A Naturalist's Reality

This summer lots of people (myself included) have been spending large amounts of time, phone battery power and data trying to catch Pokémon in the augmented reality video game Pokémon Go. Like a few other video games (in which I do things like collect cats and crush candy) I find it pretty addictive and fun. I used to watch the cartoon 15 years ago and I have always had a soft spot for kawaii or cute things. The evolutionary biologists in me just attributes this to an evolved love of neotenic traits and an overwhelming desire to care for juvenile animals. 

In any case, catching Pokémon is fun. And part of that is the world building experience that exists when you get into the game. There are tons of different Pokémon. You can look up in the Pokédex fun and interesting things about their behavior. You feel excitement when you know you are going to a place that has lots of Pokémon for example water Pokémon at the beach. And of course unparalleled joy when you catch a rare one, such as a Pikachu or a Bulbasaur. 

Getting into the game this summer it very familiar to me sort of a sense of deja vu. Then I had a realization… my job is catching Pokémon in real life! 

As a researcher at the Institute for Conservation Research in the Applied Animal Ecology Division I also spent the summer live-trapping nocturnal endangered small mammal species. I am out there night after night literally trying to catch funny little animals! Animals such as endangered Pacific pocket mice who have cheek pouches that can expand to bigger than their whole head when filled with seeds and kangaroo rats that get dirty and then wash themselves with clean sand instead of water. Included in the similarities to the electronic game is that I trap a variety of different species in our traps. I never know exactly which ones we will get and sometimes I only get a photo of them with a motion sensor camera and they escape capture but when I do catch a rare species it is extremely exciting.   

Of course, there are some major differences between real life and the game. First of all I don’t keep the animals for myself or in captivity. The animals are released back into the wild after a few minutes of taking important information about them. One other major difference is that these animals play critically important roles in the real life environment in which they live. They are part of the ecosystem and they contribute in numerous ways that benefit the diversity and richness of the species around them. Trapping the animals has a purpose. Each animal we trap contributes to the knowledge we have about the species and goes a long way to help us in our work of saving species from extinction.  

For example, some of the species I trap I am collecting genetic samples to study how much genetic diversity exists in the population and if they are able to breed with nearby members of their species. Through trapping we can also monitor how the population is doing by looking at their reproduction. So in the end, I have all the same thrill of the chase as with Pokémon Go but with an even better sense of satisfaction with the knowledge that my work is contributing to an effort to save these vulnerable and rare real life animals.    

So if you are like me and love finding Pokémon in an augmented reality imagine the possibilities for walking around and finding some real life animals in your neighborhood too!  From birds to butterflies, flowering plants and elusive nocturnal mammals, there are all sorts exciting, cute, and bizarre critters you can discover! And while you don't "collect" these real life animals, just seeing and identifying them can be a thrill. You can even contribute to research by collecting data relating to the natural world in your neighborhood by snapping a photo and uploading your sighting on the citizen scientist iNaturalist app (http://www.inaturalist.org/). With this app people can even help you identify animals and plants from your photos. And in doing so, you too can work towards saving species from extinction.