Archive | June 2014

Almost there…

I’ve been a bit remiss in blog posts lately.  I’ve just recovered  from a whirlwind trip through South Africa (so much exciting data!!!),  a visit to the Zooniverse team in Oxford, and, not least, my 31st birthday — and now I am rapidly approaching the end of my dissertation, and it is pretty much the only thing on my mind. I’ve already got a date – July 11th – on which I’ll give an hour long public presentation (anyone local is welcome to come) followed by 2 hours of inquisition by my committee members behind closed doors.  But to make it there, I first need to hand in my dissertation and have them all agree that I’m ready to defend. I need to hand it in by Friday, and still have a *lot* of work to do!

So, I may have posted this before, but figured it was a good time to (re) share this clip of baby elephants learning to use their trunks. They remind me a little bit of me trying to learn how to do science…



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

Nyala are way prettier than impala

I’m in South Africa, getting a feel for the ongoing Panthera camera trapping surveys, collating data, falling madly in love with the country and South African bush, and scheming for how I need to find a way to come back.

Things are a bit of a whirlwind, but so far I am amazed and excited about the amount of monitoring that many of the small private and state-run reserves have been doing. There is an extraordinary amount of information that has been collected over the last decade on how all of the top predators move and live across these parks. There are parks with and without lions. Parks with and without hyenas. With and without wild dogs. Some parks are big and some are small. Some are very thickly treed, others are somewhat open. (Note that one thing I discovered very quickly is that pretty much all South African habitat, even the grassland, would equate to “woodland” in the Serengeti. So…”open” is a relative term.)

The amount of data here is enough to get any science nerd’s heart a flutter. But I am trying to focus on what is out the window instead of what’s on the computer for now. I’ve only a few days in South Africa, and endless time to analyze the data.

In the meanwhile, I thought I’d share one of my new favorite animals: the nyala.

These cousins to the waterbuck we capture in camera on Serengeti, and you can see it a bit in their pretty faces. But these animals are far more stunning than anything I’ve ever seen in Serengeti. The females are small and sport bright white stripes on their red fur, and the males have these  incredible “manes” that run down the undersides of their necks and to their bellies. They are pretty awesome. As is everything I’ve experienced in South Africa so far. Yep, definitely need to find a way back!