Monday, September 1, 2008

BONES continues

The time at Ol Pejeta has been great! Fire and I have been walking around in the field, finding lots of bones for our study. Here's a zebra skull sitting under an acacia tree.

Our armed guard Robert is very interested in what we are doing. We've talked with him about how bones can help us understand the modern ecosystem, and he's taught us about some traditional uses of the plants by local people, including one that's use to treat venereal disease, and another to increase sperm production. Hm, maybe we could patent the extractions and get rich! No need to apply for grant proposals! :)

Did I mention that the scenery here is great? Here's a shot of Mount Kenya, with some Acacia woodland in the foreground.

We have been seeing lots of animals on our transects.

This giraffe tried to hide behind an acacia tree when it realized we were nearby, but we could still see it.

There's lots of different kinds of antelopes here, including waterbuck,


and bushbuck.

Many of the birds are very colorful; this is a lilac-breasted roller, one of the birds which likes to hang out by the research center and drink from the bowl of water that gets set out for the birds every day.

Thursday was the day of the cheetah; we saw three cheetah resting under a tree as we drove to our first transect,

and one later in the afternoon after we dropped Robert off at the end of the day. This was one of my best cheetah sightings ever; we watched it walk along the edge of the Acacia woodland for about 5 minutes before it got too dark to see it anymore.

Thursday was also almost the day of the leopard too (wow, two big cats in one day, that would have been awesome!). The conservancy was releasing a leopard that had been caught on a nearby ranch. Unfortunately, even though we were invited to watch the release, we weren't contacted in time. Oh well.

Friday was the day of the jackal - we saw these three jackals right before we were starting one of our transects. If you look closely, the one on the right is yawning in disinterest!

On Saturday, we had to stop one of our transects because there were elephants nearby.

This baby elephant was so cute!

But not all of the animals we see here are wild; the conservancy keeps cattle as well.

The work has been intense. We walk straight line transects (east-west or north-south, uding a GPS), looking for bones, and making sure we avoid dangerous animals. All day. In the hot sun, the driving wind, and the bushy terrain. I'm getting a lot of sun, some ant bites, and my legs are aching from all the walking, but I feel great being outside and getting back into shape a little! I've pulled two ticks off of Fire's legs, but none on me so far. Just some itchy ant bites. Last night I was so tired from 5 straight days of walking several kilometers a day, all day, in the bush (while being on the lookout for elephants, buffalo, lions...) - plus it was especially hot out - that I went to bed at 9:30 and slept straight through until nearly 7am, when breakfast is served! The weather has cooperated, thankfully, and the only other brief rain shower was this afternoon.

At night, we spend our time doing data entry or listening to talks the conservancy staff do for the Earthwatch group; Friday night's was by the manager of the chimpanzee reserve here. There's a small reserve for rescued/orphaned chimps inside the conservancy, and the conservancy is dedicated not only to making the lives of these chimps better, but educating people on the problems that lead to abandoned and orphaned chimps in the first place, like illegal logging and the bushmeat trade. Even though chimps are not native to Kenya, I think it's a great effort.

Two nights ago I sat out by the fire - there's usually a fire at night for anyone who wants to sit by to keep warm while looking at the amazing night sky - talking with Geoff and Nathan. It was lovely to just sit, talk about conservation, and look at the Milky Way. Geoff, the Earthwatch leader, gave a talk last night on human-wildlife conflict in Kenya, which is a very interesting subject with lots of economic and emotional arguments. But as much as I am enjoying it here, I am also looking forward to getting home. I miss my fiance Peter! I think of him every time I look down at my engagement ring; I bet he'd be really enjoying himself if he was out here with me. Maybe next year! I am looking forward to having our parents meet for the first time soon after I get home, simply being able to see Peter and spend more time together, and starting to plan our wedding. How exciting!!

I can't believe I leave Kenya in two days. Hope everyone is having a good holiday weekend...!!!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

bones and animals

Fire and I left Nairobi at about 9:45 am yesterday and drove to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where we're doing pilot work for what we hope will be a long term study. Our project is called BONES (it took a long time to think of that cool an acronym!): Bones of Ol Pejeta, Neotaphonomic and Ecological Survey. We have several interesting research questions which we hope to answer using a study of bones scattered across the landscape of this conservation area. One of them is this: paleontologists and archaeologists dig up fossils, and we use these fossils to reconstruct animal communities and ancient habitats. For instance, if we find 50% grassland adapted animals and 25% forest adapted animals and 25% woodland adapted animals, we use this information to look at the animal community, and reconstruct the vegetaiton. When we do this, we assume that the types of animals we find as fossils are preserved in the same proportions as in the living community they came from. But is this the case? We can test this assumption by looking at the relative abundances of animals in the living community (through aerial and ground censuses that the conservancy is already conducting), and compare them with the "bone" community. If they are not the same, can we identify the biases causing differences? Does it vary by habitat? (The conservancy also has great vegetation maps already made). This research idea was pioneered by another Smithsonian scientist who's been working in Amboseli National Park in Kenya for about 30 years, and I spent two field seasons there with her to learn the methodology.

How did this all get started? Well, I did some of my dissertation work here in 2002-2003, studying how different kinds of carnivores chew on bones, and then seeing if I could find those bone-chewing patterns in the fossil records. During that time, I did some bone walks (or transects) thinking this would be a good place to do a comparative study to the one being done in Amboseli. In 2004, the conservancy changed ownership when a conservation organization bought it, and they removed a fence between a small game reserve and a large cattle ranch, creating a much larger wildlife area. I came back in 2005 to repeat the transects. In 2006-7, Fire came to the Smithsonian on a post-doctoral fellowship from University College London, and she mentioned that she was looking for a field project. She brings different expertise to the project and complementary research questions (besides the fact that we become fast friends), and last summer, BONES was born!

But enough of the academics. Our drive from Nairobi yesterday was good, quite good actually since the stretch of the road that used to be crappy and potholed has been redone, so it was 3 hours of very nice road and then about half an hour of the usual dirt road to the conservancy entrance. On the way, we passed something you'd only see in Kenya - giraffes being transported in a big truck! I could see the decal of one of the nearby conservancies called Lewa on the side of the truck, they must be doing a giraffe translocation. Very cool.

We arrived just as everyone was finishing lunch. "Everyone" means the 8 Earthwatch volunteers at the research center working on a project called Kenya's Black Rhinos (Ol Pejeta was originally set up as a black rhino conservancy, as they are an endangered species), the leader of the project (Geoff, a Kenyan PhD), and Ilya - who is doing research on zebras - and his girlfriend Heather. It was nice to see Ilya again, who'd been here doing his PhD work when I was doing mine.

The research center is a nice place to be based - there's a generator for electricity power most hours of the day (it normally gets switched off for about 2 hours in the late morning, and then again from 11pm to 6am); firewood-heated hot water for showers; and good cell phone reception, which for me also means internet access since I'm using a modem that connects to one of the local cell phone networks. This photo is from my dissertation time here - it shows the "main house" of the research center (with 6 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, a dining room and a kitchen) and the two accessory huts, or rondavels, which are divided into 4 rooms each. Following are photos of me, and then Fire and I, in the dining room doing data entry at the end of the day.

We unpacked our things and were thinking about going out to the field to start our transects when the skies opened up. Boo! It's not the rainy season, but last year we did get absolutely poured on one day out in the field, when we were 2 kilometers from the car. Wow, were we WET. Here's the "before" photos of both of us. Was the dark grey sky foreboding, or what??

So, we got ourselves organized and talked about our research strategies for this 6-working-day visit. We watched with amusement as the volunteers got excited at seeing their first giraffe (all the cameras came out with a flash!), which was leisurely walking by the research center. I do love watching giraffes walk, they are so graceful! We had dinner (did I mention there's a great cook at the research center, Catherine?) and then listened to a talk that the Ecological Monitoring Unit manager, Nathan, was giving to the Earthwatch volunteers. The management is very active in wildlife conservation, and has a lot of good projects going on. It's very exciting. And I just love being out in nature, driving and especially walking around with animals.

This morning we headed out with our armed guard, Robert. We need to take an armed guard with us because we walk around with all the wildlife, including elephant, buffalo, rhino, lions, and other potentially harmful four-legged creatures.

We had a productive morning, finding lots of bones. We also saw lots of animals - zebra (both plains or "common" Burchell's zebra and the endangered Grevy's zebra), ostrich, buffalo, hartebeest, eland, Thomson's gazelle, Grant's gazelle, impala, warthog, buffalo, giraffe, waterbuck, baboons, vervet monkeys, white rhino, lots of different kinds of birds, and a single elephant off in the distance. We also saw a spotted hyena! It was about half a mile away. It seemed to pop it's head up out of a hole, look around, check out a Grant's gazelle (hmm... lunch?) check us out, and then sit back down again. We saw two cute baby Thomson's gazelle, not any taller than knee-height; their mothers tend to stash them in tall grass as a predator avoidance strategy. The second one we saw we practically walked into; it bounded away and turned around and looked at us quizzically. Adorable.

Grevy's zebra in the foreground (white belly, thin stripes) and plains zebra (wide stripes all around the belly) behind

White rhino

Unfortunately, it rained after lunch *again*! Not the rainy season, huh. But it stopped after an hour, so we were able to do another transect. This evening consisted of transferring data from our hand written sheets to our computers, downloading and organizing all our photos (we take photos of each bone or bone scatter we find). And now, I'm exhausted, it's bedtime!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Briana: 1. Car: 1.

I got my car to the mechanic this morning just after 8am, as he asked, even though the car parts shops didn't open until 9am. I hung around, watching him fix a few other cars, and after only about two hours, my car was fixed - to the grand tune of about $11. Hallelujah!

Briana: 1. Car: 0.

Then, I had to go get the car washed to get all the oil off the underside and engine, plus power washing all the fine, brown dust from Shompole away. That cost about $20 and took another two hours. At that point, I realized it was too late to leave for Ol Pejeta today and get there before dark, so Fire (my colleague working on the Ol Pejeta project with me) and I went off to run some errands.

As we were pulling into the Sarit Center, basically the local mall where I do nearly all of my errands, I started to smell an electrical burning smell coming from my dashboard. Immediately after that, I noticed small wisps of smoke rising from the place where my steering column and dashboard intersect. Fire took her seatbelt off and started to move towards the window, leading me to think she was ready to open the door and jump out of the car if the dashboard was to spontaneously combust or something. It turns out she was simply looking at the hood to see if there was smoke coming from there as well. (We've had a few laughs since at the idea that I thought she was about to jump out of the car!). Just after that, I noticed that the indicator lights (turn signals) weren't working. Hm. Perhaps the power wash somehow shorted out my indicators? Anyway, I no longer have functioning indicators. Which most people in Nairobi don't use anyway.

Briana: 1. Car: 1.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

always an adventure

Before we get to Lamu... I have to tell you about my weekend adventure.

My friend and colleague Aaron is the world's expert on striped hyenas, as far as I can tell. He did his PhD studying them in an area of Kenya called Laikipia, where I did some of my PhD research involving studying the remains of carnivore kills. That's how we know each other. Now, he's doing a post-doc study of striped hyenas in a place called Shompole, about a 5 hour drive south of Nairobi. Aaron told me recently he had some striped hyena chewed bones for me to study (cool!), and I should come down and visit, since he also has over a dozen dens of striped hyenas, some with cute cubs in them. So I decide this weekend is a good time to visit. My friend Emily and I headed off there on Friday mid-morning. We packed snacks for lunch and overnight bags - and we're off!

Aaron gives me pretty good directions down there, and since the excavation site I'd been working at is on the way, I get at least that far with no problems. The rest of the way is a little bumpier, since after the town of Magadi, it's all dirt roads. Magadi is a strange town; it's basically only a town because there is an enormous soda factory there. Not the fizzy kind of soda you drink, but soda ash. Here's the factory.

Anyway, after a hot and bumpy drive, we get to Aaron's camp in Shompole - which is in the midst of a lot of Maasai bomas, which are (usually semi-permanent) settlements made of stick-and-mud houses in a circle surrounded by a thornbush fence. Shompole is very pretty,

but it may be the dustiest place on earth. This is what the back of my car looked like after we arrived.

After dumping our things into the tents we'd stay in for the night (here's mine),

getting a tour of camp, including the "rustic" toilet (basically a wooden toilet seat set back in some bushes), "shower" (with tarps on only three sides, since the other side faces the river and Aaron only showers at night - I'll explain that), and kitchen tent (see photo below), we hopped in Aaron's car and went off to find a hyena den.

The first thing we did, though, was check two other hyena dens where Aaron had set up cameras to see which hyenas were visiting there, and to keep track of whether the den was active or not. One of the dens was active, with bones scattered around it - it was pretty cool thinking there were two hyena cubs sleeping inside!

Besides the bones, Aaron could tell it was active because the dirt around it was covered in hyena tracks. Here's how big they are, with my hand for scale.


The cameras are in cages, and they are triggered by movement. At any movement, the camera takes a still photo, and then a 5 second video. Here's Aaron checking one of the cameras.

Apparently, the cameras can be a little sensitive, so he needs to pull out the tall, dry grass near the camera once he sets it up so he doesn't have hours of video of grass waving when it's windy. The other amusing things he often catches on the camera are cows (I flipped through several photos and video and saw very interesting close-up views of cow undersides), and Maasai. As Aaron put it, "Some of the photos make you wish they wore underwear more often."

Aaron was hoping to find a den in a particular area where a particular female striped hyena had been spending a lot of time; he suspected there was a den nearby. Striped hyenas stash their babies in dens for the first several months of their lives, and they tend to move dens every few months. As we're driving, we're admiring the wildlife - giraffe, gazelle - and asking questions. Emily asks what other larger carnivores are common in the area, to which Aaron replies,

"Lions, spotted hyenas, striped hyenas, civets, and bat-eared foxes."

Right after that, we stop the car, and all get out to walk around in search of a hyena den, which is basically a hole in the ground with hyena footprints nearby (if it's an active den).

I'm thinking, hm - lions. As we get out of the car. And split up. Walking in the bushes. Where lions like to hang out and nap during the day when it's hot - and it's HOT down there.

(Hey Aaron? Don't go too far!!)

Thankfully, there were no lion encounters, though we did hear a spotted hyena whoop at night before we went to sleep. (That's one of my favorite things to hear in Africa, the whoop of a spotted hyena, calling to it's buddies in the night.) After walking around for only a few minutes we found what could be the den.

Aaron contemplates it momentarily,

and then goes about setting up two cameras near it.

So why does Aaron only shower at night, and therefore not really worry about privacy in the shower? Well, striped hyenas are nocturnal, solitary carnivores. So he leaves camp about 6:30 every night, and spends most of the evening hours (until between 2 and 4 am, on average) trying to find and follow a striped hyena. He's trapped, darted, and then radio collared seven of them, so he uses a radio tracking device in his car. And a remote control spotlight, like the kind they have on boats. And a GPS. And a hand-held tape recorded for taking notes. Pretty cool! Then he gets home, showers off the dust, and sleeps until sometime between 11am and 2pm, depending on how late a night he's had.

Just after the sun set, we went out with Aaron looking for hyenas. He has a cook that makes dinner that he takes with him in a tupperware container every night (we had some kind of yummy chicken stew with rice), along with a thermos of coffee. We were listening to the "beep... beep... beep..." of the radio tracking device, and watching the spotlight shine back and forth across the bush. Finally, we saw her, the hyena we'd been tracking. Exciting! We followed her for a while, and then she disappeared into the bush. Soon, she shot back out, apparently startled by something. We went to the spot where she'd been, and saw this:

Aha! Hyena dinner. Striped hyenas don't usually kill animals this big, she was probably scavenging from some other carnivore's kill.

After a while, Aaron collected a fecal sample from her. He waited until she pooped in a open field and then left, and took a popsicle stick, small vial, and sharpie from the car. He'll use the sample to extract hormones from, to study her stress level. He's working both inside and outside a conservation area, and one thing he's interested in knowing is if the hyenas have different stress levels in the two areas.

At this point, I was pretty tired. I'd driven 5 hours, and the sun had been intense during the day. Aaron could see Emily and I were half asleep, so after we lost the hyena in a patch of bushes, he drove us back. I was very tired, but took a cold and refreshing shower so I didn't get the sheets in the bed I was staying in filthy - and I was filthy! The water is pumped right up from the river which his camp is set up right next to. Then, I fell into bed. I slept like a log, waking up only when some playful vervets and colobus monkeys were hanging out and making noise in a tree practically right above my tent.

Yesterday morning we all got up, had breakfast, talked about research, and then Emily and I packed the car and got ready to go back to Nairobi. This included several bags of striped hyena-chewed bones, and an entire dessicated hyena (a hyena mummy?) which died after Aaron had collared it. Here's Aaron holding it's head, which his assistant removed from the rest of it's body to retrieve the collar, so they could use it on another hyena

He claims it doesn't smell, but I think he's just immune to the odor. We could certainly smell it all the way home. Thankfully we didn't get stopped at any police checkpoints, which they have on many roads in Kenya, mainly to check that drivers have updated car insurance.

I'd been wanting to stop and check out two places on the way back to Nairobi that I passed every time I drove to or from our excavation this summer, an Italian food store and a Vietnamese-Thai fusion restaurant. So we did. The Italian foodstore was as we predicted - delicious looking cheeses and salamis, much better pasta sauce than you can get in the regular supermarkets, and highly overpriced Chianti. Emily bought some ostrich egg noodles (how cool!) and some good pasta sauce. Then we went to the restaurant and had a delicious late lunch, at about 4pm.

When we were leaving, just before getting in the car, I noticed that my side of the car (the right side, since the steering wheel is on the right in Kenya, and driving is on the left) had dark-looking sprinkles on the bottom of it, like I'd driven through a puddle of... oil. Huh? I looked closer, and saw there was oil slowly dripping from underneath my car, covering my leaf springs and a few other parts underneath the car. Crap! We drove to the apartment where I'm staying, just hoping the car would make it there. Oh great, what should I do now? It was after 6pm, on a Saturday night; most garages were closed, and will remain closed the next day. Since one of our project vehicles was available, I took that and drove with Emily, who kindly volunteered to keep me company, around to nearby petrol (uh, gas for Americans) stations and asked if there'll be a mechanic available the next day - Sunday. I also bought a liter of oil to put in my car, thinking I will need to drive it tomorrow to the mechanics. I struck out at the first few; it was "check the Shell Station on University Way" (which I did, no luck) or "try Kwik-Fit in Westlands" (I already did, they aren't open on Sundays). Finally, someone at OiLibya (hm, I wonder where their fuel comes from!) suggested I try the Total station in town... jackpot! They said there'll be a mechanic there today. So, fingers crossed they can figure out where the oil is leaking from, that it's not a major problem, and that they can fix it - all in one day, on a Sunday. Because my next adventure begins early Monday morning, when I pick my good friend and colleage Fire up from the airport. We're spending 9 days on a game reserve near Mount Kenya, about 4 hours north of Nairobi, doing our own research project. Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

the ring

Since a few of you asked... it's not the greatest photo, but here it is. I love it!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

at the field site

So now, we've made it to the field site. (OK not in real time, but in my slightly-behind-the-times story-telling time). Peter gets a tour of the key areas of the camp: the kitchen, the mess tent, the bathroom, and the shower. We walk to the end of "camp cliff", and Peter quietly, smiling-ly, surveys the scenery. Finally he proclaims, "Well, it's not the Mesozoic, but it's beautiful!" (For those of you who aren't fossiliferous like we are, the Mesozic is the time period when dinosaurs lived - that's the age of the sediments where Peter's done his fieldwork before. It was funny. For us paleo-dorks, at least.) By the end, he liked the camp locale so much he was wondering how much it would cost to buy the land, set up solar- and wind-generated power facilities, and build a permanent research camp or a B&B!

While I was busy doing my work in camp, Peter had a great time exploring and seeing animals (he racked up a pretty impressive list of sightings - including warthog, gazelle, and even his favorite, guinea fowl! We went to the baboon cliffs one late afternoon, to watch the baboons settle down in their sleeping site for the evening. They are often very active - grooming, calling to each other, chasing each other around, mating, warily looking at those other primates across the chasm who are looking at them...

Peter also made himself very useful, the helpful guy that he is. We had a paleo-artist visiting who's work Peter happens to really like [names excluded to protect the innocent, and artists!], and they went out surveying for fossils and artifacts with us.

Peter also helped with excavations. Here he is, laughing at Alison's suggestion that they should imitate the three wise monkeys (see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil), which she was getting ready to do.

And, he entertained the local kids! First, teaching a few how to play frisbee:

[first you put the frisbee on your head... just kidding!]

And second, while we were running. We went running down the paved road near camp, and we passed a group of Maasai girls ranging in age from about 6 to 16. A few of them started to run along with us (or rather, in back of us), and Peter turned and ran backwards to see them, made faces, and they were giggling like mad! They ran with us for a few hundred meters, and then stopped, panting, smiling. It was great fun.

Next stop, Lamu!