Saturday, July 23, 2011

a shout-out to Solomon

I just want to give a shout-out to our armed guard this year, Solomon (he's the one on the left in this 2011 research team photo). We've worked with a different guard each time we've been here and they've all been great. Solomon has a particularly good sense of humor with a great laugh; keen eyes that can see elephants from a few hundred meters away as well as bones seemingly hidden in the grass; and is always patient as we ask him questions about animal behavior and footprints while we're tromping around the bush. Thanks for keeping us safe out there, Solomon!

Friday, July 22, 2011

sometimes, a better offer comes along

Fire and I are really enjoying getting a lot of bone transect work done this week, while we don't have to share an armed guard with the Earthwatch team. But today, a better offer came along in the afternoon. What do I mean by that? We were planning on doing a transect in one area of the conservancy, but it looked like the sky was about to open up (it's rained in the afternoon or evening the last few days) so we decided to drive somewhere else to do a transect. On the way, we saw a young female lion walking down the road - so we took this "better offer" and spent about 2 hours this afternoon just watching her! She walked *right* next to the car, and was stalking prey a few times, but never quite managed a hunting attempt.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

But... aren't you an archaeologist?

Why are an archaeologist and a paleontologist doing research in a modern game reserve?

We’re not digging up fossils and artifacts, but we’re looking for modern animal bones. Let me back up for a minute and explain… 

As paleontologists and archaeologists, our work often goes something like this: Dig up animal fossils. Identify what animals those fossils came from. Use “uniformitarianism” (the idea that the present is the key to the past, or that ancient animals generally had the same behaviors and habitat preferences as their modern descendants) to infer what habitats were present in the past – for instance, if we find an extinct zebra, we assume that means that somewhere near this prehistoric site was the kind of habitat that modern zebra like (open grasslands  - check out Nick's photo of a common/plains and grevy's zebra below... in open grasslands). Put the information from all the fossil animals together, and voila, we have a habitat reconstruction for our fossil site!

But hang on – we’re making a few assumptions.

One is that the overall modern bone “community” reflects the overall living animal community. In other words, we should find the same proportions (or relative abundances) of animal species when we count bones on the ground as we do when we count living animal species. For instance, if there are more living zebra than warthogs than baboons in an ecosystem, we should find the same relationship (zebra>warthogs>baboons) in the bone community. But is this the case? This is one big research question we’re trying to answer here.  Since collecting data on relative abundances of living animals takes a lot of time, we are grateful that the Earthwatch project is collecting that data year after year – and willing to share it with us. We also want to see if the living-bone community relationship holds up within different habitats (vegetation types) – and again, the Earthwatch project has created an excellent GIS-based vegetation map of the entire conservancy that they have shared with us.

Another research question we’re trying to answer is whether we can use bones to track changes in animal communities predation pressure on the conservancy. The conservancy used to be made up of two parts: a smaller game reserve, with wild animals, and a larger cattle ranch, which also had wild animals but not nearly as many. In 2007, the fence between the two was taken down and both areas were made into a single wildlife conservancy, where cattle and wildlife coexist.  We’d expect to find changes in the bones on the ground that reflect changes in the animal community, and we expect to find changes in how much damage predators are doing to bones of animals when they eat them. For instance, there were a lot of lions on the old game reserve, and now the lions have spread out so they are also living on the old ranch. So we’d expect to see less lion damage on bones on the old reserve now than we did Since I did much of my PhD research in the old game reserve, studying how carnivores damage bones when they eat their prey, it’s a great opportunity for me to apply those skills. And importantly, the conservancy management is very interested in long-term changes in predator pressure – something our research can hopefully shed light on.

So far, one other study has addressed these two research questions – a long-term study in Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. The answers are “yes” to both. That’s a good sign! As a big part of science is replicability, we want to replicate this study in another ecosystem (with a few modifications) to see if we get the same results.

Our research methodology is fairly straightforward: we walk 1 kilometer transects within specific habitats, looking for bones. When we find bones, we try to identify what animal they are from, how fresh they are (how many years old they are, based on how weathered they are), and whether they have carnivore damage on them – and what carnivore may have done that damage. It’s actually a lot of fun, walking around the African bush, seeing animals, and looking for bones! We always have an armed guard with us – conservancy management policy, and just good sense – in case we encounter dangerous animals like lions, hyenas, elephant, buffalo, and rhino. We have had to abort transects because of encountering these animals, and occasionally because of rain.

That’s the basic gist of what we’re doing here!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Let the bone data collection commence!

We’ve spent the first several days on the conservancy getting our new digital data collection strategy worked out. Despite numerous emails among Fire, Nick and I, we haven’t had a chance to 1) sit down and *talk* about what we’re doing! 2) actually do some practice transect so we can figure out exactly what data we want to record, and the most efficient and effective way of recording it. While this can feel frustrating – chomping at the bit to do research but not being quite ready to get to the field – we’d rather have this all worked out beforehand. So much of the last few days were spent like this:

But finally, today, we did our first bone transect!  We still had some technological glitches, but it was generally successful. Fire got well acquainted with her handheld GPS,

and Fire and Nick tried to work out some of the kinks in her iPaq-bluetooth GPS system.

There are still some glitches, but we were able to get some good work done. Here are some photos that Nick took of Fire and I on the transect.

You know I'm concentrating when my tongue sticks out of the corner of my mouth.

Yikes - my belly is hanging out! :)

This is us looking for bones, with our armed guard in front. As there are dangerous animals like elephant, buffalo, rhino, and lions (among others) where we work, armed guards are a must.

Me, with some gazelle (or are they impala?) in the background!

I like this photo that Fire took - just me, my data collector, and some zebra bones.

Fire and I walking back to the car at the end of our transect-ing just before ~6pm. You'll notice our long sleeves; unlike back home, which is hot and humid at this time of year, the highlands of Kenya can be toasty during the day but are actually quite chilly at night! We wear long sleeves and fleeces in the mornings and evenings, and sleep under cozy duvets and blankets. 

In my next few posts I'll back up a little bit to show you the research center where we're staying, and explain what exactly we're doing here!

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Monkey Ate My Buns

We left Nairobi yestoday - not too early. We had breakfast at a nearby hotel to fortify us for the drive, loaded the vehicle, and... blast off! Here's Fire ready to hop in.

Let me mention that there's a lot of road construction going in Nairobi. It also turns out that there's a lot of road construction going on on the road we take out of Nairobi towards Nanyuki (the nearest town to the place we're doing our research, Ol Pejeta Conservancy), the Thika road. It was quite a bumpy trip for the first hour or so. The other thing that was different about our trip this year is because I sold my own Land Cruiser last summer (, we rented a Land Cruiser. And because it's a rental vehicle, it's technically a commercial vehicle. And a few years ago, a new regulation was instituted: all commercial vehicles need to be fitted with speed governors, which are devices that cut out the fuel that goes to the engine at a certain speed. Here, it's 80 kilometers per hour. So our trip was a bit slower than usual.

But the good news is we had no car trouble on the way, and we got to our first stop within about 3.5 hours: The Trout Tree. This is a trout farm just outside of Nanyuki that has a delicious and tranquil restaurant on site, and we have a tradition of eating there  either on the way to the field site, or as we're on our way back to Nairobi at the end of the field season. Here are Fire and I relaxing during lunch.

Well, usually the restaurant is tranquil, but we had a bit of a kerfuffle this time... there are two kinds of monkeys that hang around the restaurant (besides the tree hyraxes, in the next photo): blue monkeys and black and white colobus.

The blue monkeys tended to keep their distance, but one of the black and white colobus wasn't being particularly shy. All of a sudden I see a flash of black and white, and the monkeys is ON our table! It grabbed two of the breadrolls (the only food on the table so far) in it's mouth, and knocked over all of our drinks. My instant mental reaction was "bitten by monkey = bad", which led to a physical reaction of jumping up and moving away from the table. Nick had a more valiant reaction, and seeing that the monkey had then sat down on the table and was staring at us, he basically shoved it off the table. After all this ruckus, it finally moved off into a nearby tree, chewing the rolls (or buns). and proceeded to have a snooze. Hence - the monkey ate my buns.

Later on, he jumped up onto an empty table and became fascinated with the salt shaker, opening it up, dumping some salt on the table, and licking it off.

Apparently, the monkeys haven't read this sign.

After all that excitement, we hopped back in the car and headed into the conservancy, with just a quick stop at the equator so Nick could get his picture with the sign (Fire and I have been there, done that).

We had a lovely game drive between the gate and the research center, where we're staying. We saw lots of bovids (antelopes): hartebeest, Thomson's gazelle, Grant's gazelle, and impala. We also saw warthog, zebra, and several kinds of birds: kori bustard, yellow-necked spur fowl, and guinea fowl (which have a special place in my heart since Peter did his PhD working with them). As a special treat, we also saw four white rhino, wallowing in a mud hole. Exciting! One of the Big Five down, four to go. :)

No elephants yet, but this sign near Elephant Bridge (over the Ewasi Nyiro River, which runs through the western part of the conservancy) always makes me smile.

It was great to arrive at the research center (a little after 4pm); it's a place I really like, and I've spent nearly a year here, cumulatively, starting in 2002 when I was here for about 8 months doing some of my PhD research studying how carnivores damage bones when they eat their prey. They have done some repainting and redecorating, and totally renovated the kitchen. However, on a practical level, there didn't seem to be a plan of what we were going to eat for dinner. We didn't bring a lot of food with us (just a few random things); I assumed since we let the conservancy staff know we'd be arriving in the later afternoon that they'd have made arrangements for the research center cooks to make us dinner. After much discussion, some of it in fast-paced Swahili so I couldn't quite follow it, we were confident that something would be worked out - and later on we had a delicious dinner of lentils, rice, and tomato and avocado salad. The only people around the research center this afternoon was a Princeton graduate student named Jennifer, who is doing a pilot study for her PhD on how the cows grazing in the reserve affect the wildlife, and Geoff, who runs the Earthwatch project here (

We spent the rest of the afternoon unpacking and getting ourselves organized, and Fire and I had a post-dinner discussion about research goals, methods, strategies, etc. until we both got too tired to think straight anymore. Then, it was bedtime.

** Thanks to Nick - I usually only post my own photos, but this post contains his photos.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Kenyan taxi adventure

Whoops, has it really been about 3 weeks since I wrote a post? I've just been working on fossils in the museum, nothing too exciting to report. Except that I have almost 55,000 fossils in my database. That's a *lot* of broken bits of bone. :)

On the recommendation of a colleague who lives here, I found a great OB and had an appointment with her last week. She was very thorough and friendly. The next day I went for my gestational diabetes test (standard at this point in pregnancy - 25 weeks down, 15 to go!), which came back negative. Then the day after that I had a sonogram, as advice from the home docs was to have one every month of possible. (I have uterine fibroids and they just want to make sure the baby's not too crowded in there.) Sonograms are great - getting to see your baby moving around, hear that everything is normal (breathe a big sigh of relief), and getting to see a glimpse of what they actually look like.

The doc remarked on his "prominent nose" (seen better in profile), which is more likely to come from Peter's side of the family, but so far consensus is that he has my nose in this picture.

Anyway, it's hard not to focus on the baby - a colleague of mine from back home (Nancy) has her 10 month old son here, so I've been peppering her with questions about kid-in-Kenya logistics, and she's been great!

Tomorrow morning another adventure begins; it's time to go to the field! My U.K.colleagues Fire and Nick arrived this morning; they're upstairs sleeping off the overnight flight from London, but I'll be waking them up soon to shower and head off for lunch, shopping and errands. Speaking of adventures, here's a great Kenya cab adventure they had this morning....

I arranged for a taxi to pick them up at the airport for their 6:30 am arrival. I gave the taxi driver their names to make a sign, and gave them his phone number in case they couldn't find him. Well, Fire's legal name is Kris, and she saw a taxi driver holding sign for "Kris" when they exited the arrivals area, so she  assumed this was the guy. They put their bags in his car, and the taxi driver gave them some Kenyan shillings for their breakfast (which they thought was odd, since the arrangement was for them to come to the flat where I'm staying so they could nap and shower, then we'd go off for lunch etc.) The driver said "Yes, this is the money Bernice said to give you for breakfast at Java House, where we'll go directly from here." Quizzical looks."You mean, Briana?" "No, Bernice." At this point, they realized... they were in the wrong taxi! They managed to find the right taxi driver (who was holding a sign for Fire and Nick), but we don't know if the first taxi driver managed to find his passengers. Anyway, I was relieved when Fire sent me a text letting me know that she and Nick were in the taxi on their way, and that she had a great taxi story for me. Fire has been here before, but it's Nick's first visit to the African continent, so I think they're both a little nervous for him. So far, so good. Welcome to Kenya!

I am going to make an effort to post more often from the field - I think there'll be more photos and stories to share once we're up there.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

2011: extra baggage, but the good kind

No, the title doesn't refer to the fact that I had to check one of my carry-on bags on my way to Kenya this year because they actually weighed it and it was too heavy (whoops!), so I had three bags checked coming over... it refers to the little boy growing in my belly! Every year brings its own adventures, but this year will be especially different because I'm pregnant. I'll be in Kenya - and briefly, Ethiopia - between weeks 22 and 32. Here's a portrait of the Pumpkin, which is my current nickname for him since he's due in October (~10th), at 12 weeks:

I'm being more cautious this trip, given that I have another life I'm entirely responsible for. Wow. This all also makes me miss my wonderful husband even more than usual.

I've been in Kenya a week already, and I've been meaning to write a post for... a week already. But I've been much more tired than usual, so I just waited until I was feeling more energetic (sort of). Probably the jet lag, altitude, and baby belly all factor in, plus trying to keep up with my work duties at home - whew! I also finally feel like I'm settled, unpacked, organized, etc. today. I've been working at the museum, looking at nearly-a-million-year-old fossils, and I'll be doing this until very early August when I head to a field site in Laikipia, Kenya.

The highlight of my trip over was getting to see my best friend Cindy in the airport in Amsterdam! We happened to be there at the same time, as she was heading to Tanzania to work at the footprints site I joined her at last year. That was really fun. We kept joking how crazy it is that we live only 6 hours apart (she's in North Carolina) and we have to cross oceans to actually see each other. The second best part of the trip over was getting a seat with 2 empty seats next to it from Amsterdam to Nairobi, and getting a chance to stretch out and sleep for most of the flight. Aaaaaahhhh.

 After a week of greeting old friends and colleagues in the museum, unpacking everything, getting the flat stocked with food and supplies, and looking at fossils, I needed a little down time this weekend, so my friend Emily and I spent Saturday pampering: manicures, pedicures, massages. Services like that are a fraction of the cost here that they are back home, and I swear the best pedicures I've ever had are in Nairobi! My back's been hurting a lot for the past few weeks, and the massage really helped. We also did some shopping (souvenirs, jewelry); it was nice to get some of that out of the way early on this time. I bought two cool Tinga paintings for Pumpkin's room at a market today; I've always liked this Tanzanian style of art, and I thought it would be fun to have some colorful, African-looking animal paintings in his room. The ones I got look pretty similar to these:

OK, it's bedtime; I promise to try to post more often!