell. Here’s her first in a series of guest blog posts.**

Biologists have a long history of traveling to far-off lands to understand ecology. So far in my career as a field ecologist, I have been no different. I left Montana, where I grew up, to study animals in remote tropical habitats, most recently in the Samoan Archipelago (South Pacific Ocean).

But the truth is ecology is all around us; humans are direct participants in their ecosystems, not mere observers. Surprisingly, the ecology occurring underfoot is actually very poorly understood. Having taken a new job, one that calls upon me to head to the city rather than to the islands, I have put up my rain forest gear and headed to Broadway to study Manhattan’s ants.

There are lots of advantages to working in the city (stay tuned to hear more about those), but there are also some challenges. Here are the top 5 difficulties I’ve encountered studying ant ecology in the Big Apple:

5. ‘Crazy Cat Man’

A Broadway panther? (Photo credit: badgerpie, Flickr)

As a field biologist, I am used to people approaching me to ask exactly what I am doing. So I was not surprised when I was flagged down by a guy standing in the middle of the road while I was sampling ants in a Broadway median. Visibly upset, he told me that I needed to get out of the median RIGHT AWAY!! I explained that I had permission to be there, but to no avail. He told me that I didn’t ask HIS permission, and he owned the medians between West 70th and West 80th Streets (a certain kind of logic that is hard to dispute). He explained that if I stayed, I would be attacked by a panther. I told him that I would take my chances, and he began to explain the differences between kittens and panthers. About midway through this conversation, a traffic signal changed, and cars began speeding towards us. I was scared that this poor man would be hit by a speeding car right in front of me, but did not know how to end the conversation. Luckily, he was just as aware of traffic as I was and finally gave up on me, shaking his head in disgust as he walked away.

4. Mysterious missing field supplies

A nibbled bait tube (Photo credit: A Savage)

I wasn’t sure about adding this one to the list, since vandalism and/or theft of field equipment is the bane of field biologists, whether they conduct work in an urban center, a national park, or even a remote Pacific island. We often have to leave measuring equipment outside or perform manipulations over long periods of time. In this study, I wanted to know about food preferences of ants, so I provided them with multiple different baits. I had to give them time to find the food, so I left the bait stations out for two hours before collecting ants. When I first started these baiting trials, I simply left the bait and moved on to work on other sites while waiting the requisite 2 hours. Sometimes this approach worked just fine . . . other times, the bait stations were simply gone when I returned . . . still other times I would find tubes strewn about the study plot. Likely culprits? Well . . . I caught a few birds showing a little too much interest in the baits, but rats were my #1 suspects (see below)!!

3. Cars

A Broadway median (Photo credit: A Savage)

Of course, when you work in roadside medians, you are constantly surrounded by cars. The sounds of cars speeding by, shrill calls of sirens from emergency vehicles, and yes, even angry shouts of drivers comprised the soundtrack of my days in the field.  At first jarring and off-putting, these sounds soon became background noise. I grew to appreciate the sudden sounds that made their way through the din and caused me to look up–a well-loved song blasting from a car radio while the driver belted out a tune, the screech of tires followed by a chorus of horns (less common than you might think), and many other sounds made my days far-from-boring and rivaled the eloquence of a sudden bird call that I may have heard while conducting field work in a tropical forest. Keep an eye on your medians, Manhattanites, you may just catch a crazy myrmecologist singing or dancing along to the urban beat!

2. Daily application of rat pesticides

Sucking up ants with an aspirator

While I was sampling from my first set of medians on Broadway, I was approached separately by not one, not two, but three different security guards. I showed them each my NYC-collecting permit and gave them my business card, but still they continued to insist that I leave the median. Nevertheless, at the end of each exchange, they left me to continue my work. Finally, near the end of my sampling, one of the security guards told me that they don’t like to have people in the medians at that particular location, partly because the well-manicured plants occupying the medians could get damaged, but also because every morning (at dawn) they apply pesticide to that particular stretch of median. Curious, I asked what kind of pesticide. “Rat poison,” he answered. This was troubling news for a couple of reasons, one of which was how I was going about collecting ants. I was using one of the most effective collecting tools for ant biologists: an aspirator. Think of aspirators as ‘ant vacuums’, and me as the suction force (through a filter). That’s right folks; I was literally sucking up ants from plants and the ground in medians, along with any loose debris that happened to be surrounding the ants. Finding out that the medians were dosed daily with rat poison led me to think twice about my collection methods.  What works on remote tropical islands, does not necessarily work in roadside islands. . . .

1. RATS!!!

Rats enjoying city food (Photo credit: mhdchill, Flickr)

. . .  of course, there was a good reason that people were using pesticides in the medians — cities are excellent habitats for rats. We provide rats with abundant food, plenty of shelter and an environment relatively free of competitors and predators. So, it is unsurprising that highly urbanized city centers, like Manhattan, are absolutely rife with rats! Whether sampling in parks or medians, walking between study sites, or even sitting down to eat lunch, I saw rats nearly every day. However, my actual interactions with them were uncommon and brief. Occasionally, they absconded with and damaged vials containing my ant baits (see above). Once a rat fell out of a tree right next to me while I was collecting (luckily this only happened once). And then there was the time they scurried around my feet while I stopped to eat lunch in a crowded square.  As a biologist, I find the behaviors and ecology of urban rats very interesting!  I wonder, for example, how these rodents are affecting urban ecosystems generally and am particularly interested in how their activities differ in Manhattan parks and medians. How do they influence the ants? Do they change ecosystem processes, like decomposition and nutrient cycling? How do these effects compare to the effects of rats in Chicago? Houston? Shanghai? Berlin? But, of course, those questions are much easier to ask when the rats are far away from me. The 12-year old little girl in me is still pretty grossed out when a rat falls at my feet!!

Despite the challenges I faced studying ants in New York City, I think there are a lot of advantages of doing field work in the urban jungle. In my next post, I’ll share the top 5 benefits of studying ecology in the big city…

Amy Savage is an ecologist who’s jazzed about ants and their beneficial relationships with other insects and plants. Her research on ant mutualisms has taken her to Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, Costa Rica, Panama, Washington State (USA), and most recently, to New York City (USA) with the School of Ants project.