Field guide

IBSL instructor Brian Wisenden’s animal behavior course at Itasca gives students a deeper perspective on field research.
June 21, 2023

Working in a lab setting offers scientists a measure of control. That’s often a plus as they try to connect cause and effect. But for animal behaviorists like Brian Wisenden, those constraints can often lead to a whole new set of problems.

“Lab studies always carry the risk that behaviors observed are an artifact of captivity,” he says. “An analogy might be that you can’t learn about wolves by studying miniature poodles that spend most of their time being carried in the purse of a rich person. It is very important to study animals in the context of where the animal evolved.”

For Wisenden, a professor of biosciences at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, this pursuit comes to life at Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories. He has led a field biology course on animal behavior at the field station every summer since 2000 except during the pandemic. During the five-week class, Wisenden spends less than an hour each day lecturing students on animal behaviors ranging from habitat selection to courtship or foraging. Most of the day focuses on getting students to discover and explore within a different context.

“I not only teach them about animal behavior, I teach them how to be animal behaviorists,” he says. “Each day is an experiment. Students collect data for most of the day, we then pool class data, draw conclusions from statistical inference, and write a formal report in standard scientific format citing primary literature. That’s the full package of what it is to be a field biologist. Learning biology in a field setting is a completely different experience from classroom learning. It is an apprenticeship.”

This chance to get a hands-on look at what life looks like as a field biologist not only gives students the chance to find new insights on the behavior of animals in Minnesota’s northwoods, but also potential career paths.

“At the Itasca station students can visualize, often for the first time in their career as a student, themselves being a biologist,” Wisenden says. “The small class sizes and full days of 1:1 interaction with a faculty person doing cool biology is transformative.”

— Lance Janssen