Elizabeth At Mpala

stories from the savanna of central Kenya

Recent articles

While the title of this post implies that I have written articles in the past month or so, it is somewhat misleading; aside from my dissertation prospectus (tiiiiiiiny document describing everything I plan to do over the next 3-4 years, no big), I haven’t done much writing.  However!  I did write a few pieces for other outlets this past summer while I was out and about conducting field work, and I would love to share them with whichever of my loyal readers (hi, dad!) have not seen them yet (sorry, dad!).

Voices for Biodiversity

National Geographic Voices

Roots to STEM both here and here


As always, I’ll try to update this blog with any more exciting news.  Right now, my research tends towards the Excel datasheet side of things, so I’m not sure how much of that you want to hear.  If you are in fact intrigued by my machinations with Microsoft, feel free to get in touch and I’ll personally take you through every…single….cell.  Trust me.  Riveting stuff.

Happy Monday, all!


Warning: this post contains spiders

Hujambo, everybody!  Habari yako?  I’m writing to you on a brilliantly sunny afternoon, our first in several weeks. For whatever reason, even though it’s the dry season, we’ve had rain every day at least once since I arrived.  And I don’t mean drizzle; I mean full-on drenching downpours, thunder and lightening included.  Get it together, nature.  So it’s been great to be outside and absorb the sun a little bit today.

blessedly dryyyyyyy drive up to KLEE
…okay dry-ish

We went up to the KLEE plots today to finish installing some of the equipment I’ll be using for my research this summer.  A quick science interlude: I’m really interested in the connections between large wildlife presence/absence, and carbon cycling.  So one of the things I’m doing this summer is measuring rates of carbon respiration from the soil (and therefore carbon exchange with the atmosphere) in the KLEE plots that experimentally exclude large wildlife; I’ll also be doing this in those that exclude wildlife, but allow cattle.  This is a particularly interesting point to me, as one of the biggest purveyors of wildlife extinction is land-use change for agricultural or pastoral purposes; so, you frequently get extinction of large species (like those out here) alongside the intrusion of livestock species like cows.  When you think about how to predict the impacts of wildlife loss in the future, it’s important to incorporate socially (and biologically) realistic  scenarios like that one.

In order to make these measurements, I’ve installed PVC ‘collars’ into the soil.  Once these collars have sat in their new dirt homes for a few days, the disturbance we invariably caused to the microorganisms living there by hammering on them will have died down, and we can start measuring how much carbon dioxide is coming off the soil within that discrete area in the collars.

My master plan to understand wildlife and savanna carbon involves a rubber mallet.  Yes, I labeled my rubber mallet.
Step 2: go back and geolocate all these things with a GPS unit because holy moly they’re going to be hard to find.  Do you see it?

So this morning was a whole lot of tramping around the KLEE plots, pressing plastic circles into the dirt, and avoiding golden orb spiders.  Oh, did you think this post was going to be about science?  Cute.  NOPE.  The more pressing thing to tell you about is how we (cumulatively) almost walked into TWELVE female golden orb spiders.  < Shudder >

Golden orb spiders are large spiders of the genus Nephila; the huge (2-inch body, not including their spindly striped legs) females spin a lovely goldenrod-colored silk into huge ~1 meter webs, anchored by trees or the ground, and which are dotted with teeny tiny little males vying for her attention.  The silk is super-strong (which you’d definitely know if you’d walked into it accidentally, which I have), and apparently they can adjust the level of pigmentation to background light levels in order to most effectively camouflage their webs from insect prey.  They’re found worldwide in warm regions; this includes Costa Rica, Australia, the Americas (don’t go to South Carolina if you don’t like spiders), Asia, and Africa.  East Africa.  Kenya.  Mpala Research Centre.  The exclusion plots.  RIGHT OVER MY HEAD (true story).

I actually really like these spiders, but as anybody who knows me is aware, spiders in the abstract and spiders three inches from my nose are two different things.  Especially when those spiders are huge, and possess massive chelicerae (FANGS) that are quite visible once you finally realize you’re about to walk straight into them.  Last year, my field assistant Godfrey hollered at me one morning as I was about to wander right into one’s web, while taking a shortcut between two trees.  After I got over the shock of staring into eight alarmingly-large eyes, I examined her much more closely.  (Godfrey, at this point, told me with an utterly straight face, “that spider will kill you”.  They won’t, but they’ll hurt like crazy if they bite you.  I am never quite sure when Godfrey is just screwing with me to see how I’ll react, so it’s entirely probable that this was one of those times.)

Pretty much every time I saw one today, I was about to walk into it; their webs are really well-camouflaged in the bush what with the complex background of grasses and trees, and because they themselves are the same general size and shape as the swollen thorns of an acacia drepanolobium (whistling acacia).  Save for one, all of the spiders we saw today were in one particular plot that is especially grown-over, with a huge amount of tall grass, various forbs, and acacias.  Since my discovery last year that this plot hosts a large number of golden orbs, doing work in it always gets me hyper-aware of my surroundings.  Nonetheless, these things are evolutionarily adapted to be hard to see; despite my vigilance, spiders popped out of seemingly nowhere all morning.  It was a relief to get to the plots where wildlife aren’t excluded; there are far fewer golden orbs there thanks to (I think) the fewer number of trees and the greater likelihood that their webs will get knocked down by animals, so you don’t have to be on as high of an alert level.

Are you ready?  I took photos.  If you don’t like spiders, now would be the time to bail.





This here is space, for those who do not want to scroll.





Here, I’ll put in a photo of something cute to relax you before spider-ville.

Look!  A horn-bill stealing toast at breakfast!  Aww.







There she is (or, one of our twelve ladies):

AHHHHH!!  Hi.  In related non-terror, see how her legs curve in?  That’s because these spiders are adapted to be primarily spinners, and spend most of their time in the web; the turned-in legs help them handle the silk as they spin, and walk around on it after.  Ground spiders have legs that curve out.

What did you just say?  Oh, you asked why it looks so puny?  Ah, okay then.  Here’s a bigger one.

Poor, zoomed-in iPhone image quality; apologies.  Nevertheless, I don’t think her magnificence/GIGANTISM is at all diminished.

Now that I’ve managed to lose all six of my followers, I’ll try to win you back with something palate-cleansing.  This here giraffe was one of twelve that we saw on the way home from the KLEE two days ago; animals that come in groups of twelve aren’t always eight-legged and spindly!

Hey buddy.

Til next time!  Remember to wave your rubber mallet in front of you whenever you walk through trees, to advertise your path to waiting spiders, just in case.

Animal sightings of note


Animal Sightings of Note, Lately:

Hippos (kiboko) at the hippo pools (predictably, but it never gets old).

At least 20 or 25 elephants on the road back from the hippo pools = ndovu mwingi (many elephants) (according to Google, this is called a ‘parade’ of elephants)

Mama shielding baby from harm.  Would have been adorable had it not resulted in several tons of stubborn animal in the road.
  • Mama ndovu was not happy about a land cruiser full of people trying to get through the road, ostensibly between her and her little one. (Related: the little ndovu was SOOO CUUUUTE.)  She nudged him off to the side with her trunk, then turned to face us squarely, resolute and unmoving, with her ears out wide.  This was more than a little unnerving, since I was sitting in the open back of the land cruiser, but frankly it was more awesome than anything else.  All the other elephants were scattered around us, anywhere from 20 to 50m away.  Finally, after Doug revved the engine at her a few times, she reluctantly ceded the road.  We roared by them after that.  She seemed like the only one actually miffed at our presence. Though, elephants can be really unpredictable and I try to make sure I never get too complacent around them (even while egging Doug on to get closer so I could get a better shot with my camera).
fuzzy because speeding away in the land cruiser

Two species of widowbird

jackson's widowbird
Long-tailed widowbird; source (both):
red-collared widowbird
The smaller, but still fancy as all get-out, red-collared widowbird
  • These bird-dudes are dark in color, and sport long (half a meter, for the long-tailed), trailing feathers on their tails. From a distance, you can see them flying low (about 2 meters) above the savanna, dipping slightly with each flap, their tails fanning out below and behind them like a train.  It’s quite beautiful, but then as you observe them you can’t help but wonder…don’t those tails look a bit risky, survival-wise?
    • Answer: yes. The tails of the male widowbird are a prime example of evolution (if evolution had the agency to choose) weighing the benefits of sexually attractive features versus the disadvantages to survival posed by possessing said features.  Think peacock tails, or the plumage of birds of paradise, or rhinoceros beetles’ horns, or lions’ manes. In this case, it’s the difference between getting more tail (ha) from female birds (by attracting them with their long and luscious tails) but putting themselves at risk of predation, and surviving for longer (because they don’t have a big bumbling tail to deal with) but not attracting any mates with whom to produce offspring.  What a choice.
    • Interpretation: nature is cruel. Also, it is possible to be too attractive.  Some might say, dangerously attractive.  Perhaps these birds are prone to fatal attraction.  (I’ll stop.)
    • So why the name? These birds are called ‘widowbirds’ because of the preponderance of young, attractive males who die from predation as a result of being too easy to see and catch, thanks to their tails.

Spotted hyena

Spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta on the prowl in Etosha National Park Namibia November
source: BBC.  I didn’t see this spotted hyena, but I did see a spotted hyena.
  • Lesson #1: always pay attention.
  • Lesson #2: when you spy a spotted hyena bounding across the road ahead of you on your run after work, sprint to go tell your friends IMMEDIATELY because that’s awesome. Also, maybe tell somebody else.  Like an askari (guard).  They’ll probably want to know that there’s a hyena inside the fence.
  • Lesson #3: when they tell you that, in your excitement, you missed seeing a huge bull elephant grazing by the electric fence next to the road (to my mom: the other side of the fence), you will be forced to refer back to Lesson #1.
  • Moral of the story: seeing a hyena for the first time in daylight is really exciting. Also, they are…large.

Kudu family

  • Kudu are one of my favorite species in Kenya. They have striking, twirling horns, giant ears that fan out like a hare’s, thin white stripes that run down their sides, and the females I’ve seen have pale circles dotting their cheeks like rouge.  They are huge, regal, and lovely.  That’s why I was particularly excited to drive by a family of four down by the hippo pools on Tuesday.  The male was standing under an acacia tree, and when we slowed to a crawl next to him (something like 5 meters away) so we could take photos, he raised his head high, rotated his ears outward, and posed.  Well, he didn’t ‘pose’.  But it certainly looked like he was posing, and we took full advantage.  The Mrs. and their two offspring were under the next tree over, and barely looked up from their browsing to watch us drive by.
This tree is my catwalk

There’s your update on cool and weird animals from the field in Kenya.  I’ll post more as soon as it stops raining and we can get back out on the roads!  Usiku mwema (goodnight).

Let’s talk about dung

Somehow, even though in reality I’ve only been here for a few days, I already feel behind.  Thus is the reality of field work: try to cram as much as possible into a discrete time, then feel panicked by the inevitable time-sucks as they come up… even though you’ve planned for them.

That said, I’ve had a great first few days at Mpala.  On Thursday, my first day after arriving late the evening before, I woke up at 7am on the nose feeling…slightly confused.  RIGHT.  I’m in Kenya.  Okay.  Here we go.  After hauling my tired and creaky body out out of bed, I headed up to the dining hall for breakfast, ready to meet the summer’s crop of undergraduates and the graduate students I hadn’t run across last year. The Centre is actually full up at the moment, housing about 50 people, what with a Princeton summer course for undergraduate science majors, several long-term field managers, four or five graduate students, and a rotating bevy of film crews.  The crew in attendance on Thursday was from National Geographic’s show Years of Living Dangerously, an amazing show that brings celebrity correspondants who care about global change (social, environmental, wildlife, and more) to locations around the globe where change is happening really vividly, and has experts there explain the work they do on those issues.  The result (at least, according to season 1) is a dynamic visual learning experience between scientists and concerned nonscientists, the catch being that these non-scientists have a lot of social clout and influence.  It’s beautifully done, and you can check out episode 1 for free on their site.


Our resident celebrity was…am I allowed to say this?  It’s on the website, so I’m going to err on the side of “living dangerously”.  Hehehehe.  (That was awful.  I’m sorry.  No more puns or plays-on-words from now on.)  Visiting the centre was Aasif Mandzi, a correspondant on The Daily Show, and an actor and comedian.  He and the Years film crew were on-site in order to interview Doug McCauley, a bad-ass ecologist who does work out in Kenya and is a professor at UCSB.  Doug is known around Mpala as ‘the hippo guy’.  This is due to his rather unprecedented interest in the area’s hippos (kibokos), how they contribute to structuring the ecosystem, and how climate change and the threat of extinction is impacting both the species and the parts of the environment they influence.  Aasif and Nat Geo wanted to visit Doug’s field sites, see the hippos, and learn about all these things.  I was happy to tag along; I’m really interested in science communication, especially popular science like broad-audience science journalism and TV shows, and it was a great opportunity to witness the making of it in real time.

Plus, I got to hang with Aasif Mandzi.  Which didn’t suck.

We met the film crew down at the hippo pools, where Doug has been monitoring the hippos that reside there for the past few years.  They spent a good portion of an hour setting up, while we puttered around in the background making small talk.  It was great to get to know the crew, and to ask about how they’d managed to find themselves in careers at Nat Geo, since that was at one point or another the dream for myself and most of my friends.  The whole experience reminded me of how important it is to be able to talk to non-scientists about your work if you want them to find it remotely interesting.  So much of the minutiae of daily work in science can be winnowed out of the explanation, such that the real scope of your research comes through more clearly; that’s hard to do when you spend so much of your time actually performing the minutiae.  It was great practice.


Hippos!  Or, more accurately, hippo eyes and ears.

Hippos are GARGANTUAN creatures that eat up to 100lbs or so of grass, every night.  They’re incredibly sensitive to the hot sun of the day, and in the mornings they retreat to the rivers to submerge themselves almost completely for about 16 hours, with only their noses, eyes, and ears above the surface.  So to recap, at night they feed as much as they can; when daylight comes, they lumber off to the water and sleep it off.  Well, they do more than sleep: they mate, fight, and, most of all, poop.  Their poop actually creates a subsidy loop wherein nutrients are transferred from land to river (in the form of hippo dung).  These nutrients travel downriver with the flow of the water, beyond where the hippos did their business, fertilizing plants on the banks and providing nutrients for the marine live in the river.  Ah, yes: the circle of life.  Plants to poo, poo to plants, with wildlife as the gracious intermediaries.

If the hippos weren’t there, you can see how there would be a kink in this chain of nutrient cycling.  There would be no transfer of organic matter from upstream to downstream, and the community in the river itself would suffer: the fish and algae that take nutrients from hippo dung would die, and whole food chains would be disrupted.  Considering that hippos are among East Africa’s megafauna that are classified as vulnerable, this is a very real concern.


Aasif’s job was to interview Doug about the hippos in order to draw out the above information in an easily-communicable way.  As an observer watching from behind the scenes, I can confidently say they succeeded 100%.  Of course, they got off topic a few times; Aasif really couldn’t get over the fact that male hippos have backwards-facing penises (I learn something new every day out here).  During a particularly sobering pause after Doug had expounded on the threats of climate change, he deadpanned, “so….how do they do it, though?”

Doug, being a wry character himself, bantered with Aasif on the subject of hippo lovin’ for a few minutes, but all in all the two of them covered a lot of really interesting and substantive ground on wildlife loss, drought, and climate change.  Every so often the crew broke off of their conversation to focus on the hippos, who would inevitably threaten to do something as huge as they are, only to sink back beneath the smooth surface of the river with their beady eyes poking up and ears flicking.

The crew stopped filming at around noon so we could pack up and head to Mpala.  Doug and Aasif were due to film a scene in Mpala’s laboratory, where they had set up one of the savanna’s tick species under a microscope.  This segment would focus on the research that Hillary (my advisor) and Doug have done on the impacts of defaunation (i.e. wildlife loss, particularly large wildlife) on vector-borne diseases.  Unsurprisingly, it’s not good: fewer large wildlife species may mean more small-and-medium sized ones, which are prime vectors for ticks, fleas, and their associated diseases.  Some of these diseases can be transmitted to livestock or humans: think ‘Lyme disease’ or, for an especially gruesome example, ‘bubonic plague’.  As climate change and defaunation continue to run rampant worldwide, their impacts on things like disease transmission are becoming more and more important to understand.

The fun part of this segment, at least for me, was that I and our lab manager Doug (or “Douglette” as we occasionally call him to distinguish him from Doug McCauley…I don’t think he likes it) got to stand in as extras.  So, everyone, look out for me in my starring role during season 2 of the series.  I play ‘anonymous scientist doing what looks like science but is in reality busy work, while looking contemplative’ in the background of the microscope conversation.  Doug plays the part of ‘scientist reading a book full of someone else’s data quite studiously who every so often strokes his chin’.  (Real talk: I pick up a syringe, look at it quizzically, and put it down; Doug stares at a booklet full of recordings of the number of seeds in zebra poops.)

SCIENCE BREAK:  At this point I think it’s clear that ecology research boils down to looking at poop, eventually.  But, it’s also clear that it’s important to everything.  Right?  Right?  Okay I’ll work on you guys some more.  You’ll be converts to the gospel of poop by the time I leave.

The Nat Geo crew wrapped up filming in the lab, and we loaded into Land Cruisers to head up to the Kenya Long-term Exclosure Experiment (KLEE), where I do my own research.  This was exciting for me, since I hadn’t actually been up to the KLEE plots yet, so I was pretty stoked about the whole thing.  By the time we got up there, however, storm clouds had formed overhead; the film crew had just enough time to start filming Doug and Aasif before the first fat drops of rain started to fall.  This is no good up at the KLEE plots, as they’re located on a black vertisol soil which swells massively in the rain; it’ll bog your car down almost immediately.  We sprinted back to the vehicles, threw the equipment inside, and roared down the road back to the Centre.

So, there you have it: my first few days at Mpala.  I’m looking forward to getting my own work up and running; stay ‘tuned.  In the meantime, have a picture of some zebra I took from the back of the land cruiser, coming down from KLEE at sunset:

DSC_0977 (1)
Majestic, no?  This was an “I love Kenya” moment.

2016: Back To Mpala

Habari gani, marafiki!  How are you guys?  It’s been a little over 24 hours since I arrived at Mpala yesterday, and after a night of sleep and a few gigantic meals I am feeling slightly more human.  Traveling to east Africa is a long haul; I left Los Angeles at around 5pm on Monday evening, flew ten hours to Amsterdam, spent about eight hours there, and then boarded another plane at 7pm for an overnight flight to Nairobi.  While my seatmates were generally nice (though I could have done without the window-seat-over-airplane-wing-then-middle-seat-between-a-manspreader-and-an-amazingly-chit-chatty-German-Evangelical-missionary combination), it was so nice to exit the last plane and find myself in the relatively spacious comfort of the immigration line.

(Side note: can we talk about how insanely awesome the Amsterdam airport is?  I rolled in all bleary-eyed and mildly claustrophobic (that window seat for ten hours sort of killed me), hooked up to the wifi to text my family that I’d arrived, and my sister-in-law told me they have SHOWERS you can RENT for like, 15 euro.  MONEY WELL SPENT, LEMME TELL YOU.  It’s just an in-airport hotel for layovers that, in addition to hotel rooms, offers the individual services of napping rooms (rent just-a-bed, basically, instead of a whole hotel room or suite) and big private bathrooms with showers, shampoo provided, and a blowdryer to perfect your “I’m stuck in an airport, help” look.  Just go straight at the in-house casino, past the mini science museum, turn left at the small-scale Van Gogh exhibit, and go up the stairs.  Can’t miss it.)

The most glorious shower in all the land.  At least, it was a sight for my travel-sore eyes.
Looking a little lion-like after blowdrying.

Back to Nairobi: I arrived at around 5:30am, which left me plenty of time to get through customs with all my stuff before catching the cab my friend Doug had arranged to pick me up.  Keep in mind, I was slightly worried about customs: last year I got held up in the immigration office for over an hour or so until I very reluctantly bribed my way out.  And, as a scientist, you tend to travel with equipment that makes you look INCREDIBLY sketchy.  Case in point: I had a 40lb plastic crate packed with two empty steel pipes (for taking soil cores!), 100 plastic syringes (for taking air samples!!), two soil moisture probes made out of Arduino micro-processors and brimming with open wires (I SWEAR IT’S FOR SOIL MOISTURE), and a large box with an ‘on/off’ switch (SERIOUSLY IT’S FOR MEASURING CARBON DIOXIDE).  These items, together with a menagerie of diagrams and manuals and batteries, was enough to make me feel increasing trepidation as I approached the customs counter.  I had prepared for this moment by labeling everything in the box as explicitly as I could, and adding a ‘for conservation research’ rejoinder to the end of each label for good measure.  Oddly enough, it worked this year!  I didn’t get hauled into a customs office, and nobody tried to make me pay a bogus inflated tax on imported goods.  The only hiccup was when my immigration officer picked up my travel mug, which I’d stored in its box for packing.

“This is a nice mug.”


“Did you bring more?”

“…no, just that one.” *confused*

“next time, bring many.”

“OH HA I SEE HA OKAY BYE” *no longer confused*

(For those still confused: a half-assed attempt to get me to give her my travel mug as a bribe to get through.  Which I guess didn’t actually impact her decision to let me through.  Never change, Nairobi airport.)

I went outside to find the taxi driver whom Doug had called for me, and after not too much waiting we identified each other in the small but growing crowds of arrivals and their rides.  His name is Wilfred, he had driven in from Nanyuki (4 hours away!), and he was great company considering we were both exhausted from our already-long days.  Wilfred then proceeded to be not only great but AMAZING, and drove me all over Nairobi from 6:30am til about noon, in order for me to visit various research permitting offices and chemical supply stores.  I’m incredibly lucky he knows the city so well; I had vague directions to each place written down in my notebook, but, as anybody who knows me is aware, I am…directionally challenged.  Getting lost in traffic in Nairobi sounded awful, and Wilfred not only knew where to go but the best shortcuts to take at various times of the morning in order to avoid the inevitable gridlock.

We left Nairobi at noon after I visited my last permitting office, and hit the road for Nanyuki where I had plans to stop and go to an ATM, and to purchase phone credits.  Well, Wilfred hit the road; I hit the hay, hard, in the back seat of the van.  I only woke up when Wilfred tapped my shoulder to tell me we were about to arrive in Nanyuki, and hadn’t I wanted to stop at the store?  Blinking viciously, I stumbled out and stared around at the now-familiar main street, then perked up.  Woohoo!  I had been terrible company in the car, but I was almost at Mpala.  A few stops later, and we hit the road again.

back at Mpala!

We arrived at Mpala at around 4 or 5pm, and things have been simultaneously calmer and a whirlwind ever since.  More to update you on later, on my first day back in the field; exciting pictures of animals to come.  At the very least, it’ll be more exciting than my regaling you with (riveting, I’m sure) tales of airport travel.  Field work: sometimes it’s a giant pain in the butt to get ‘there’, but it’s always worth it.

Most recent photos

A few photos of animals I’ve seen recently, and some science-y ones too.

Hey, friend!
Hey, friend!
Goddammit, cows, stop pulling up my experiment, getting bored, and leaving it on the ground in different places.  Not.  Ideal.
Goddammit, cows, stop pulling up my experiment, getting bored, and leaving it on the ground in different places. Not. Ideal.
High-tailing it away from us.
High-tailing it away from us.
Curious about us.
Curious about us.
Science: it involves taped-together PVC piping a lot of the time.  Not even a little bit of a joke there.
Science: it involves taped-together PVC piping a lot of the time. Not even a little bit of a joke there.
Collected leaf litter.
Collected leaf litter.
Godfrey putting sieved leaf litter into mesh bags, so we can try to get at the critters inside.
Godfrey putting sieved leaf litter into mesh bags, so we can try to get at the critters inside.
My home-made insect extractors.  Immediately after this photo was taken it got wicked windy outside, so I'm crossing my  fingers that they make it through the night where they're currently hanging.
My home-made insect extractors. Immediately after this photo was taken it got wicked windy outside, so I’m crossing my fingers that they make it through the night where they’re currently hanging.
Hippos!  At the appropriately-named Hippo Pools.  A few of us went down there to enjoy a Tuskers (cheap Kenyan beer) and the sunset, and at least ten of these guys were hanging out and huffing at each other.
Hippos! At the appropriately-named Hippo Pools. A few of us went down there to enjoy a Tuskers (cheap Kenyan beer) and the sunset, and at least ten of these guys were hanging out and huffing at each other.
...So this lady kudu basically just posed for me.
…So this lady kudu basically just posed for me.

Go home, sausage fly, you’re drunk.

I’m in the lab processing soil samples (i.e. grinding them up and passing them through a sieve to ensure that all the soil is of similar size….you can imagine my rapt attention).  There’s this fly here, on my lab bench.  I’ve heard it called a sausage fly.  (It’s really an ant.) (Way to go with your bad self, sausage fly, breaking societal expectations of species norms.)

Okay but in all seriousness, WHAT IS HE DOING?


This is a male driver ant.  Males grow to monstrous proportions when they hit sexual maturity, with their abdomen swelling to the size you see here (about half or more of its body length).  Apparently, they strike out on their own at this time, and from thereon out their guiding principle is to find a queen driver ant to mate with.  (Adolescent guys, right?)  At night, they fly about, attracted to these queens’ pheromones.  When a male is found by a colony, the colony tears off its wings and carries it back to the nest, where it mates with the queen…and soon after, dies.

What a violent way to go.  I can see why this particular specimen seems stressed out about it.  Clearly he took solace in the ethanol bottle, poor thing.*

Goodnight, friends!

* Sausage flies spin like that all the time around here.  If I had to guess, I’d say they’re disoriented by the lights or hitting the ground.  They’re blind and move primarily through their sense of smell, so I can’t imagine how weird it must be to fly into a lab, hit a desk lamp, and fall down next to poop samples and various strengths of ethanol.  I’d probably run around in panicked circles too.

An ode to the spiders living behind my pillow


Things I Like In The Context of Literally Anything Other Than Where I Sleep

There are many, many things I find myself liking in new places

Interesting and new species

Interesting and new nocturnal species

Interesting and new species of wolf spider…?

The size of a silver dollar

An individual of which is camping out beneath the pile of crumpled field clothes I had strewn on the floor

Thus causing me to question wildly whether the spider came upon the clothes


Was in them the whole time


(Chicken or egg? Spider found your clothes or is living in them (on you)?)

Trying to remove said spider

It jumps, I jump, and I smash it in my panic

because while I’m an environmentalist I’m also a pragmatist

(I’m sorry, dead spider friend, but if you’d been outside this wouldn’t have happened to you)

Going to dinner and forgetting about poor departed spider friend

(I never said I was warm hearted)

(Neither are spiders though)

(They don’t have blood)

Staying in the lab late

Walking back to my room (late)

Discovering another spider IN my bed


Discovering that during the space of a blink, second spider friend is gone

But hey! Look! A third spider is there, by the head of the mattress! Just out of reach!

(Oh shit. They probably know about dead spider friend.  Hey, guys!   No hard feelings?)

Going to brush my teeth, because what else is there to do?

It’s midnight and I’ve been invited to the spider party

Semi-related: remember how I like nocturnal species?

Not when they’re bats flying at me in the bathroom

Retreat! Retreat! Back to my room


Both spiders are gone.

Goodnight, Kenya.


The end is near! (Aaaaaah)

I wrote the below post on Sunday afternoon, and neglected to actually post said post until just now.  Pole sana!  Here ’tis:

Hello friends! Habari za asubuhi? (How’re you doing this morning?) I write ‘morning’, as by the time most of you read this, you’ll be rolling out of bed or making Sunday coffee. As I did, also this morning, but about 7 or 8 hours ago. Time travel: it’s a hard life, but someone’s got to do it.

The last few days have been wicked eventful, as the entire Mt. Kenya crew mobilized and finally took off for their expedition. There were a million things for them to accomplish before leaving: permits, arrivals to coordinate and arrange rides for, last-minute purchases, charging batteries for camera traps, teaching folks on the team to use camera traps, etc. etc. etc. It was exhausting (-looking), and I tried to help out as much as I could. Even if that were just grasping my friend and lab-mate by the shoulders and affirming that he was doing a fantastic job of planning for five weeks of camping and intensive science at altitude (he really looked like he needed it). Now that they’re gone, it’s pretty much a ghost town here at Mpala: myself, four other grad students, and a few post-docs are all who remain.

The last of the group went for sun-downers at Lookout Rock the other day, and it was a small crew.
The last of the group went for sun-downers at Lookout Rock the other day, and it was a small crew.

Part of the crew that moved to Mt. Kenya on Saturday was my roommate, Molly. As a result, I moved into a room on-site so I can avoid driving the 20-30 mins to and from our house by myself every day. While Mtoto is a little, easily-handled vehicle, I don’t relish the thought of dealing with a breakdown or a flat tire at dusk by myself. So, here I am for the next two weeks, til I go back to the States. For my last night at the Mlima Tatu house, my friend Grace came to make dinner and hang out. This morning, we spent a lazy Sunday enjoying the beautiful porch, drinking coffee and watching an elephant family meander around across the river. After that, I packed up my things and off we went, back to the Centre. (Side note: having had barely had room to pack any personal items when I left California, it’s been an incredibly swift process to pack up my things and move when I need to. I already knew this about myself, but I’m a consummate over-packer, so it’s refreshing to note that I really only need like, three tee shirts and a pair of shorts or two. Not unrelatedly, I’m definitely not in the running for best-dressed or anything.)

Moving on-site means meals with the other researchers staying here, no more cooking (which I’m actually a bit sad about), the ability to stay and do more lab-work after fieldwork hours are over, and a hell of a shorter commute. While I’ll miss the Mlima Tatu house immensely and all of its beautiful glory (the VIEW upon waking up…), I’d love to go back someday to rent it as a visitor, when I’d have time to really enjoy it fully rather than to use it solely as a place to cook dinner and go to sleep. We had some great dinners, though, so there’s that. Cooking at altitude sort of kicked my butt for awhile, but we got the hang of it.

A week's worth of veggies and fruit, for two people, from the local greengrocer, for the equivalent of about $10. I have been in avocado heaven.
A week’s worth of veggies and fruit, for two people, from the local greengrocer, for the equivalent of about $10. I have been in avocado heaven.

This week and next will be a flurry of activity as I try to accomplish as much of my sampling and lab work as I can. I expect I’ll be pretty busy in the coming days, but I’m hopeful I can get it all done. Here goes!

Soil sampling extravaganza.    Time to break out the acronyms.
Soil sampling extravaganza. Time to break out the acronyms.

Animal sightings! A buffalo in the experimental plots:

Napping the day away/being terrifying, ho-hum.
Napping the day away/being terrifying, ho-hum.

A CHEETAH!!  This beaut was sighted on the drive up to my field site.  She could not have cared less that we were in the car, gawking at her loveliness.


A gif of the lady moving, for good measure, because she’s got serious swagger:

This bird (African fish-eagle):


That bird (have yet to ID this particular one):


These birds (ostriches):


This other bird (secretary bird):

bird you've seen before.
bird you’ve seen before.

This spider (I’m sorry, in advance, also it’s a golden orb weaver):

Almost walked into this creature. She was not happy to see me.
Almost walked into this creature. She was not happy to see me.

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