A light in the darkness

Headlamps are the greatest invention of humankind, better than sliced bread. And by headlamps I mean small portable battery powered flashlights that come with an elastic band so that you can strap it to your head. In this way, you can walk around in the dark but you can still use of both your hands. Brilliant.

When I first started working with nocturnal small mammals the thought of walking around in the dark with just a headlamp for light sounded scary. My only other type of experience like this was walking to the bathroom at night when I was camping. Which every normal person avoids at all costs and tortures themselves by waiting until the morning. 

But comfort is just what you are used to and now that I have been walking around with just a headlamp for years it feels totally normal. 

Who needs daylight when you have a headlamp? Granted you still have to look out for rattlesnakes and prickly plants such as yucca and cacti. However, it is better than camping because in the field we are never alone at night so you always have a buddy to walk around with. 

My latest nocturnal adventure was live-trapping endangered kangaroo rats for a range-wide genetic study (see Asako’s blog about it). The purpose of the trapping session was to collect genetic samples from San Bernardino kangaroo rats (SBKR; Dipodomys merriami parvus). We use standard issue small mammal Sherman traps that look like small metal boxes. But when you are trapping you come across many empty traps and others with the wrong species inside of them. 

You never know what will be inside--it’s always a surprise! When I approach a trap with the door closed, which indicates that there is an animal inside, it is very exciting. The metal is opaque so there is no way to see what the animal is before you get there. So you have to use your other senses. 

Is there sound? Some species are very noisy. Dulzura kangaroo rats (Dipodomys simulans) are large and jump around as you approach the trap and make a lot of noise. Is the trap super heavy? Sometimes we get not as small small mammals such as woodrats (Neotoma sp.) or even baby cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus audubonii). After the initial assessment you can take a tiny peak in the door and see what kind of animal it is. 

At this point you get the animal out in a plastic bag, and process it for data. Such as which species, how much does it weigh, age-sex and reproductive status. For this particular study to take a small sample of tissue from the target species from which genetic material can be extracted. 

Then we let the animal go and watch it hop away into the darkness.