The Great American Chestnut Trip: Maine Edition

After finishing up in Vermont, we drove east about 5 hours and ended up in (very rural) Atkinson, Maine. The tiny town we stayed in was great; bordering a river, and full of history. Our group lived in a 100 year old farmhouse with antique furniture and a huge wood stove that made me feel like I was a million miles away from civilization. I had so much fun cooking meals and playing cards with everyone in the kitchen, and then swimming in the river after a long day of field work.

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The effects of methyl-mercury on spatial memory in zebra finches – Week 4-6

During these weeks of the summer, we finally began running trials on the sets of mercury and control birds designated for this experiment. My partner, Neil Huckstep, was out of town during these weeks, so another member of our lab, Capwell Taylor came in and helped me run trials. Essentially what we decided to do was to run trials in the morning and the afternoon in order to get through all the birds we needed to test this summer, and this proved to be very necessary. Otherwise, given how long it took for us to finish all trials using this plan, we would not have been able to finish in time if we just ran four birds a day. So it was very helpful to have Capwell fill in for Neil so we could run 8 birds a day instead of four. We started off by testing 8 mercury birds the first week and 6 the next week, which we later learned from my PI, might not have been the best idea. According to him, since conditions may change over the few weeks it takes to finish the control birds and move onto the mercury birds, it may have been better to do four control birds and four mercury birds each week to negate the possible effects of changing conditions. However, given the small sample size and the amount of time it took to finish the control birds, it’s likely that running all the control birds at once wasn’t problematic.

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Effects of Methyl-mercury on spatial-memory in zebra finches: Summary of weeks 3-4

After I did my own background research for the first two weeks and began setting up the testing apparatus, it was now time to begin running test trials on a few birds that weren’t going to be used in the experiment. We needed to establish a definite and set-in-stone protocol so we wouldn’t be changing things around during real trials, so we used these practice trials to do just that. We had a protocol given to us from my partner Neil’s advisor from Virginia Tech, so we had to adjust it to fit the criteria needed for the experiment. The experiment itself involves teaching the birds to remove a cover from a block with food inside of it. Once it has done this, those same blocks are placed in the four corners of the cage, and we record which blocks it goes for to get food. This teaches the bird how to eat from the four corners of the cage, and it establishes which corners the bird might have a preference or a dislike for, which is important for the next phase of the experiment. In this final phase, we remove food from three of the corners and bait it toward one of them. During this phase, we measure how long it takes for them to eat from the baited corner, how many mistakes it makes (eating from other corners) before it finally eats from the correct one. This is a test of spatial memory because it requires the bird to learn that the food is located in a certain corner, and to accurately remember this fact by using spatial cues around them in their environment. We are essentially trying to test whether or not birds dosed with sub-lethal levels of mercury have reduced spatial memory capabilities compared to birds who are not on a mercury-infused diet.

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The Great American Chestnut Trip: Vermont Edition

After an 18 hour car ride and an enormous amount of Dunkin Donuts coffee, I’ve finally returned from my research trip to the northeastern US. What an amazing time! The environment, abundant with hundred- year old trees, green rolling hills, and crystal blue skies is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The people, too, were always friendly and accommodating to this eclectic group of ecologists.

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Progress! …And More Delays

In the days since my last blog post we have come far with our analysis. Reaching new findings can be difficult, especially since running statistical analysis is not a straightforward process here. As I’ve said in the past, Peru is about being ready for surprises and creative solutions. The largest hurdle for performing statistical analysis here is being able to access software since the licensing fees are extortionate, especially for a nonprofit. So on this occasion I used skills from my computer science minor to get around this hurdle. Because the process is a little boring and technical, I’ll leave it at this: I found a way to upload my excel files to my W&M account and then access a W&M desktop through the web to use Stata. Basically that’s the main reason I maintain that the Internet is a form of witchcraft.

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