The Tao of Poo (or, How I Learned to Love Multidisciplinary Conservation)

By Clayton Manning

Matsumoto Castle, Japan. Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

Matsumoto Castle, Japan. Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

Over the past year-and-a-half I can’t count the number of times I’ve woken up and thought, “how the hell did I get here?” Not just geographically, but intellectually, too. 

In November 2012, entirely for fun, I started a volunteer research project with a biologist at the University of Calgary who I had met during my undergrad. In that project I took thousands of photos of bumblebee wings, then digitized and analyzed them. I was investigating how bumblebee morphology (the shape and form of their bodies) affected the characteristics of their wings, and the work couldn’t have been more terrestrial. 
Only a few months later, in February 2013, I caught a flight from Calgary to Tokyo, Japan. It was the first time I'd ever left North America. I was moving to a country that I knew nothing about, where I knew nobody, and where I knew absolutely none of the very unique local language. I spent the next 20 months teaching English and immersing myself in Japanese culture.

Fecal coliform colonies. Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

Fecal coliform colonies. Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

Now I’m now living in Vancouver and a graduate student with  Project Seahorse, an organization whose work couldn't be any farther, in a physical sense, from the stuff I've been doing. Instead of looking at blown-up pictures of bumblebee wings on a computer screen, I will be diving to investigate the trophic behavior of seahorses. If variety is the spice of life, someone must have hit me in the face with a rack of it.

Some would argue that because my research background has been largely microscopic and land-based, I’m not suited to do research on marine fishes. Before bumblebees I studied mountain pine beetles, where I showed that the amount of monoterpenes (a vaporous chemical) a pine tree releases affects the ability of the females beetles to lay eggs. And before that I worked in Alberta rivers, and revealed how solar radiation is a more important killer of fecal (poop) coliform than water pH. But I would argue it is the breadth of my research base and my recent personal past that will allow me to conduct successful research.

Mountain pine beetle egg galleries. The beetles are an invasive species. Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

Mountain pine beetle egg galleries. The beetles are an invasive species. Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

Conservation is a tricky corner of science, where you need to employ a wide range of skills and learn many of those you don’t. It is an intricate mixture of ecology and social sciences, with a dash of physical sciences such as chemistry that is churned by economics. If you look at it from only an ecological perspective, you will completely miss the human-related reasons for why some communities are forced to exploit a resource.
But if you look too closely at the human side of things, you may miss the potential biological reasons for declining species populations such as trophic cascades or invasive species (such as mountain pine beetles). If that isn’t difficult enough, every day the impacts of climate change on conservation are becoming more and more prominent. Conservationists are becoming increasingly multidisciplinary, adaptive and creative problem-solvers.

It could therefore be a positive that I’ve needed to figure out how to build a water-bath that keeps poop bacteria at a constant temperature. Who knows, maybe during my thesis I’ll need to be able to build a cage for seahorses that regulates the size of the zooplankton (a tiny organism seahorses feed on) that is allowed to enter. Or maybe my painful 36 consecutive hours of peeling pine tree logs to find pine beetles I had implanted a week before will allow me to more effectively conduct early-morning fisher interviews, all-day visual census dives and late-night data entry for weeks on end. It is also possible that my year and half of learning how to communicate effectively in a broken foreign language will give me a leg up when conducting field work in another new country.

Although the last two years have been a trip for all of my senses, and although I find myself face-to-face with a brand new challenge, it is the diversity of my research and recent life experiences that I will look upon to complete my Master’s degree. Whether it be on fish or insects, in forests or oceans, one’s ability to do good science is dependent on problem-solving and resourcefulness. This especially so in conservation, when all elements of the human and natural environment may be at play.

So when, inevitably, the day comes that I need to overcome some strange, unforeseen issue in the waters of a faraway land… you can bet I’ll be thinking about either beetles or poo.