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South Africa, here I come.

Back in October, I wrote about how a grant proposal was turning me into a zombie.

Well, much to my surprise, turns out that my foray into the world of the walking dead was worth the effort. I’ve just heard that the National Science Foundation does, indeed, want to send me to South Africa to carry out this research!

Basically, I’m interested in how the other big carnivores (hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and wild dogs) manage to live with lions. And I think that one of the keys to their coexistence has to do with how the other carnivores distribute themselves across the landscape to avoid being killed or harassed by lions. Do they avoid huge tracts of land and lose access to the valuable resources within? Or are they able to fine-tune their behavior and still use those areas without getting into trouble?

As you know, I’m using the camera traps to try and figure out these patterns of habitat use by the major carnivores. But that still just tells me what they do in a place (the Serengeti) where there are lions, and I don’t know if the lions are directly causing these patterns. I can’t, for obvious reasons, do an experiment where I take out all the lions and see if the rest of the animals change their behaviors, which would help me identify such a causal relationship.

But in South Africa, there are two virtually identical reserves — they have the same habitat, the same prey animals, and the same carnivores…except that one has lions and one does not. These reserves are right next to each other and surrounded by fencing. So they are pretty much the perfect experimental system where I can actually answer whether or not the patterns we see in predator behavior are caused by lions. What’s even better is that there are already ongoing research projects there that are running camera trap surveys very similar to Snapshot Serengeti. So most of my work will be doing some measurements of the vegetation and working with the researchers in South Africa to compile their data in a way that we can draw these comparisons.

Comparison of Serengeti (left) and Phinda/Mkhuze (right).

Comparison of Serengeti (left) and Phinda/Mkhuze (right). Phinda and Mkhuze are two virtually identical reserves in South Africa, except that lions have historically been excluded from Mkhuze.

It’s going to be a *lot* of computer work with a *little* bit of getting out into the bush, but the questions are so cool and the ability to effectively isolate the effect of a single top predator (lions) in a natural ecosystem is so rare, that I couldn’t be more excited about it.

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This is what grant applications do

I’ve been working on a federal grant application the last couple of weeks. It’s left me feeling a bit like this:

 

zombie

 

The grant was originally due this upcoming Thursday, but with the government shutdown showing no signs of ending, who knows what will happen? The National Science Foundation’s website is unavailable during the furlough, meaning that nobody can submit applications. So we’ve all been granted an unexpected extension, but we’re not sure until when.

The grant I’m applying for is called the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant. It’s an opportunity for Ph.D. students to acquire funding to add on a piece to their dissertation that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.  I’m applying for funds to go down to South Africa and work with a couple of folks from the conservation organization Panthera to collate data from two sites with long-term carnivore research projects. Their research team currently has camera surveys laid out in two reserves in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa: Phinda Private Game Reserve and Mkhuze Game reserve. Now, the cool thing about these reserves is that they are small, fenced, and pretty much identical to each other…except that lions have been deliberately excluded from Mkhuze.

Now, one of the biggest frustrations of working with large carnivores is that I can’t experimentally isolate the processes I’m studying. If I want to know how lions affect the ranging patterns and demography of hyenas, well, I should take out all the lions from a system and see what happens to the hyenas. For obvious reasons, this is never going to happen. But the set-up in Phinda and Mkhuze is the next best thing: by holding everything else constant – habitat, prey – I can actually assess the effect of lions on the ranging and dynamics of hyenas, cheetahs, and leopards by comparing the two reserves.

Comparison of Serengeti (left) and Phinda/Mkhuze (right).

Camera surveys (yellow dot = camera) in Serengeti (left) and Phinda/Mkhuze (right).

So, that’s what I’m working on non-stop until whenever it turns out to be due. Because this would be a really cool grant to get. I’m currently working on analyzing some of the camera trap data from Seasons 1-4 and hope to share some of the results with you next week. Until then, I’m going to continue to be a bit of a zombie.