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Selecting a Site

How do working scientists pick a site for study? We asked a number of scientists what they think about when looking for a site. Here's what they all said: It depends what you want to know.

Everyone we talked to emphasized that all research starts with questions. What those questions are helps determine where you look for answers.
For example, Eric Quinter, Senior Scientific Assistant in the Entomology Department at the American Museum of Natural History, told us: "I have to know what my project is, what question I'm trying to answer. Am I looking for a particular insect, or am I studying a habitat? If I'm looking for a particular insect, I have to know what it eats, and then I go looking for that plant. Recently, though, I've decided to change the way I look for a site. Instead of trying to track down an insect that we know about by going where someone has seen it before, I'm going to look at a niche and see what's there. For starters, I'm going to select some of the large native grasses that seem like potential hosts. I'm going to begin with an assumption that something eats them, and then I'm going to look and see what it is."

Don't be afraid to ask questions.

"If I don't know where a particular habitat is," Eric told us, "I just ask local people: 'Hey, where's a good place to see a nice pine savanna that has some marshland on the perimeter?' or whatever. If I'm looking for a particular plant that I know my target insect eats and I don't know where to find it, I'll go talk to some botanists and ask them."

Choose a place you can get to for long enough or often enough to get the information you need.

That is a good idea in general, even though some of the scientists we talked to chose sites that were in faraway and challenging places. Eleanor Sterling, Program Director for the Museum's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, wanted to study the aye-aye, so she had to go to Madagascar, the only place where the tiny primate is found. She spent two years on a small, steep-sloped island off the east coast of Africa and learned more about this endangered animal than anyone had ever known before. But, she said, it was hard.

"Aye-ayes come out only at night, so no one had been silly enough to plan a two-year trip to study them. Reasonable people had told me that it was too difficult a project. I remember sitting myself down about four months into the project and thinking about what I was going through. I thought to myself that if somebody had explained to me before I started what this was going to be like, I might never have done it. But there was something about all those people telling me, 'You can't do it,' that made me just say, 'I'm going to do it,' and I did, and I'm glad."

Brian Boom, Vice President of Botanical Science and the Pfizer Curator of Botany at the New York Botanical Garden, studied trees in the Bolivian rain forest, but convenience was a factor in his choice of a site. "I decided that, for what I was trying to do--which was to get a sampling of plants in an intact forest--I would choose a site within a thirty-minute walk along the trail from the village." He came up with the thirty-minute figure because it was close enough to the village that he could get to it easily but far enough away from the kind of human activity that would alter the forest. "Thirty minutes seemed about right, and I didn't think I could get a better answer if I walked for two hours," he said.

Eric Quinter said, "You don't have to trek to a far-off jungle to find a good site. Discoveries can be made in a backyard or a field or the wooded area of a local park. I have found new things here in North America all over the place, and it's not that I have X-ray vision. I'm just looking in places that no one has looked before for that purpose. They've been there to look at the birds; they've been there to look at the plants; they just haven't looked at the bugs."

Make sure you have permission to use the area as a site.

Brian Boom said it is important to look at the practical side of site selection. "The reality is that you're probably going to have to select a site that's in a park or a nature preserve or even on private property, and then you have to deal with the owner or whoever is in charge of the place. That person may limit where you can set up your project and may say, 'You can work in this area here, but just don't step over here and don't step on that.' So in reality your site selection is made for you."

Get a feel for the area before you make your choice.

Brian told us about a walk he took before picking his site. "I walked around for a few days near one particular village, just following the trails, until I sort of got a feel for how the forest looked and felt. It was very subjective stuff. A lot of science is subjective, and this is one example."

Choose a site you like.

Helen Hays, Chair of the Great Gull Island Committee, an American Museum of Natural History research station, has studied ruddy ducks in a remote marsh in Canada and seabirds a subway ride away from home. She suggests "thinking about what kind of site you like: whether you like to look at things around water, or in water, or in a dry field, or if you like to look at trees in a forest or if you like to walk through woods, maybe that's the kind of site you should choose. You could take the forest floor or the edge of the forest and then you could see what species are in the various parts of that: on the earth, under the leaves, in the shrubs, in the trees. If your site is in the water, of course you'd have lots of water insects. Or in a marsh--marshes have wonderful life in the water and in the marsh itself. If I were going to do a study like that, I think I might decide to go where I like to go. If I liked lakes, I would go to a lake. Or maybe I would just go into my backyard, because that's so easy. You can just go out and look and see what's there. I think that would be fun."

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