The predator of my predator is my friend.

If you’re a prey animal, you spend an awful lot of your time trying to not wind up like this:

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As we’ve talked about an awful lot on this blog (here, here, and here, for example), the same holds true for a lot of predators. Just because you kill and eat other animals, doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about being killed yourself (as this hyena so unceremoniously discovered).

But, what we haven’t talked so much about, is that the same holds true for plants. If you’re a plant, you get eaten by these terrifying animals:

But, just like prey animals and mesopredators can change their behaviour to minimise the risk of being killed, plants have a few tricks up their sleeves. They can spend a lot of energy growing big thorns, for example, that makes them less delectable.

Or! They can grow in places that their predators avoid — the places where their predators’ predators hang out. Got that?  It’s a trickle-down landscape of fear, which had, until now, only been really well documented in small experimental systems with critters like spiders and grasshoppers. But researcher Dr. Adam Ford and colleagues just published an elegant paper in Science showing that leopards and African wild dogs can make the Kenyan savanna less thorny through this cascade. Basically, leopards and wild dogs eat impala. Impala eat Acacia trees. Impala much prefer to eat acacias with fewer thorns (because really, who doesn’t?) – and, if given the opportunity, impala will can eat these small-thorned acacias so much that they can suppress the acacia population.

But! Leopards and wild dogs seem to be offering these tasty small-thorned acacias a refuge. Leopards and wild dogs spend most of their time in denser thickets, where they have more cover to hunt. Impala avoid these thickets and rarely venture in —  when they do, however, they have a much higher probability of being killed. And this creates this spiral – those tasty small-thorned trees survive and grow in these thickets because predators scare impala away.

So it’s a trickle down landscape of fear – a compelling and really exciting story. But, what sets Adam’s paper apart from many other attempts to document this effect in large predators, is the series of elegant experiments in which he and colleagues explicitly tested each step in this cascade.  Controlling for habitat use to confirm that impala aren’t getting killed in the woods simply because they spend more time there (and in fact, they get killed more even though the spend less time there). Adding and removing thorns to acacias to see if it was really the thorns that mattered. Creating herbivore exclosures to measure whether impala could really suppress acacia density. I spent my entire time reading the article alternating between saying “This is so cool!” and “I am so jealous!” It’s an amazing story. Read more about it here (or here, or or here)!

 

Zooniverse advent calendar

At the Zooniverse, we love any excuse to have fun, be festive, and highlight cool things from our awesome projects. Check out the Christmas countdown Advent Calendar at https://www.zooniverse.org/advent!

The How To Guide for Getting Field Experience

The Minnesota winter has finally come upon us and time is passing exasperatingly slowly, waiting to hear back from funding sources, plowing through homework, cleaning up data, and mostly daydreaming about heading back to Serengeti. Perhaps the dread of spending the next semester in the cold is stirring undergraduates into action, but I’ve been contacted by numerous students recently inquiring about something near and dear to my heart: field experience and how to get it.

Field work is what makes biology for me – I don’t think I could get by without that glimmer of hope, the promise of going out and getting dirty and experiencing ecology in the raw. The summers of my own undergraduate career and the two years before I entered graduate school were spent almost entirely out in the bush: measuring fishes and catching snakes and doing pretty much whatever kind of work I could come across that would let me mess around doing science in the great outdoors.

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“Doing Science” in the Great Outdoors

I lived for that work, but I can’t claim that it’s entirely glamorous. You won’t be picking up a brand new Ferrari any time soon, that’s for sure. My first field jobs could barely be called sustenance living, but after a few years of experience, I was picking up jobs that came with fancy, real-person benefits (oooh, like Dental).

And then there’s that whole “in the field” thing to consider — in all its glorious, treacherous, beautiful and exhausting majesty. I’ve been on field jobs where people have suffered through dengue and malaria, contracted parasites, twisted limbs, narrowly avoided encounters with venous snakes (on an almost daily basis), and quite literally passed out from exhaustion in the middle of the wilderness. “Sweat, blood, and tears” sums it up quite nicely. You’re stuck with the same old crew for weeks, or even months, on end, often with limited amenities. If isolation is not your thing, perhaps second thoughts may be in order. Also take into account the facilities you’ll be living in. I’ve been overwhelmed by the relative “luxury” of some field stations (electricity! food that isn’t rice and beans!), and enjoyed the struggle of situations at the opposite end of the spectrum (cold showers are good for you, and you didn’t need to check that Facebook this month anyway…).

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Just another day at work

 

Which isn’t to sell any aspect of fieldwork short. Doing fieldwork is an absolutely wonderful way to get your butt outdoors, see the world, enjoy nature, and it does wonders preparing you for a career in science. Techniques I’ve learned and people I’ve met along the way have been invaluable when it came to getting new jobs and heading back to school. I feel far more prepared to do my own research after having participated in such a diversity of projects. Plus, you get to be your down David Attenborough and live the things you’ve only ever seen on Nature documentaries or in the zoo. It’s a well worth-while experience.

So, the important part: where to find the job.

THE UNDERGRADUATE

For those still in an undergrad program looking for a summer position, the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) are definitely the first place to hit up (NSF REU; NSF for BIOLOGY). These are great paying positions that are geared specifically towards getting you involved in your own research. I completed two REUs during my undergrad, spending one summer working in Panama studying developmental plasticity in Red-eyed tree frogs and another on the island of Puerto Rico filming the territorial behaviors of Anolis lizards. These experiences are wonderful because you are highly involved with the lab you work in, you get to meet and interact with a large body of scientists from various disciplines, and if you’re designing your own project, get invaluable input into the process of constructing an experiment. For me, both of my REU projects resulted in publications – an important factor for applying for graduate school.

LIST SERVS

List servs are beautiful, beautiful things, because job applications find their own way into your inbox and sit there waiting for you to read them. They’re also a great place to join in on scientific discussion and share ideas, articles, and even research equipment. Some of my favorite list-servs are:

  • ECOLOG-L: Run by the Ecological Society of America
  • MARMAM: For researchers working with marine mammals
  • MAMMAL-L: I believe this was set up by the American Society of Mammologists?

You can probably tell that I’m a bit biased towards mammal work, but ECOLOG runs job advertisements from everything ranging from forest ecology to herps and fishes through to hyena biology in Kenya.

 

WEBSITES

Biology job boards are the next place I turn when looking for the next field position. These update fairly regularly, so keep checking up on them:

  • Texas A&M biology: My absolute favorite – there are some really fantastic research opportunities that make their way to the Texas A&M job board
  • ConBio: Run by the Society for Conservation Biology
  • Primates: For those interested specifically in primates
  • AZA (Zoos):  If the field isn’t quite for you, but you’re still gung ho about working with animals, be sure to check out what’s going on at the zoos
  • USAjobs: Government jobs are some of the better-paying gigs in the biology business

Find the job applications is, like most things in life, just the first step in a Process. Next come the cover letters, the applications themselves, scrounging up enough references and actually getting them to submit letters for you on time (often, the most difficult part). But hopefully this provides as starting point for those ready to get out there and do some science.

Welcome Darren

Darren, our new Community Builder

Darren, our new Community Builder

Hey everyone – I just wanted to introduce you to one of the Zooniverse’s newest members, Darren McRoy, who is our new Community Builder. 

As Community Builder, Darren serves as the Zooniverse’s liaison with its citizen science community, including Snapshot Serengeti. He also assists with Zooniverse’s general communications efforts and is working closely with designers and developers on the next generation of the Talk discussion system.

Darren is a 2010 graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and has a background in journalism and digital communications. He is a resident of the northern Chicago suburbs, and enjoys golf, volleyball, fiction writing, gaming, and participating in a variety of online communities.

Darren can be reached at darren@zooniverse.org, and posts on Talk under the handle “DZM.” Please feel free to get in touch with him if you have any thoughts, comments, questions, etc about how the Zooniverse communicates with its community — you!

Groovin’

Just for fun. I was hanging around on Talk today and stumbled across this grooving Kori Bustard. Kind of makes me want to dance…

dancin' kori bustard

dancin’ kori bustard

Serengeti Lions win Wildlife Photo of the Year award!

lions_ngm_0813_006_brnd

You might remember that National Geographic did a big story on “our” lions last year. David Quammen spent a while being bounced around in our land rovers and Nick Nichols and his crew spent months on end camping in the southeastern corner of our study area, following the Vumbi pride’s every move.

Well, one of Nick’s pictures from that trip has just won him the prized Wildlife Photographer of the Year award!   The competition, co-run by London’s Natural History Museum and the BBC, has just turned 50 years old, and is a pretty big deal (you can read about it here). Nick’s winning piece is a black and white photo of the Vumbi pride sprawled in rather epic fashion over the kopjes. We can’t post the picture here for copyright purposes, unfortunately, but go check it out!  And go check out some of the other fantastic runners-up here while you’re at it.

 

 

Cheetahs rocking the boat…again!

Cheetahs, it seems, just can’t stop shattering everything we believed to be true about them.

Scientists have long believed that lions (and hyenas to some extent) threaten cheetah conservation efforts —  in large part because they kill so many cheetah cubs. But last year, researchers from South Africa revealed that lions probably don’t kill as many cheetah cubs as folks previously believed. And shortly after that, our research showed that regardless of the amount of lion-inflicted cheetah cub mortality, cheetahs do just fine around large lion populations.

Just last month, another story broke that shakes up how we think about cheetahs. It turns out that not only are cheetahs not as vulnerable to killing by lions, but they cheetahs aren’t nearly as vulnerable to non-lethal bullying either. It was thought that because cheetahs couldn’t fight back against lions – or hyenas – they lost a lot of their hard-earned kills to these ruthless scavengers. (Yes, both lions and hyenas do steal food from each other and from cheetahs.) We knew that wild dogs expend so much energy hunting that they can’t afford to lose even moderate levels of food, and assumed that cheetahs were similarly vulnerable. But, as a recent study from Bostwana and South Africa found out, they aren’t.  It turns out that despite being super fast, cheetahs don’t expend all that much energy chasing down their prey. Researchers estimate that cheetahs could lose a full 50% of their kills to lions and hyenas, and still get all the calories they need!

All in all, it’s beginning to look a lot like the biggest threats to cheetahs aren’t lions and hyenas. Instead, availability of denning sites (as suggested by our research) and human destruction of habitat that forces cheetahs to travel far and wide in search of prey (suggested by this most recent study) are probably much, much greater threats to their survival.

 

Tidbits on wild dogs

One of our long-time Snapshot Serengeti members (thanks Reid!) sent me this NY Times article on African wild dogs. As you know, we don’t have wild dogs in the study area (though keep your eyes peeled! TANAPA did reintroduce them into the western corridor the other year, and I keep hoping we’ll catch one traveling through our grid).

But I am very interested in how dogs interact with the larger carnivore community. And these animals are just *so* cool – incredibly energetic and full of nerve. Watching a small group of dogs defend their kill against a hunting party of hyenas was one of the highlights of my trip to South Africa in June.

Photo by Ingela Jansson

Photo by Ingela Jansson

The article points out that wild dogs may fare better when lions fare worse (which I’ve reported on here) — and that raises some questions about questions about how to target conservation efforts. Do we have to choose between which species to protect? I’d say “not necessarily.” My dissertation research suggests that although dogs fare worse in small reserves with lions, there are places where wild dogs seem to do just fine. Selous Game Reserve (TZ) and Kruger National Park (SA), for example – big areas that have complex habitat structures. So the answer to protecting the entire carnivore guild may lie in larger, diverse reserves.

There are currently efforts in place to do create a protected area the size of Sweden that spans five southern & east African countries. If successful, according to the NY Times, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area will be the largest terrestrial protected area in the world. Now that’s something to celebrate.

Back from the field!

Hi guys! Sorry for the long hiatus on my front. Africa was just as exciting and frustrating and marvelous and difficult as I had imagined it would be, and I’m missing it terribly. I made it back to the US just a week or so ago, my suitcases full of lion manes, camera traps, dead telemetry equipment for repair, and several very important hard drives full of new data to analyze! It’s going to be a busy semester synthesizing everything I learned this summer and planning ahead for the next go around.

Coming home from the field for me typically means a week of celebratory eating (ice cream for breakfast! fruits all day every day!), celebratory showering (hot water! running water!), celebratory lavatory use (it flushes!), among other things. This time, though, I’ll have to admit that even these luxuries didn’t soften the blow of leaving.

(Impending statistics classes awaiting me in Minnesota probably didn’t help either).

There is one primary advantage to coming home, the one thing that makes me appreciate every day that I’m back, and it the fact that for a few blissful months, I will no longer have to deal with these little devils:

P1140874The Tsetse Fly: Evil on Wings

Good riddance, tsetses! Hello, Minnesota!

 

I’m in the Zooniverse!

The Snapshot Serengeti science team has been a bit remiss at blog posts over the summer. Meredith has been battling tsetses in Serengeti for her first ever Serengeti field season, and I’ve been kept busy traveling on three continents – between finishing my dissertation, crewing for my partner in the world hot air balloon championships, and…moving to Oxford to join the Zooniverse!

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Note that the red Zooniverse hoodie against the red sign is probably not the most flattering of photographic setups…

 

We’re still working out exactly what my job title and job description are (details!), but now that the dissertation is officially finished and I’m settling in here, expect more posts to come!

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