Was it a poisonous snake?

We stared at the impenetrable bluff above the Missouri Vistor’s Center on I270. I told undergraduates Emily, Ben, and Lucy to space themselves along the bluff and penetrate it, collecting four soil samples on the way up, at least 20 meters apart. Poison ivy flourished on the grass-thicket border. Under the tangled shrubs was a thicket of dead limbs that crackled when we stepped on them.

Ben started in at the part of the bluff closest to the Mississippi, though we were a good mile from the shore. I heard thrashing and he stepped back. It was a snake, a large one, up in the branches at head height, not on the ground. We peered in, but did not see it. I speculated that a poisonous snake would not be so quick to leave, but you never know. He went in a few meters up from that site.

At this very site on 14 June 2005 we collected soil on our way to Lambert airport. We were driving in from visiting family in Illinois and had little time to spare before our Houston flight. This seemed as good a place as any to sample. The problem with field work is you never know how it is going to turn out. I suppose that is the problem with research. We wanted to see if we could find Dictyostelium discoideum on the western side of the Mississippi. We did. Two samples, QS106 and QS107 sit in freezer box 20-3 and they come from this very bluff. How little did we know at that time that we would move to St. Louis 6 years later.

This time the soil was very dry. I was glad I had bought sharp little shovels to dig into the sandy soil, nearly rock hard. The location was off the limestone and dolomite that covers much of the state, into riverine deposits that I hoped would be more acid and appropriate for our species. We won’t know what sprouts from this soil for a week or so when the dry spores hatch, eat the bacteria we provide them, starve and form fruiting bodies.

The four of us sampled three sites in all. One was down the road from the Vistor’s Center, but we got there winding through a neighborhood looking for a decent woodland for sampling. The last one was in the Columbia Bottom and had been flooded in 1993.

Even if the students work mostly in the lab, I think it is important to see where their organism lives in nature. Best may be studying in the wild, as I did with my beloved wasps. If we get what we were looking for on that short trip, then the students have a reality they can attach their lab results to. They will remember that organisms are adapted to live in nature, under natural circumstances, perhaps along rivers that flood, on bluffs that slump when wet or can be hard as stone when dry.

For me there are few greater pleasures as a teacher than taking students on field trips.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Field work and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.