The researchers at the National Museum go on regular field expeditions to collect animals, plants, and fossils for research and to build the collections. Such a field expedition is quite complicated to organise. Here is an example of a field expedition of an approved project to explain the process.
The project “Biodiversity and climate-related distribution of intertidal oribatid mites from South African shores” aims to reveal the biodiversity of intertidal oribatid mites from South African shores and to study climate-related distribution patterns. The South African coastline stretches over more than 2500 km in two different oceans and most likely harbours several new species and taxa of mites.
Of course, a project of this magnitude needs experienced researchers and a budget. Therefore, the first step for this study was to apply for funding. A project proposal was written, detailing the problem statement, objectives, background information, potential impacts on the community, research plan, anticipated outputs (e.g. research publications, congress presentations) and a detailed budget. The proposal was sent to the National Research Foundation for the program South Africa/Austria Science and Technology Joint Research because there are experts on littoral oribatid mites in Austria. The funding was approved.
Once our project and funding were approved, we could start planning our field expeditions. We proposed to visit several national parks and nature reserves along the coastline of South Africa to cover coasts adjacent to the warm Agulhas sea current (Isimangaliso Wetland Park, Siliaka and Dwesa Nature Reserves, Garden Route National Park, De Hoop Nature Reserve) and the cold Benguela sea current (Table Mountain, West Coast, and Namaqua National parks). These parks were chosen for the rocky shores where the mites occur.
Before anyone can sample in a protected area, a research agreement must be signed with the relevant park and permits must be obtained. For the national parks, we applied to Sanparks, and for the others, the relevant department in the province (e.g. Cape Nature, KwaZulu Natal Wildlife, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism). As soon as the permits were obtained, planning for the field expeditions could go ahead. It was tricky to find a date that suits everyone’s schedule. The Austrian researchers had to fly from Austria, sampling had to be done in summer (coinciding with the highest abundance of mites), and the four expeditions lasted about 10 days each.
To sample mites, samples of algae and lichens are taken from intertidal rocks using knives. Specialised equipment such as Berlese funnelsis used to extract mites from samples. These funnels are used as follows: a sample is suspended over a sieved funnel, and a humidity gradient is established by applying heat, such as heat from a light bulb, driving the mites down through the sample, trough the sieve and into a bottle beneath the funnel (see picture). For this project, we made mobile Berlese funnels to set up in a temporary laboratory. We also took vials, ethanol, knives, spades and bags for sampling. We also recorded environmental data and therefore took along hygrometers, thermometers, pH meters, and salinity meters. In order to study the mites, stereo microscopes were also taken along.
For this project, we set up a temporary laboratory in a rental house and then drove with a field vehicle in different directions to sample. Therefore, we had to get a big enough house in a central place between sampling sites. For example, for the first expedition we stayed in a house in Mossel Bay and drove in different directions from Cape Town to Nature’s Valley, a round trip of about 5000 km between the laboratory and field sites.
Finally, when everything was organised,our suitcases, laptops, food, hiking boots, and sunscreen packed, we could leave for the expedition. The expedition consisted of hard work, long hours, cuts and bruises on the sharp rocks, wet shoes, beautiful beaches, excellent company, good food, excellent data and lots of fun.