A field day for interns

July 17, 2013

After spending about a month of our summer in cubicles, it was time for a field trip... literally. Sprawling cattle fields marked the landscape where I and the other NEON interns took a daytrip out to the Central Plains Experimental Range (CPER) to get a taste of the Great Plains in Northern Colorado.

Although some might consider the Great Plains a little, er, plain, I personally found the seemingly endless landscape especially beautiful.

CPER is the core site for NEON’s tenth domain, the Central Plains. Basking in the sunshine of late June, we began our day by exploring the NEON tower on site. Yes, we had all seen pictures before. But there was something special about the view of this gleaming lookout with only blue sky meeting the grasslands in the distance. Something that helped solidify what NEON is all about: bringing together great technology, great minds and great science to study the vast nature we still understand such a small portion of. The highly technical tower instruments, sampling techniques, mapping procedures and data interpretation we had all become familiar with in the office became real as we looked out on the extending natural scenery.

This tower was not fully equipped and functioning at the time, but it sure did provide some perspective.

Speaking of nature, we certainly got to see our fair share. Our first encounter was with a horned toad (also known as a short-horned lizard). Our fearless NEON guide, David Gudex-Cross, scooped this one out of the grass so we could get a closer look.

I spotted this little guy scurrying under some grass. I was too timid to pick him up myself. We were lucky that David had enough guts to snag him for a close-up.

Next up was a blooming prickly pear cactus. The cactus flower moved and undulated like an animal. The realization that the movement came not from the wind but from many tiny insects crawling inside the flower elicited a unified, “Oh wow, ew, but wow!” from the interns.

You can't entirely tell from the photo, but every one of those tiny black dots was, in fact, an insect. As much as I love nature, I will be the first to admit the loudest shout probably came from me.

Now that we had made some personal observations, David took the time to introduce us to some of the techniques NEON uses to collect data. After meeting the field crew, we took a look at a standard NEON ground beetle pitfall trap. A shallow, underground bowl filled with propylene glycol and covered with plexiglass euthanizes and preserves the insects that crawl inside. This trap had captured a fair amount of ants and spiders in addition to the desired beetles. David explained that NEON studies beetles because they are one of the first and most apparent indicators of change in the environment.

The many ants and spiders in this beetle trap are technically referred to as “bycatch”. Photo by Abigail Oakes

A mosquito trap was our next stop. Utilizing CO2 to mimic animal breath, light and a fan, this trap attracts mosquitos and draws them into a catch cup. Mosquitos often carry disease, so NEON studies them across the country to look at how they might affect public health. As expected in this fairly dry environment, there were no mosquitos in the trap we inspected.

David explains how a mosquito trap functions.

Moving away from insects and into the world of plants, we watched as the field crew set up a plot to measure plant biodiversity. They formed a 20 x 20 meter square which was then split into four smaller 10 x 10 meter squares, each containing 100 1 x 1 meter squares. The field crew looked at species abundance and percent cover within the plot.

In such a flat environment, setting up this plot was pretty simple. I can only imaginethe difficulties other field crews face when confronted with large obstructions like trees.

After we interns watched the whole process, the field crew challenged us to collect our own plant diversity data. We attempted species identification and percent cover estimates within a marked PVC 1 x 1 meter square. Needless to say, this was harder than it looked. We were all surprised by the number of grass and cactus species present in this small, seemingly plain area.

Okay, so this plot might seem a little boring in the picture. But the plants were surprisingly varied and difficult to distinguish, especially to our untrained eyes.

By the end of the day we were admittedly tired, but we took a moment to reflect on the day’s experiences. As interns we all come from different backgrounds: environmental technology, microbiology, engineering and communications. Some of us have learned more about ecology than others, but a question remained for all: why is this important? And how do our skills fit into the big picture?

Seeing how much planning and constant attention (sampling) must go in to the construction and operation of a single site, not even a single domain, let alone across all domains, made me realize what a huge undertaking the NEON project is. It is really exciting to be a part of something that no one has really tried to do before and to be among people who are also really excited about what NEON is doing; without everyone involved, including headquarters, each individual domain, the larger scientific community, and the general public, this project wouldn’t be what it is.
-Nicole Dear, Terrestrial Ecology Intern

Visiting the tower was my favorite part. I could see the level of craftsmanship that went behind the engineering and construction of a tower. The soil array was interesting to see as well. I thought adding a roof over the soil was a clever way to prevent possible data contamination. When I heard David talk about how GIS can aid in answering some geographically complex questions in NEON, I realized how versatile GIS can be.
-Adrienne Rodriguez, Aquatics/Geospatial Intern

Ecologists face a daunting task of finding a conclusion from data gathered in an experiment. Everything on Earth is so closely connected that one little change can be linked to dozens of different reasons. Engineering, on the other hand, is wonderfully constrained by physics. Personally, I’ll stick to my concrete engineering, it’s easier. One day, I will see NEON’s published data about stream ecology and say to myself, “my design that I engineered, my baby, gathered that data and in a small way helped save the Earth.
-William Ennis, Engineering Intern

As for me, taking a trip out to the CPER site really opened to my eyes to how large the NEON project really is. I realized how much data was taken in a single day at a single site, and then thought about what that would look like over 30 years at over 60 sites across the county. It is pretty important to communicate with the public and scientific community about how significant this type of large-scale data is; I suppose that is where I come in!

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