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Notes from the field

Note: Meredith wrote this blog post, but is having internet problems in Africa, so I am posting it on her behalf.

Pole sana on the lack of recent field updates – it’s been a busy week or two and I’ve traveled halfway across Africa in the meanwhile! Sad to say, I’ve left Serengeti behind for now. I was able to set up almost all of the replacement cameras I brought down with me and completed three new rounds for my playback experiments. I then took a few days off and spent my birthday traveling around in Ethiopia, soaking in some history and culture (and eating really excellent food!). It’s nice to have a break from constant science every once in a while. I went around what is known as the “Northern Circuit” and visited the four historic cities of Gondar, Lalibella, Aksum, and Bahir Dar. I got to visit island monasteries, rock-hewn churches, the palace of the Queen of Sheba, and even made a trip to the church purported to be where the True Ark of the Covenant is kept! Have to say, the trip made me feel very “Indiana Jones”, right up until the point where I got ill from drinking the water…

After a week in Ethiopia, I flew down to Johannesburg, South Africa, to meet up with Craig and another graduate student we’re working with, Natalia. Natalia is interested in cognition and has been testing the creative problem solving and impulse control of different kinds of carnivores. We’ve spent the last few days at a reserve outside of Pretoria called Dinokeng, run by Kevin “the Lion Whisperer” Richardson. Kevin maintains a park with dozens of semi-captive lions, leopards, and hyenas which Natalia can work with for her intelligence experiments. While Natalia has been busy with her research, I’ve been putting together a rig that will enable me to examine herbivore responses to four predator species: cheetah, wild dog, lion, and hyena. Two of these predators (lion and cheetah) hunt by sneaking up on their prey, whereas the others (wild dog and hyena) rely on endurance to run prey down. I’m looking to see whether prey respond to each species of predator differently, or whether there are consistent differences in anti-predatory response by predator hunting type. I’ll be simulating predator encounters because it would be incredibly difficult to observe a sufficient number of actual encounters in the wild. As soon as I find a good internet connection, I’ll post pictures of just exactly how I plan on doing this — it’s pretty great, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise!

Just this morning, the three of us packed up all of our gear and took a small plane out of Pretoria up to South Africa’s Northern Cape province. We’ll be spending the next three to four weeks up here in the Kalahari conducting our experiments. In addition to looking at anti-predator responses, I’ll be helping to set up a NEW camera trap grid (perhaps Snapshot Serengeti will be joined by Kalahari Cameras sometime in the near future…?). Now that we’re back in action, more updates soon!

More mud

So much for being clean again…

P1000782Norbert, our Tanzanian field assistant, always laughs when I come in from the field covered in mud. He takes pictures each time, telling me that “when I write my book” I need to publish these photos to show people that “to get PhD, you must be THIS much mud!”


All About Lions

Guess who just gave a fancy talk about Lion Project and Snapshot Serengeti!

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Major props to TCS Expeditions and the Four Seasons giving me a chance to talk about our project and spend the day in such a beautiful resort. I highly recommend the showers — feels good to be clean again!

Savannah Sunrise

The work I’m doing out here in the field involves plenty of early mornings and late evenings. It’s more than a bit exhausting, but there is one fantastic bonus: amazing sunrises and sunsets! Here are some of my favorites from over the past few days:






Stuck in the Mud

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…?)

Serengeti Update #1

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!

speakers for playback setup

speakers for playback setup

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!


bookshelf-turned-soil collection storage area



Detour to the Spice Islands

Hey all! Sorry for the delays in posting – I’ve been doing a bit of traveling recently, in the quest to obtain all my permits. Last week, I took the bus (a 12 hour ride each way – no mean feat) from Arusha, the city where we are in northern Tanzania, down to Dar es Salaam, a large city on the coast. Tanzania’s largest city, in fact, and it certainly contains all of the qualities of city living that I find distressing. It’s an overwhelming, crowded, busy, noisy place, not anywhere I’d care to visit again any time soon. The upside to this business trip, however, was that when I finished up dealing with my paperwork on Friday afternoon, I hoped on a ferry and took a ride out to Zanzibar, the “Spice Island”.



The Zanzibar archipelago is located about 3 hours boat-ride off the coast. Persian traders used Zanzibar as a base for voyages between the Middle East, India, and Africa, and the island later became a center for the Arab slave trade. There’s even a small rock in the archipelago which holds the remains of a prison built for rebellious slaves (named, appropriately if not unimaginatively, “Prison Island”). I spent the weekend in the main island in the city of Stone Town. The city is old, its architecture rife with Arabic influences – towering buildings and narrow alleyways, ornate doors and carefully constructed windows.

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Stone Town claims to be the only function ancient town in East Africa. I was just happy to return to an island and get some quality time out on the beach to refresh and de-stress. The major appeal of Zanzibar for me was what was going on under the waves – I took the first opportunity I could to hop on a boat, don some SCUBA gear, and check out the island’s beautiful coral reefs.


Cephalophods, sting-rays, beautiful shimmering leaf fishes, and pulsing corals. We even got to check out the wreck of a ship that sank over 60 years ago! It was hard enough to drag myself back onto dry land, let alone voluntarily get back in the bus for another monumental drive home. My business was completed successfully, though, so knock on wood I should be seeing the Serengeti soon…

The no armed monkey

I am being consumed by envy. Ali is in South Africa and Meredith is in Tanzania. I am stuck in front of my computer working away on assignments with the prospect of an exam looming fast, in fact days away. I want to be finished with my degree and get back out there where the wild things are.
So to distract myself I have been reminiscing about my life in the African bush, it’s been a good exercise as it has reminded me what all the studying is for. Whilst we are waiting for Ali and Meredith’s blogs I thought I would share with you the story of the no armed monkey….

This is actually a true story involving a troop of vervet monkeys whose territory included my house. I would see them at least once a day as they moved from the tall sycamore fig trees along the river, their nightly refuge spot, into the bush to feed. Vervets are fascinating to watch, they are always up to something and that often involved trying to get into my house to steel fruit. I remember one cold winter morning watching a heavily pregnant female on the stoop reclining with her back propped up on a chair leg, her arms and legs spread out warming her swollen belly in the sun. She looked so at home there I thought I may just get to witness a birth, no such luck. So when the troop moved through I would always stop and watch.
It was on one such vervet induced pause that I noticed one sub adult monkey run across the garden on its back legs, almost lemur like. Grabbing the binoculars I got a better look only to discover it was missing both its arms. There didn’t appear to be any sign of trauma nor scarring. The next thing I knew it had run, on its back legs, straight up a smallish tree through its branches and leaped up on to the thatched roof of my house. My eyes could not believe what they had just clearly seen. Obviously having no arms was no impediment for this little monkey.
On subsequent occasions I watched various other members of the group help the no armed monkey by giving it food or just simply waiting for it to catch up. It was able to use its feet to feed itself quite effectively and seemed to get on just fine. My feeling was that it was born this way, I just can’t think of a scenario where it would lose both arms in an accident and recover enough with no scarring. Whatever the truth of the matter, this little monkey was an inspiration.

Photo courtesy of Tammy Keizer

Photo courtesy of Tammy Keizer

Made it to Tanzania!


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:

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(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!

Heading out

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.


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