Fishing for photos: the secret life of a scientific paper

24 March 2017 posted by: Zoe - WPY Comms Officer

No. of comments: 3

When we read facts plucked from scientific papers and presented to us in magazine articles, we don't always think of the stories behind the research that went into those discoveries. Conservation photographer and ecologist Jen Guyton was keen  to tell one of those stories with her WPY52 image 'The collaborators', an image which earned her a place as a Finalist in the Wildlife Photojournalist Award: Single Image category. The picture gives a behind-the-scenes look at a researcher working with his subjects; the meerkats of the Kalahari Desert.


As part of our guest blog series, Jen tells us more stories from the life of a scientific researcher, and shares her experiences of investigating the potential plant-insect interactions behind Namibia's fairy circles.

The Collaborators by Jen Guyton.

Finalist 2016, Wildlife Photojournalist: Single Image


As I stepped off the plane after months in the northern winter, the white sun seemed to flicker on with the thrum-buzz of a fluorescent bulb, reflecting suddenly off every surface like white-hot hospital light. My lungs rose with the febrile air, a cake in the oven, and it felt like coming home to the Californian Mojave Desert of my childhood.

This was the same sun, the same skin-tightening hot wind, but halfway around the world: Namibia. It was my first time back in southern Africa's deserts in five years. Last time, I was here as a research intern on the Kalahari Meerkat Project, where on my first day I took the photo that made WPY finalist in 2016. Sinking into the fine red sand again brought back memories of 5am sunrises simmering at 30C, the first sleepy meerkat poking its head out of its hole and blinking against the bright morning, my struggling steps up slippery dunes, every move like treading water, while the meerkats glossed ahead and over like a skipping stone.

It also reminded me of fleeing from territorial male ostriches that snuck a little too close while my head was in my field computer, and of the most brilliant sunsets I've ever seen, bleeding red ink over vast fields of sulfur-yellow devil's thorn flowers, beautiful but insidious for the painful spiny seeds they would drop just a few weeks later.

A lone gemsbok, or oryx, (Oryx gazella) finds the only bit of shade under the hot summer sun in the Namib Desert.

© Jennifer Guyton


I was back in this neighbouring desert, the Namib, for more research. The year before, my fellow PhD student Tyler Coverdale and I had ventured to the Kenyan savannah to capture low-altitude aerial photographs of the vegetation between termite mounds. We were working with a team of researchers from our home institution, Princeton University, to understand how nutrient- and moisture-rich termite mounds might influence plants. To do this, we needed aerial photos of the vegetation, low-altitude enough that we could see detail but high enough that we could see whether the plants formed a regular pattern. The photos had to be orthogonal, or 90 degrees, pointed directly at the ground. Though I'd been a photographer for ten years and a biologist for seven, I'd never tried anything quite like this.

Our first attempt was our grandest failure. We'd borrowed an octocopter drone from one of our collaborators, but neither of us had ever flown one before. 'Ready to fly!' the box boasted. Maybe it was, but we definitely weren't. Shortly after assembling it, and before we could even carry it outside, user error sent it zooming into the ceiling. It exploded into a thousand tiny pieces as bolts and bits of plastic clacked around our ducking figures.

Our second attempt was a bit lower-tech - a kite. I hadn't flown one since I was in diapers, but Tyler is an avid hobbyist. We secured our camera to the kite string and lofted it, but when we brought it back down the photos were hurl-worthy - the camera had been spinning violently in the wind. Despite our best efforts to craft stabilising tails and weights, we had to abandon that effort, too.

We turned to our final plan: a really, really long pole. To be specific, the 11-metre 'Gangster Carp Pole', a collapsible carbon-fibre fishing rod that we'd adapted for our purposes using a flexible miniature tripod and some duct tape. This had to work. It was the eleventh hour.

The Gangster Carp Pole snaps photos of the vegetation.

© Jennifer Guyton


Holding the pole steady in front of him, Tyler walked the transect while I directed to make sure he stayed on course. Above us we could hear the steady snap, snap, snap of our camera's interval mode. Tyler lowered the camera. Success! We'd managed to take a series of sharp, low-altitude photos that clearly showed regular, spot-like patterns in the grass, most likely caused by plants simultaneously facilitating each other and competing for water.

Ultimately, those photos helped our mathematically-inclined colleagues back in Princeton to show that the patterns their models had predicted were in fact present in the real world. Further, they were able to show that termite mounds, as nutrient and moisture hotspots, provide vegetation refuges in times of drought. As the rain returns, those refuges seed surrounding areas, reviving the ecosystem. Our results were published in Science under the title 'Termite mounds can increase the robustness of dry land ecosystems to climatic change.'

Now, the Gangster Carp Pole was back, and we were asked to turn our newfound expertise to a new phenomenon: the mysterious Namibian fairy circles. Namibian fairy circles are not to be confused with the mushroom fairy circles that are well-known in the northern latitudes; rather, these desert circles are patches of bare sand, 2-12m wide, ringed by tall grass. These bald spots stretch in a regular polka-dot pattern across the landscape, giving the dunes the feeling of a giant sculpted Zen garden. It's hard to believe that nature can produce something so meticulous, so seemingly deliberate. That incredible regularity was why we were there. We wanted to know what caused it.

A landscape in the Namib Desert, polka-dotted by fairy circles.

© Jennifer Guyton


We were not the first to ask that question. As their name implies, legend says they are caused by fairies. Others have called them the footprints of the gods. 'I hope you don't find the answer,' one local lodge manager said to us, 'It's more interesting not knowing.'

But with our giant pole, duct tape, and point-and-shoot cameras, we were fishing in the deep end of a long and heated scientific debate. One cadre of scientists argue that the patterns are caused strictly by vegetation self-organization; in other words, like in Kenya, plants facilitate each other and compete with one another for water, which can cause them to form all kinds of weird patterns. The other scientific camp argues that fairy circles are caused by termites. Termites, the hypothesis goes, could destroy the roots of grasses near their nest to form the large bald spots, which accumulate moisture and act as underground wells for the thirsty termites. Those moist spots are also good for plants, which could cause the rings of tall grass to form around the edges. Termite competition would explain the regular spacing - neighboring termite colonies battle for territory and resources, causing them to set up camp at a comfortable distance from one another. When the landscape is full of competing termite colonies, they would be packed as closely together as possible without impinging on each other's territories, creating regular spacing.

We had a different idea: why not both termites and plant self-organisation? Our colleagues had built a model that predicted that if termites were making the circles, we would see a secondary, smaller spot-like pattern in the grass between the circles, caused by vegetation self-organising. One source cannot create two patterns on two separate scales, so if we found two patterns, there must be two sources. Tyler and I were sent out to discover whether those predicted secondary, small-scale, spot-like grass patterns exist.

A fairy circle at sunset, illustrating the bald spot surrounded by tall grass.

© Jennifer Guyton


Because of the shadow that our pole cast, we had to photograph at midday, and we couldn't photograph when it was overcast because it flattened the images. Midday in full sun was our only option - and it was late January, the height of the southern summer. We each drank 7 litres of water per day, and felt lucky if we needed a single bathroom break. But after 10 days baking in the dry heat, fishing for photos, and dumping deserts of sand out of our shoes each night, we had our images: the small-scale grass patterns were there.

Our paper, 'A theoretical foundation for multi-scale vegetation patterns', was published last month in Nature, with our co-authors Corina Tarnita, Juan Bonachela, Efrat Sheffer, Ryan Long, and Rob Pringle. Similar to our Kenya paper, our ten-day adventure and long hours under the desert summer sun yielded just a few lines in our 4-page paper, the rest of it filled by the complex calculations and theory our colleagues had been working on for months in Princeton. This is the reality of science - weeks, months, sometimes years of trial and error, of collaboration, of adventure are distilled into a few frugal pages, a gleaming façade on a grand and messy experience.

On our way out, as we drove at speed in a cloud of dust toward Windhoek, I caught a familiar glimmer, a sand-colored blur diving headlong from a wooden fencepost. I'd know a blur like that anywhere - it was a startled meerkat. We slowed down and I stuck my head into the hot wind, squinting against the spotlight-sun. A dozen furry forms danced along the sand and converged on a cluster of holes, where they sunk one by one into the hot sand like smelted gold figurines. My mind verged on disappointment - in the Kalahari, each minute our meerkats spent underground was a minute we couldn't collect data. Then I remembered where I was, and felt instead the wonder at encountering organisms that have lives entirely separate from our own, unknown and perhaps not wholly knowable. But we, as scientists and as photographers, will keep trying.

Welwitschia plants (Welwitschia mirabilis) are endemic to these deserts.

© Jennifer Guyton





Jen is an ecologist with a passion for wildlife conservation and communicating nature. Since graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, Jen has spent over four years working in Africa. She now has a master's degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton University and is currently working on her PhD in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique as a National Geographic Explorer and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. Jen believes that art - whether it's film, photography, writing, or something else, has the power to persuade and motivate, making it crucial for protecting our wild places.


Find out more about Jen by visiting her website or following her on Twitter and Facebook.




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