Getting to know the mud of Serengeti has been the major hurdle of my wet season. The mud out here comes, I have discovered, in many different treacherous flavors. Surprisingly, you can get a car through the largest puddles by plowing straight through the middle, but the edges of these small lakes (that you might, say, drive on to go *around* the seemingly-impassible body of water) are death-traps. Silty pale sand on the road is often a sign of stickiness and tall grass can hide all manner of trouble. If the sun happens to bake the right kind of crust on the road after a rainfall, solid ground can collapse right out from under your wheels: as I discovered the other evening, under you go. I had been driving out to an area of the park called Barafu when my journey ground to a halt in two feet of thick mud.
Often, with the right amount of tenacity, you call bully your way through the mud. Locking the wheels, jacking up the car, throwing spare tires and dead trees and rocks and whatever else you can find under your floundering tires sometimes works. If you’re in the right areas at the right time of day, passing tour cars often go out of their way to help you out (a favor I try and return at every possible convenience, building up karma for the next big stick). This particular situation, however, was neither the right place nor the right time. It was early evening, and I was miles and miles away from Serengeti Central. Asking for help this late and this far from our field crew would have been irresponsible and, fortunately, unnecessary — I had been heading out camping that evening to start with, and always keep the car stocked with emergency supplies (sleeping bag, snacks, and, of course, a bottle of Safari Lager).
While it was still light, I tried to make it the kilometer or two to a nearby kopje, hoping that somewhere along the route my cellphone reception would kick in and I could at least send out some coordinates for a tow the next morning. No dice: the sun quickly began to set and I had to beat a hasty retreat to the car. Making the best of an inconvenient situation, I popped the top off of a beer and crawled up onto the hood to watch as the sun drift below the horizon. I almost spilled half that beer down my front when, with a roar, a lion emerged from the grass less than two meters away from where I was sitting.
She was a lone female, a bit scrawny and mangy (I was pretty sure I recognized her from earlier on in the day). Stepping onto the road, she sauntered over to the car, roaring every few steps. Was she calling for the rest of her pride? I couldn’t see or hear any others, and the lioness circled the Land Rover only once before continuing down the road. Clutching my beer, I experienced an emotion I have felt only once before, diving with great white sharks: knowing that you’re safe (probably), in your cage or in your car, but also understanding that you’re out in a predator’s natural habitat – and that those predators know you’re there. I can only think to describe it as an overwhelming sense of respect tinged with adrenaline, followed by an aftertaste of awe and thankfulness when the predator finally passes you by.
Needless to say, as soon as the lioness was a fair distance away, I scooted quickly back inside the car and may have even rolled the windows up a bit. I could hear her roaring for the next hour or so, and based on the footprints in the mud surrounding my Land Rover the next morning, she came back once or twice to check up on me.
On a lighter note, I’d like to make a special shout-out to the six-tour car cavalcade of young university men that took time out of their safari the next morning to drag me out and feed me chocolate bars (perhaps have to get stuck more often…?)
First field update! I’ve been out in Serengeti Park for just over a week now, and I’m fairly surprised to report that things are going rather swimmingly. It was certainly my smoothest travel experience from the USA to date: no plane delays (unlike last time), no missing luggage (unlike last time), no egregiously extended stay in Arusha waiting for permits (unlike last time). To be sure, field life takes a bit of getting used to again. We’ve had spitting cobras in the bathroom, ververt monkeys breaking into my car, and little black flies are out in full force. But the Serengeti this time of year is completely worth it. Last time, my field season only encompassed the dry season, but in the current rainy period, Serengeti is a completely different place. Everything is so green it almost hurts your eyes to look at it. Up in Barafu, along the eastern edge of our camera trap grid, are herds of wildebeest, zebra, and buffalo so large you can hardly believe it. (My first time driving through a herd of buffalo several hundred strong required more courage than I’d care to admit – buffalo are big and mean and certainly warrant a healthy respect. They’ve been known to ram our field vehicles before and cause all sorts of trouble).
There’s a few projects I’m working on this year with the camera traps: first and foremost finishing up the playback experiments I began last season. Every morning for ten consecutive days, I’d head out to particular camera traps and play lion roars, simulating the short-term presence of predators in an area. We see from the camera traps that herbivores start to evacuate from these scary areas (or, “areas of artificially elevated predation risk”, to use a more scientific jargon) for not just days or hours, but periods of up to three weeks! I’m interested generally in the trade-offs that herbivores have to make between avoiding areas where predators are and still obtaining enough resources to get by. Do they only avoid areas where there’s a high chance predators will be, like lion territories, despite all the tasty forage that may be contained inside? Or is the avoidance being exhibited on a finer scale – like days to weeks, rather than months to years, like we’re seeing in this experiment? Perhaps there are some species of ungulates that don’t try and avoid predators on a spatial scale at all, but rather rely heavily on evasive and defensive behaviors when they encounter a hungry carnivore. Hopefully these continued experiments and the Snapshot data in general will help elucidate answers to some of these questions!
I’m also working on another round of habitat characterization – this time, we’re interested in the soils and vegetation that help to determine the forage quality at a particular site. Now, to tell the truth, I wasn’t originally that enthused about these particular collection tasks, but I’ve discovered that there’s incredibly satisfying about grubbing around in the mud scraping out soil samples. My inner 8-year old is feeling more rejuvenated by the day. Lion House is started to become more than a little cluttered with sample bags of dirt and grass clippings – pole sana, other field assistants, it’s for Science!
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.
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…).
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.
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 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.
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.
I arrived in Kilimajaro airport last week, disembarking in the foothills of the famous peak itself. As you can see, by the time we finally touched down, you could hardly make out the mountain in the darkness. It was a long day (3 connections, 35+ hours) of air travel, followed by a final hour of bus-ride before I made it to Arusha and was picked up by the delightful Susan (of the Savannas Forever organization), whose home I have invaded for the time being.
My luggage, of course, was lost – all of it. Mechanical issues on one of my first flights made the resulting connections more than a bit close (I counted those airport sprints as my daily exercise), so I image my bags were sitting neglected in some corner of the Amsterdam airport for a few days before they eventually made it back to me. Poor Susan had to put up with me smelling pretty ripe in the meantime!
Arusha itself if a fairly busy town, and I’ve spent most of the last week plugging away at my permits and catching up on some reading and writing that has been neglected over the last semester. The permitting is, as anticipated, a fairly slow process. There have been a few almost ridiculous set-backs: the wildlife institution had misspelled my email address, so I was completely unaware that Permit #1 had even been granted (!) and I’m experiencing a few snags getting my fees transferred to the right people. C’est la vie, thankfully, nothing insurmountable as of yet. I’m optimistically hoping to get things sorted out before the next two weeks are up, as I’m dying to get out of civilization and into the real outdoors.
However, it would be a lie to make it seem like completely drudgery out here! I did allow myself to take a short break this weekend and headed up to a nearby reptile park with a Maasai friend I met through Susan. I have a soft spot for the scaly critters and greatly enjoyed the opportunity to handle these gorgeous sand boas:
(My friend, Lemmy, was not as enthusiastic)
I’m posting mid-week not only to report that my travels ended well, but also for a bit of a self-plug: today is my 24th birthday! Couldn’t ask for a better place to spend it in!
Sitting in the airport with my field gear all packed, waiting to embark on the 30+ hours of travel that await as I hop over to Europe and then down to Tanzania! My suitcases are stuffed with everything from duct tape – so much duct tape, it’s not even funny – to pruning shears, sleeping bags to mosquito netting. And snacks, plenty of those. I had to delved into the depths of my closet to dig out some of of my equipment, where it has been languishing since I got back from Guam last year. And I have to confess – I did use this trip as an excuse to splurge on some fancy new gadgets as well. Hello, multitool. How’s it going, camp stove I’ve always wanted!
I believe I’ve mentioned before that this will be my first time in Tanzania. My prior experience in Africa has taken place primarily in South Africa and Namibia – cold, deserty places where I spent almost a year on projects ranging from large herbivore and cheetah conservation to the social behavior of mice. Entering into the “unknown” is giving me a few butterflies, but I’m excited to get out of the office and do some actual hands-on research again. Ali and Margaret have been extremely helpful in my preparations for this trip, especially so with advice on how to navigate the process of obtaining the rest of my field permits. It sounds like my first few weeks will be a distressingly uneventful time in which I hang around the cities filling out paperwork, paperwork, and if I’m lucky, more paperwork. But after that, I hope to have a slew of decent stories to report back on the progress of our project and the the goings-on out in the Serengeti! Wish me luck on my travels, hopefully my next post will be from Tanzania.
In news not quite as exciting as Ali’s (congratulations again!), I have just gotten word from the Tanzanian research institute that the proposal I submitted for summer research have been approved! It looks like I’ll be heading out to Dar es Salaam and Arusha in the next three weeks to get the rest of my permits sorted out, and then head into the field immediately afterward. Definitely looking forward to seeing this amazing system first-hand — I’m sure it will be a surreal experience, after becoming so familiar with the animals and landscape through the camera trap images. Added bonus: I get to leave Minnesota, where it is still snowing. Hurrah!
### Today we’ve got a guest post by our very own Daniel Rosengren, lion tracker (& photographer) extraordinaire. ###
It started with some mysterious footprints around the Loliondo Kopjes. There were a lot of fresh paw marks in the mud following the road. I could tell it was a big pride but the only big pride with a territory nearby was the Young Transects. But I could not hear their collar. Neither could I hear any of our other prides. I drove around for a while looking for lions, especially on the rocks and under trees. I didn’t find any and guessed it could have been the Young Transect lions anyway, only without the collared female.
A couple of weeks later I was headed out east when I soon caught eye on a big group of lions. As I drove closer I realized they weren’t any lions I knew. I tried to get photos of all of them but it wasn’t easy knowing who you’d already got in a group of 17 lions. Luckily they all started walking along the track. All I had to do was park ahead of them and take photos as they passed one by one. Once I had photos of all their left sides I went home to try to figure out who they were.
I concentrated on the older females as the youngster probably never had been seen before by the Lion Project. After a while I found a couple of matches. It was TR86 and TSF from the Transect Steady pride, not seen since December 2009, almost three and a half years earlier. But the last time they were seen regularly in our study area was in 2008.
Now I contacted TANAPA and the vets to organize a collaring of one of the females. They were coming. I drove back to the place where I’d seen the lions and hoped they hadn’t walked too far. I found them in the shade of a tree. Then a long wait started for the vets to organize themselves and drive all the way from Fort Ikoma. Once they came, the collaring went smoothly, the rest of the pride watching from a distance.
About a week later I found the pride just outside the northern edge of our study area along the Pipeline track. Two more old females known since before had joined them, TR93 and TR106. Then they disappeared. So two weeks later I decided to search for them and drove along the Pipeline track north. But instead of driving on the actual track, which in many places was disappearing because of little use, I drove parallel to it, hitting all hilltops to be able to pick up the radio signal from a greater distance. The drive was terrible as the hills in the area are specked with large rocks and I had to drive dead slow. I held on the the steering wheel as little as possible. Having no power steering means that every time I hit a rock I risk breaking thumbs or worse.
I picked up the signal after a while but I still had to pass several hills before finally finding them, right by the track at a river confluence. That was quite far north of our study area and too far to go and see them on a weekly basis. The future will have to show where they finally settle.
While procrastinating on this lovely Sunday afternoon, I stumbled across this incredible video of a octopus camouflage in action:
Now, we don’t have anything quite that camouflaged in the Serengeti, but in watching that video my thoughts turned to one of our more strikingly colored species: the zebra. Their starkly contrasting black and white stripes have puzzled researchers and naturalists for a long time.
For starters, the stripes seem like they would be terrible camouflage. I mean, how much more could you stand out from the open plains of waving gold grass? But at dawn and dusk, especially from a distance, the stripes seem to bleed into gray, making them look a surprising lot like elephants (no joke), or rocks, or even nothing at all. Still, up close they still look like bright black-on-white zebras, and it’s hard to imagine that any lion lurking in the thickets nearby would be fooled.
Some researchers have mused that the bold patterns disrupt the perception of predators, and that when the zebras run en masse from an attacking lion, they become a confusing jumble of stripes into which the initial target disappears. Others have pointed out that every zebra has a unique set of stripes, and that these stocky equids might use these patterns to identify herd members, mates, or even mothers (if you’re a hungry foal).
One of the my favorite explanations has always been that the stripes protect against the savanna’s most fearsome creature: the tsetse fly. These blood-sucking insects are not only vectors for some nasty diseases (such as sleeping sickness), but also hurt. A lot. (Having spent more time than I care to remember in the woodlands where these terrible, terrible creatures thrive, just the thought of tsetses makes me shudder. I have spent many hours hurling expletives (fruitlessly) at the tiny terrors.) Tsetse flies suck. A lot. And if wearing stripes were a way to fend them off, I’d have gone out in a zebra suit every day. There are in fact stories of one intrepid researcher back in the day dressing up in a stripey suit and attempting to test whether zebra stripes deter tsetses. But there’s only so much that one man in a zebra outfit can do, and field experiments are notoriously difficult…and so this remained a buried rumor until last year.
Last year, Swedish researchers discovered that horseflies (a close cousin to the terrible tsetse) don’t like stripes. And they tested this on an experiment useing number of fake, plastic zebras painted solid black, solid white, and various things in between. Turns out that the flies really like dark colors over light colors, but still like solid light colors over stripes. And while in the real world, there are things (such as smells) that may attract tsetses to stripey animals despite their off-putting pattern, this study is pretty exciting. And next time I have to venture into the savannah woodlands? You can bet I’m wearing that zebra-striped shirt.