Journalist Report – June 3rd

June 03, 2024, by Jordan Bimm

What life is out there? This question unites astrobiology, the field devoted to searching for extraterrestrial life, and our Martian Biology program at MDRS. Founded in 2019 by Dr. Shannon Rupert, an ecologist and Director Emeritus of MDRS, the Martian Biology program conducts non-sim biodiversity surveys of different field sites reachable from the Hab. We do this to establish a scientific understanding of what’s out there. Not on Mars, but around MDRS. What vegetation, insects, and animals exist in the desert south of the San Rafael Swell? What can an inventory of these forms of life tell us about our Station’s surrounding ecosystems and our planet’s environment?

Now beginning our fourth mission at MDRS, the crew (Crew 298) of Martian Biology IV consists of Shannon Rupert, Paul Sokoloff, a botanist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, Samantha McBeth, a field biologist, Jacopo Razzauti, a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Rockefeller University, Olivia Drayson, a PhD candidate in environmental toxicology at UC Irvine, and me, Jordan Bimm, a space historian and professor of science communication at the University of Chicago. Previous missions in 2019 (Crew 210), 2022 (Crew 243), and 2023 (Crew 282) have focussed on sites located close to the Hab accessible by rovers and have expanded progressively outward using the Crew Car to build a robust and comprehensive regional inventory.

We arrived on Station on Monday June 3, and immediately set to work at a new field site called Hog Spring, 64 kilometers south of MDRS and of special interest to McBeth. McBeth’s goal is to deploy the first of six “Critter Cams,” camouflaged motion-activated digital cameras that automatically record images of wildlife. Adopting the astrobiologist’s mantra of “follow the water” we selected Hog Spring due to its flowing H2O, making it a likely destination for all kinds of local life.

McBeth’s focus this time is on macrovertebrates, mostly larger mammals, although some rodents, amphibians, and reptiles may make an appearance as well and will be welcome additions.

“Realistically, we might see racoons, coyotes, foxes, skunks and weasels,” she says. “Amazing would be images of ringtails, a cousin of the raccoon, mountain lions, or even a bobcat. They’re out there!” The idea is to set up concealed Critter Cams and check back on them in a few days, to see what creatures have passed by and been photographed in the process. For bait, (technical term: “attractant”) McBeth uses a small can of Fancy Feast cat food advertised as “Grilled Tuna and Cheddar Cheese Feast.” “The smellier, the better,” she adds. We poked holes in the side of the can, hid it under a nearby rock, and hoped for the best.

Stay tuned for more updates, including from our Critter Cams, as our week-long mission progresses.

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