Russell Graham Russell Graham Russell Graham

Most of the hard work in any field study occurs before anyone goes into the field. Before you start your field study you need to clearly identify what questions you are interested in, where and how you think you are going to answer them and what role each of you will have in collecting, keeping and interpreting your information. This is all dealt with in Phase 1 of a field study. This phase has a number of different steps, each of which is briefly described here. More details of these procedures are given in Appendix 2.

Step 1: Decide on the questions.

Step 2: Work out how to answer the questions


Step 1: Decide on the questions. This is the most critical step in any environmental study and the one which is often overlooked or skipped through. During this step you must work out what it is that you want to know. If you are not 100% sure of the question(s) you are interested in, you will spend precious time collecting information which is of little or no use to you. If you do not keep these questions uppermost in your mind during all phases of the study , you will almost certainly "drift: and change the way you measure or sample things. This will compromise your information and your ability to network with other groups. Clear understanding of what you are trying to answer, as well as how you are trying to do so, will allow you to integrate your investigation with other studies more successfully. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE VALUE OF SPENDING A CONSIDERABLE AMOUNT OF EFFORT HERE.

As in most other studies, questions in ecology can be divided into broad categories of what, Where, Who, When, How, and Why. Here we have suggested some questions that community groups or schools might be interested in. All possible questions cannot be included in detail because these guidelines are designed to be used by a wide range of people with a wide range of interests. Nevertheless, they will give you some idea of how to approach this phase of the study.

What? If you know little about your study area, you will probably begin your investigation with the simple question What lives there? Which animals and plants are found in the area, be it an intertidal rocky shore, a piece of bushland, all of the parks in your area or any other habitat(s)? What lives there? covers a range of different questions which are discussed in Appendix 2.

How many? Questions of What lives in an area? quickly lead on to How many are there? What? or How many? require different information to answer them and, therefore, different methods of investigation. Before you start any field study, it is therefore important to make sure that you understand and all agree on the specific questions that you are asking. To answer any of these questions you will need to know how to find, identify and possibly count organisms. Details on these procedures are provided in Appendix 2.

Where? Another question you might be interested in is Where? This question has two different  components. The first is where do you want to do your study. The second is where different species of animals and plants are found in your study area. If you look around in most habitats, you can easily see that the same species are not found everywhere. There are more of some species in some places and more of others elsewhere. These small-scale patterns of distribution and abundance of animals and plants provide much insight into their ecological relationships and their habitat requirements.

When? When? is also an interesting ecological question. You may be interested in when certain species visit your study area, or when people use it for picnics, bushwalking or fishing. If you are interested in questions to do with When? you will need to collect information at different times. This requires a lot of thought, careful planning and cooperation.

Who? Who might be about who is doing the study. One objective of this programme is to encourage cooperative programmes of investigation across schools, community groups and other interested people. Who? might also include questions about people using your study site. What are they doing there? How much litter do they leave behind?

The final questions of Why animals and plants are found where they are and how they are interacting with each other and with their environment are more difficult to answer.  There is a great deal of public misconception about ecology because people jump rapidly from seeing where animals and plants live, to explaining why they live there. Answers like this come from experimental field studies and considerable understanding and knowledge of the organisms and their surroundings. To do these experiments properly and to get the understanding and knowledge requires training and study. Nevertheless, untrained community groups can - if they are careful and get good advice about how to do a field study in the first place - collect good accurate information about patterns of distribution and abundance of different species. This information may be of great value to people doing more detailed studies. See Appendix 2 for more details on these questions.

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Step 2: Work out how to answer the questions. What you need to know to answer each question will, of course, depend on the question asked. But certain information is basic to many different questions.

Where? You need to start by defining where you are going to do the study. This is very important if you are to cooperate with other groups working in the same area or you want to study the same place at a later time. You will need to be able to find the same area again. Details about how you might mark out and identify your study area are given in Appendix 2.

What? To answer this question in its most simple form, you only need to make a list of the different species of animals and plants in your study area. There are three main methods of doing this - area searches, transect searches and point searches. How you can do these is described in detail in Appendix 2.

Once you have decided on your method of searching, make sure that everyone involved knows what to do and spend time practising how to do it before you start the main study.

Now we come to the question that most people worry about - to a large extent unnecessarily. How do you know what you are looking at? What is it called? Is it a Amblygeneric sporonodon speciosum or a What yemacallit ihaventaclue whatilido? Don't worry; names don't matter. There are six good reasons for this.

  1. You are not going to be able to find out the names of many species because appropriate identification guides do not exist and descriptions of many species are horribly user-unfriendly.

  2. Many species cannot be identified in the field because descriptions rely on small, detailed structures which you cannot see without killing them or using a powerful microscope.

  3. Some species have not even been named yet.

  4. Taxonomists don't always agree about the names that they have given to some animals and plants and so the names frequently change.

  5. If you make a mistake identifying an animal or plant in the field and all you have recorded is a name, you will never realize that you were wrong. Your data will be misleading. If, on the other hand, you briefly describe and draw the animals or plant, you can identify the species later using books, other people's knowledge, etc. You can then correct your misidentifications.

  6. Finally, even if you work very long and hard to learn the names of all of the animals and plants in your area, you can be pretty sure that other people won't. So you are going to have to talk to each other in words that everyone understands anyway -otherwise you will find that you are talking to yourself.

(As an aside, the young Chapman boys could very successfully identify and count Littorina unifasciata, Nodilittorina pyramidalis and Nerita atramentosa in the field, even though they called them "little rhinos", "nodding little rhinos" and "cocklies". So don't worry about the names - get on with the study.)

For some habitats and some species there are extremely good identification guides available in many bookshops. Otherwise, you will have to set up your own. Don't despair - that is what many practising ecologists do! Advice on how to do this and prepare data sheets is given in Appendix 2.

If you are only interested in finding the different types of animals and plants that occur in your study area, most of the pre-field work activities are over at this stage. Know the area, decide on the search method and prepare the data collection sheets (making sure they are all the same). If you cannot search the whole area because it is too big, you should read the section about sampling in Appendix 2. Then go and start work.

For many questions in which you may be interested, a list of species is, however, not what you want to know. For example, if you are interested in whether your area is changing, perhaps because you have planted some native trees nearby or the area has recently become protected by legislation, or simply because you are interested in how places change naturally, you may not want to record all of the species present. You might choose some species that are quite abundant in the area, for example, crabs, blue periwinkles or black and white zebra shells on rocky shores. Alternatively, you might choose species that people may have been damaging or removing, such as cats-eye shells or cunjevoi. You may be interested in particular weeds that you are trying to control, or particular species of native and introduced birds. In this case, you will only need to look at a few species and will probably do a more thorough job.

Similarly, if you are interested in comparing your area to other areas because you are part of a larger study, you may concentrate on only a few representative species in each area because of the amount of work involved in comparing every single species (see Interpretation of Results). This is probably essential for networks that can only get together occasionally. If you only monitor a few species, you can make sure that you are all recognizing and putting the same names on the same species.

How many? For questions that involve comparisons from place to place or time to time - What is there? soon becomes How many are there? Recording presence/absence is not always useful because differences from place to place or time to time usually arise because there are lots here (or now) and fewer there (or then) and not because species are either present or absent. So for comparisons like these, you are going to have to count things. This leads to taking samples.

At this stage, some people immediately say "We need to get random samples" because they have heard that expression before. Let's go back a step. Think about what you want to know - how many there are there. If you had all the time in the world, how would you find out? You would count them all. That is the only way that you can actually KNOW how many there are. But counting them all is not usually feasible because there are so many, or they move around and you might count the same ones more than once. If you cannot know how many there are, you must estimate how many there are. That is why you take samples - because you cannot count everything and you need to estimate their numbers. If you can count all of them, then that is what you. Sampling is what you resort to when this is impossible.

Now where do you get your samples from? If you can't count them all, how do you decide which ones to count? Details of this are given in Appendix 2. To count the animals and plants in your study area, you will need a sampling device. A sampling device is anything that identifies that patch of the world in which you are going to count the organisms. Its size and shape depends on the type of organisms you are counting and the habitat in which they live. Details about different sampling devices are also given in Appendix 2.

Where? If you are interested in where different species are found in your study area, you have two approaches. The first has been discussed under sampling and is detailed   Appendix 2. If your study area is divided into patches and you have sampled within each patch, you will get the information about how many of what is found where. Note that recording the presence of species in each sample will tell you where it is found; counts will tell you how many are found. If something is present in your sample, you can be sure that it occurs in that part of your study area. If it is absent from your sample, it does not necessarily men that it is absent from that part of your study area. It might simply men that you have not found it. This is not a problem but needs to be kept in mind when you are talking about your results.

You might also investigate small-scale patterns of distribution by looking at associations between different species and recognizable microhabitats. Some birds may seem to only perch in certain trees. Some snails may appear to only be found under some seaweeds. Crabs may seem to be found in crevices. If these habitats are unarguably identifiable, simply count the numbers in the different habitat. How many birds are in trees of Species A and how many are in other trees? Associations with some habitats are more problematic and unless everyone can really agree whether something is or is not in a crevice and what is meant by under a seaweed (all under, partly under, next to, etc.?), investigating these questions is not really worth the inevitable disagreements.

Interpreting these data is also a potential problem. If 90% of the trees are of species A, you would expect 90% of the birds to be in these trees, even if they are choosing trees by chance. If 70% of the area is covered with seaweed, you would expect 70% of the snails to be under the seaweed, even if they were moving about randomly. To show that associations like this are not by chance, i.e. the animals really are responding to the surroundings in a definite way, you need to get estimates of the relative availability of the different habitats as well as counts of the numbers of birds (crabs, snails) in each habitat. This is not recommended unless you have been trained as a quantitative field ecologist.

When? When you do your study may or may not matter to you. If you are doing a one-off study of an area because it is a school project or you are simply interested in what may be there at that particular time, it probably does not matter when you do your study. Of course, there will be some constraints. Seashores are usually sampled during low tide when they are accessible and safe and most sampling is done during daylight. Nevertheless, even for a one-off study, it is important to work out when it will be done so that you can plan to have enough time to do it. Do not attempt to take on too much - you will not get any part of the work done properly. Realistically estimate how long it will take you to get familiar with the area and the species. If you know them quite well, you should be able to include more details. If you are not familiar with them, you might be better off to choose to look at the diversity of species and learn to make accurate descriptions of them, rather than count them. If you do want to know how many there are, because you are particularly interested in certain species or questions or because you want to learn different techniques, examine only a few species. 

If your interests are in how people interact with the environment, you may need to sample at different times. For example, if you are monitoring people littering the local shore because you want to make a presentation to your council about the need for more litter bins, you would need to sample during weekdays and weekends, summer and winter, because people probably use the area differently from time to time.

Similarly, if you are looking at birds which move through different habitats and you want to know when they are found in your particular study are, you will need to sample your habitat at different times. A pilot study in which you sampled at, say, 6-7 a.m., 12-1 p.m. and 5-6 p.m. for a couple of days will tell you whether different birds are appearing in your study site at different times of the day. This information would be crucial to any detailed study because it will tell you when and how often you need to sample to get a reasonable estimate of the birds in the area.

If you want to look at changes in a particular study area over time, or at differences between a number of areas, when you sample may or may not be important. Trees, barnacles and weeds tend to stay put so they can be sampled at any time - within reason. Small animals, like crabs and snails, may not move far and may be in your study area whenever you sample it. Some knowledge about the use of your study area by active species such as birds, butterflies or fish, is essential before you can make comparisons from time to time or place to place. You will not be able to tell whether the birds in your school grounds are different to those somewhere else if you have sampled at 9 a.m. and they have sampled at 3 p.m. and the birds change their habits from morning to afternoon. Similarly, if you want to know whether there are more birds in your school grounds in summer than winter, you cannot sample early in the morning in summer but at midday in winter - no matter how hard it is to get up early when it is cold.

Comparisons like these need to be thought about very carefully. For example, if you look at insects in leaf litter in the Blue Mountains in May and someone else looks at the insects in leaf litter in Coogee in August, you will not be able to interpret any differences that you find between the two studies. There may be more lace-winged butterflies and spotted tiger beetles in the mountains than on the coast because these species are more common in the mountains than on the coast, or because they are more common in May than August. These potential problems apply to any ecological studies and need careful thought before you start.

How? If you are studying weeds in patches of native bushland, it is unlikely that you will be interested in animal behaviour, although you might be interested in insects or birds that might spread the weeds. Even if you are interested in the behaviour of many small animals - such as those on the rock platform or those in the trees - you are unlikely to see any interactions among them. How large animals, like birds or people, interact with their environment is, however, often a very interesting study. Details on how you might do this are given in Appendix 2.


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Centre for Research on Ecological Impacts of Coastal Cities
email: rgraham@pacific.net.au