While most Bowdoin students might prefer to spend their wintry Friday mornings indoors, 11 biology students are spending theirs exploring the Maine backcountry, examining trees for sawfly cocoons and occasionally meeting black bear cubs. It’s all part of Advanced Winter Field Ecology, a class taught by Chair of the Biology Department Nat Wheelwright. 

Last week, the group accompanied biologists from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife on a bear-tracking expedition near Columbia, Maine. The trip was led by the department’s lead bear biologist, Randy Cross.

“It [involved] snowshoeing three miles and being snowmobiled out on through blueberry fields,” said Liam Taylor ’17. “It was kind of crazy. It got cold. But we all did it for the bears.”
The group was searching for a female bear that had previously been tagged with a radio collar.
“They [were] pinging the collar on the bear to track it down to this tiny little den,” said Ben West ’16.

Once they found the female bear and her two yearling cubs, the researchers tranquilized them and took measurements. 

“They can look at their weight, take measurements, take DNA samples, check out their teeth... That’s just a way that they can keep tabs on the population,” said Hannah LeBlanc ’16. 
Bear tracking and tagging provide valuable data to inform hunting regulations and manage human-bear interactions. But the expedition also allowed the Bowdoin students to get up close and personal with the furry creatures. 

“They’re yearling cubs, so they [were] pretty big, like 50, 60 pounds, so we didn’t hold them very long,” West said. “The big myth that they were telling us is that bears smell stinky, but they smell more like a dog.”

Sarah McCarthy ’18, who had experience working with bears in captivity before, was nonetheless awed by the experience.

“I’ve never done much with wild bears before, or been that close to a bear,” she said. “I got to kiss it on the nose.”

The trip also provided students with the opportunity to connect with professional ecology researchers. 

“It was cool to talk to Fish and Wildlife bear biologists who do really cool field work,” said Sabine Berzins ’16. “That’s definitely something I would be interested in doing.”

Of course, the upper-level biology class isn’t just about talking with experts and cuddling furry creatures. 

“We’re researching the introduced pine sawfly, which is a little bit less charismatic than the black bear,” said Taylor. 

Sawflies crawl up trees and form cocoons during the winter. Since sawflies are an introduced species to Maine—they are originally from Europe—the students hope that their research will improve scientific understanding of the sawflies’ interaction with the rest of Maine’s environment.

“They are attacking the pines in a way that wouldn’t have happened without their introduction,” said West.

The students are researching how the specific location of sawflies’ cocoons on a tree affects their survival rate. They are also bringing live cocoons back to the lab, where they will carry out predation experiments. They hope to produce a paper with their findings. 

“It would be really nice to be an author on a published paper,” West said. 

The sawflies’ tendency to cocoon during the winter makes them an ideal species to research at this time of year. Nonetheless, winter field research also poses challenges. 

“I had to buy a new jacket because mine wasn’t going to allow me to survive in the cold,” said Victor Leos ’16, who grew up in Texas. “And I had never purchased snow pants until this class. But…after a few hours you kind of forget that you’re in the snow and you’re just diving in.” 
Advanced Winter Field Ecology follows an atypical schedule, meeting all day on Fridays to facilitate off-campus fieldwork. It is capped at 11 students so that they—and Professor Wheelwright—can collectively fit into Bowdoin’s standard 12-passenger vans. 

Wheelwright first taught the class in 2000; this semester is the fourth time he has led it. Despite the long hours, he said the class typically has a waiting list, though this year he was able to accept everyone who registered.  

Regardless of the timing or the weather, conducting field work is a valuable experience for students hoping to continue scientific research after graduation. 

“I’m hoping to go to grad school and I’m hoping to be a biologist and do research,” said Taylor.
But even if the students never conduct field work again, they will still cherish their memories from Advanced Winter Field Ecology.

“We all feel so lucky that we get the experience of getting the timing right and having the opportunity to take this class,” LeBlanc said.