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!