What do rats, antibiotics, macadamia nuts and a toothbrush have in common?

rats and a toothbrush

There is no doubt that wildlife ecology has a certain mystique about it. The romance of field work in remote locations with exotic animals, I am sure in part, helps create this view of ecology being sexy.

Before I go any further I will say wildlife ecology is absolutely all of this. There is nothing better than being immersed in nature, and trying to work out how the system works, and how you can make the system work better. Ecology is absolutely amazing and I am still totally in love with it!

There are however times where ecology can feel like you are filming an episode of “Dirty Jobs”. I can hear you saying “Where is this blog going, and WHY!”.

You can blame blogger extraordinaire Ian Lunt for this post. In a Twitter conversation he suggested a post about the less glamorous and dirty jobs we do as ecologists will “definitely (be) guaranteed to get no RTs whatsoever :)”. Challenge accepted! 🙂 So here it goes, the worst job I have ever had to do as an ecologist.

Many years ago when conducting my PhD research in Queensland and northern NSW on rodent damage management in macadamia orchards I managed to come up with a fairly gross job.

We were trying to establish the inter-play between orchard habitats and the scrub habitats next to the crops, as far as rodents (The invasive black rat Rattus rattus) go.

Generally this would be a simple, but time consuming, exercise of mark/recapture and demonstrating that the enormous population of rodents living in the scrub were also turning up in the orchard and causing the very high damage we saw. Unfortunately, black rats are notoriously difficult to repeatedly capture (we tried and failed miserably), which meant we needed to come up with another way of trying to show the link between the two components of the system.

Upshot, we chose to use a bio-marker, in the form of the antibiotic tetracycline hydrochloride. This compound when in an animal bonds with calcium, and is laid down in actively growing bone material. The really cool thing is that when you put the bones under a UV light they glow yellow (seriously, it was really cool!!).

So we placed this antibiotic out (coated on piles of oats) in different parts of the system (if you want to see the approach it is here in this paper).

Three months later we went back to the sites and snap trapped (this species is a major introduced pest species in crop systems) the areas until we stopped catching animals. From memory this took more than 3 weeks in one of our sites. This is where the good idea came to an abrupt and messy end.

We were in the field catching hundreds of rats and we needed their bones! We thought we could let nature help us out, so we placed the fresh skulls of our rats in a cage (in separate open plastic bags) to let them rot with the help of flies. Problem! It was winter and even in Queensland the flies were not too cooperative and the skulls were only slowly rotting.

We could not take bags of half rotted rat skulls back to the university. My supervisor would have seen the funny side, but the rest of the biological science building would not have had the same reaction.

So came the worst job I have ever had to do in ecology. We headed into town and bought a large supply of toothbrushes (the ones with hard bristles) to start the dirty job of de-fleshing our skulls! We needed the jaw and teeth as these are the areas where bone material in rodents is always growing.

We sat there in an unheated room at our field sites, and between rounds of checking traps, we scrubbed the skulls and jaws clean It took ten 12 hour days to do them all. The worst thing about this was that as you scrubbed, the toothbrush would occasionally release ‘spray’. And every now and then a maggot would emerge from a scull 😩

So there you have it, that’s what rats, antibiotics, macadamia nuts and a toothbrush have in common for me.

I still think the bio-marker approach was a really neat way to show long term interaction between the two components of the system. If we had camera traps back then we could have come up with some equally cool, yet less disgusting, field experiment to show the same thing. Time brings new approaches, and with it new opportunities.

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