This summer, I was accepted into the Earthwatch Ignite LA Fellowship program – basically, an all-paid toad catching, caterpillar collecting, butterfly netting adventure, but for serious scientists.
For 12 days, seven other students from the LA area and I, along with researchers and professors studying the affects of climate change on caterpillar-parasitoid relationships, conducted field research in regions of the Arizona desert. We collected data in our lab after raising hundreds of caterpillars from 10 different species to analyze what percentage of them were parasitized. This would reflect how climate change has altered caterpillar-parasitoid growth synchronization; if less caterpillars were parasitized over time, that means that more parasites are dying off due to the fact that caterpillars are developing at a faster or slower rate, or during a different season than the parasitoids that regulate the caterpillar population by using them as hosts.
Consequently, increasing or decreasing number of caterpillars affect the type of vegetation on these lush desert hills, where some plant species are either over populated or diminishing; this can affect larger organisms who feed off of these plants.
Back to the non-scientific stuff, this trip was overall an amazing experience, and I would recommend this program to anyone who is interested in getting out of their comfort zone and experiencing nature. I made very good friends – after all, us 5 girls did have to share a room for a week – and beautiful memories of sunset walks, hikes, jumping into “natural pools” looking for millipedes and toads, growing a little cactus farm on our ranch’s window sill, singing songs, telling stories, cooking dinners, and making s’mores. We even found our temporary pet Tato, a baby tarantula.
We also went to the Southwestern Research Station to collect different species of caterpillars and process data, and stargazed and stalked deer. But most importantly, we ate free food.
Overall, this trip was the highlight of my year, I felt free to be myself and connect with nature, learn from professors, experience the beauty of the Arizona desert ecosystems, and have a lot of fun!