When my grandfather used to leave little morsels of grain for the crows (who represent forefathers according to the Hindu culture) every morning, along with the crows there would always be a cautious furry squirrel or two partaking in the free food. This three-striped palm squirrel, favourably called anil in Tamil, had me bewitched from the first time I saw it, with its shifty eyes, always ready to scurry away at the slightest suspicion of danger. I would gawk at it until all the grain was gone, and eagerly wait for the next morning. With my grandfather's passing, no one else practised this ritual and with time, I guess I forgot about it too. I like to believe that it was this experience as a child that somehow subconsciously stayed with me and resurfaced almost 17 years later when I was running out of time to figure out a masters' thesis project at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII).
I saw the Indian desert jird for the first time in Kachchh, Gujarat, during a short holiday that quickly turned into a reconnaissance for the project. These were social rodents that lived in an underground burrow system that I'm sure requires in-depth (at least up to a metre!) understanding of soil architecture. Their popping in and out of different burrow holes every few minutes reminded me of the arcade game Whac-A-Mole I'd seen in movies, of course without the violent excitement of wanting to hit the creature on the head! I tried to see how close I could go before they would run down the burrows, and they were surprisingly tame, especially if I was so slow as to appear unmoving. It was love at first sight, for me at least; I'm not sure they felt the same way. I wanted to study animal behaviour and the jirds looked very promising.
It was the start of the second month with only three more remaining, and everything had gone absolutely wrong. No method of marking individual jirds stayed on them, and I had tried everything from nontoxic markers to handmade colour-coded beaded earrings with beads from my own earring that had to be broken! I even tried the paint that local shepherds used to mark their goats and sheep, all to no avail. No individual identification meant a change in strategy for behavioural observation, cascading to changes in expected data and analysis. To complicate matters, from some observations and trials, it increasingly looked like their colonies were governed by some unknown hierarchy. For example, a beaded adult female (from one of the marking trials) monopolised all the bait stations I had kept around a colony to such an extent that she would run back other individuals who so much as dared to take one curious step towards the bait. I expected animals on the other side of the colony, hidden from the 'queen', to take advantage of their partial refuge and access the bait stations there, but they acted like they were held by the grip of fear and didn't want to tempt fate.
[Disclaimer: I know I sound highly anthropomorphic but there is no easier way to describe my observations, unless I conduct a full length life-long (my life and many jirds') study and write a scientific paper that will definitely be more boring than this.]
Of course I ended up throwing that proposal in the trash and coming up with an almost entirely new study that would give me enough data in the little time left to write a decent publication in a half-decent journal. I couldn't have done this without the unrequited help and support from some of my closest friends and mentors within and outside WII and for that, and for terrific uninterrupted mobile signal, I shall be ever grateful. But, what I ended up learning from this was completely unexpected - that most proposals will end up useless no matter how much we read, how many solutions we can think of for all the possible roadblocks, or how scientifically 'correct' we design our studies. And that what we need to be prepared for is scientific thinking that is fast enough to help us ask those insightful questions about intriguing natural observations and prompt us through the rest of the process of designing a study, collecting data and so on. I'm not suggesting that we completely do away with proposals; I believe they are an excellent exercise for a form of scientific writing and review of literature that will be useful, especially when we write for those eluding grants in the last minute. What I believe will help us is to not depend so much on the proposal itself for carrying out a study in field, but to be flexible and open-minded even after everything seems set in stone. Things can and will change unexpectedly, and we should train ourselves to acknowledge and work around them. I try to practise this very belief even as I start my PhD and brace myself for the long long time this is going to take - the learning, the practising and of course, the PhD.
As for the jirds, their habitat is being swallowed by intensive agriculture that may or may not threaten their existence. They are still locally common and yet, no one sees them. Or may be, that's why no one sees them.
Currently a PhD student at Indiana State University, finished my masters from WII in 2011. I read like a maniac and try to write as much. I have survived the polar vortex, the first one at least.