Now the real adventures begin. We arrived at the field station on Sunday and met with The Fixer on Monday afternoon to discuss arranging a driver for the next week or so. We explained to him what the goals are, where we’d like to go, the time of day/night, duration of the trip, and asked for a price estimate before we go to negotiate with the drivers. There are a bunch of drivers at the market, so I figured we’d just go that way and see who gives us the best price. He started to go on about how it’s complicated to say how much it will cost because of variables like the time, road conditions, etc. I just wanted a ballpark for price per kilometer or price per hour so I’d know what to expect and where to start. Somewhere in these negotiations, a driver pulled up – a friend of The Fixer who he wanted us to hire. At some point in the “it’s complicated” negotiations that a Chinese student (Yang) was trying to help me with, Sarah interrupted and took over negotiating for me. The whole game changed. She got them to understand that it doesn’t have to be complicated because they already know all of the variables. She also got them to agree to an estimate for the first day with room for each side to negotiate if either I or the driver don’t think the price is fair. The Chinese student seemed a little astonished that this worked so well, and it validated the argument I’d been making about her value to the institute – she managed to help reach an agreement far more quickly than if we’d done things in a more Chinese and left room for flexibility on both sides. This was probably only possible though because I’ve cultivated a reputation for honesty.
So off we went to explore the desert. We visited the location I’d gone to a few weeks ago along the oil highway where I’d seen lots of tracks and where we’d been told there are lots of 3-toed jerboas. One of the things Talia wants to do is to take soil compaction measurements using a penetrometer. It’s not as dirty as it sounds. It’s basically a hand held tool that measures the amount of force it takes to press a small foot into the ground by a set amount. She’s been taking readings in all of the different locations and at the top and bottom of sand dunes and samples of the earth so that she can better understand the environment with which the jerboa feet are interacting as they bound along.
We had planned to visit another location last night, but we got distracted instead by camels. It’s just one of those times when you sacrifice a little bit of work for an amazing experience. A Kazakh family with a house by the roadside had about a half dozen baby goats that had lost their moms, so that was pretty cute to begin with. But then we rounded the corner of the house and walked over to where there were three mamma camels with their babies. Soooooooo painfully cute. They even have little baby humps. But a baby camel is no small fry. Each of these little guys was probably no more than a couple weeks old but already stood at about my shoulder. The mamma camels were a bit unpredictable, and I kept expecting to get clocked by a giant head suspended on a long neck. At one point, one of the gals started to walk toward me, but they each have a rope tied to one foot, so she accidentally stepped on the rope and managed to hobble herself. Good for me, because I think she had more than “hello” in mind.
This morning we went to make up for the lost hours last night and visited a couple of other jerboa capture sites. More camels! We had to wait for a whole herd at a camel crossing before we could continue on the road to a flat dry field where the 5-toed jerboas are supposedly prevalent. So once we had the lay of the land, we returned to the field station where everyone else took an afternoon siesta, and I got a little work done before we set out to lay some traps in a field near here. We will probably only catch sand rats (gerbils/jirds), but since Talia wants to compare bipedal and quadrupedal rodents, those are still useful.
After dinner this evening, we set out once more to a place where we were told there are both 5 and 3-toed jerboas. I walked along the top of the dune with my headlamp sweeping slowly in each direction and managed to see about a dozen 3-toed jerboas. Mostly though I just got good at spotting spiders since their eyes also glow in the light, but they’re much smaller than rodent eyes and kind of green in color. The jerboas are really quick though, so about all I got to appreciate was their escape maneuvering as their eyes bounced off into the distance. Fortunately my companions are a little quicker and managed to net a jerboa and a sand rat before we left that area. The driver was super helpful also. He stayed with the car, but every once in awhile he would flick on the headlights and change position so he could highlight animals for us. I think he finds this whole adventure to be funny and fun at the same time.
On our way out of the desert, along a dirt road, we saw a whole bunch more 3-toed jerboas, and Yang eagerly hopped out to chase them down. I think he wore himself out, but he was successful and caught another two jerboas before we left the desert. We then stopped at a place where there were supposed to be 5-toed jerboas but didn’t see any until we were leaving along a paved road and caught sight of them in the headlights of the car hopping down the road. The driver passed the first one by before realizing we wanted to stop and try to catch it, so he threw the car into reverse. I remember saying “it’ll be either gone or squished” not really expecting the latter until we once again passed it and saw the poor thing lying in the road. The good thing is that he didn’t feel anything for long, but I can’t understand why he didn’t hop out of the way. Fortunately we caught two more alive also along the road, so Talia now has some research subjects for her filming.