my trusty steed (and some savanna)

Title of today’s blog post brought to you by the wHiMsIcAL and qUirKy folks at wordpress: when your page is loading, those are the words that pop up.  And, I’m really mentally tired and am not feeling very inspired in the title department.  So robot noise it is.

Mental tired-ness comes from a week of figuring all my stuff out!  I arrived last Friday, just in time to succumb to intense jetlag but also just in time to enjoy a weekend at Mpala Research Centre.

(Quick plug for the ‘Mpala Live!’ website, where interested readers can see and learn about some of the science and outreach happening here at the centre!  http://mpalalive.org/)

On Saturday night, we had a staff appreciation dinner: there’s a huge number of locals who work here, as project managers and full-time scientific staff, to cooks and security and administrative folks, to part-time day workers who fill the gaps in terms of field assistance and extra lab/field work when there’s a lot of research happening during the season’s peak.  One of the undergraduates organized games and a cookout for the afternoon, which turned into dancing and a campfire after sundown.  It was a really lovely time: pick-up soccer up by the Mpala village, meeting the local staff’s families and children, and tasting Kenyan food for the first time.  (Ugali, which as far as I can tell is like a very thick grits-style cornmeal dish; fire-roasted vegetables; and, the crowning portion of the meal, roasted goat.  It was all delicious, especially for someone who had just gotten off of a 3-day plane journey and was craving any food that wasn’t beige and wrapped in cellophane.) The dancing afterward was SUPER cool and interesting; this region of Kenya has a lot of cultural overlap, so the dancers (mostly men) were all doing the traditional dances from all over the place, including Masai Mara and Turkana.

On Sunday, we moved my things and supplies into our lab.  We’re affectionately known as the ‘hippo lab’, thanks to my advisor’s husband’s research on hippo behavior and ecology.  There’s a large sign on our door saying, ‘Hippo people only: all others will be dung-flung.”  That makes no sense unless you know that hippos are notorious for the large amounts of dung that they deposit on riverbanks and rivers, and frequently in what’s delicately called a ‘dung shower’, in order to mark their territory.  (Related side note: I did not know this.  So googling ‘hippo dung fling’ was an interesting/gross search.)  I got settled in the lab, which is filled with a huge amount of lab stuff like sampling equipment, microscopes, and scales, plus random packets of ramen noodles, a few scattered coffee cups, and a massive Arnold Schwarzenegger poster as The Terminator.  (It’s hung up with a crossbow.  Naturally.)

This past week has been filled with field work prep: unfortunately, I have had to spend a lot of time making materials for my experiments, as my supplies didn’t arrive at the lab in the States for three or four weeks after I had ordered them….huge bummer.  One of the experiments I’m conducting this summer is one where I’ll be comparing the rates of leaf litter decomposition between field sites that have a normal community of large mammals (mainly herbivores, like giraffe and elephants), and those where those same mammals have been experimentally excluded for 20 years (with REALLY intense electric fencing).  The idea is that you’re able to do experiments within these plots, and compare the effects of current, intact communities of animals on their environment, to hypothetical future communities where large mammals are extinct.


Large mammals are the most likely to go extinct first during episodes of major extinction, like the one our globe is currently experiencing, because they’re BIG and HUNGRY and require a lot of space and food…when that space and food is limited by things like climate change, and hunting, and habitat fragmentation by human populations, they’re the ones that go down first.  Kenya is one of the only places on the planet that still has an intact community of large mammals, but that community is constantly threatened by land-use change, and urbanization, and poaching; so it’s super relevant and important to do research here, because scientists can directly observe the trickle-down and long-term effects of potential extinction by building experiments like the one I’m working in (the Kenya Long-term Exclosure Experiment, or KLEE).  The information we get from work out here can directly inform things like large-mammal conservation and policy, which is pretty amazing.

….and WE’RE BACK!

To get back to my original story, the experiment I’ll be doing this summer is one in which I’ll be testing the rates of soil decomposition between these sites, to examine the effects of large mammal ‘loss’ on soil turnover.  I’m really interested in the indirect effects of large mammal loss: how does the extinction of one animal, at the ‘top of the heap’, affect things like dirt microbes and insects, and related essential ecosystem processes?  How far do those changes percolate away from the source, that original animal loss?  To conduct this experiment, I need to have a metric ton (exaggeration, but that’s how it felt hauling the raw materials through immigration in Nairobi) of square mesh bags sewn, so I can fill them with dried leaf litter and distribute them out in the field.  Sadly, there was no time for them to get sewn in California thanks to a mishap with ordering the mesh, so I had to enlist help once I got here.

But the bright side to all this was the company I was able to keep this past week as I frantically planned around this unforeseen roadblock.  Georgia helped me arrange for the hire of four day-workers, who live nearby and have all worked at Mpala in some capacity for years.  My crew consisted of John, Godfrey, Hassan, and Jameaux, four really great guys with just an admirable amount of patience for sewing mesh squares for 8 hours a day.  We would set up shop outside the lab at a big table, I’d put on music from my laptop, and get down to sewing.  We looked 100% ridiculous: PILES of white mesh scattered around us, Kenyan reggae blasting from my speakers, and the five of us dutifully stitching away.  We talked about all sorts of things: music, movies, school in Kenya versus school in the US, Swahili words (I am, it turns out, really bad at retaining Swahili…they’ve all reassured me that it’s a really hard language to learn (in perfectly conversational English, natch)), politics, etc.  They were all way into the Obama visit last week; he’s super popular especially amongst the young people here, and every single person I talked to about it had listened to his speeches live.  I felt a little embarrassed that I hadn’t, frankly; I read the re-caps and listened to some clips.  #badamerican.  Apparently he did nothing but reinforce his popularity during his stay: he began his speech with “Niaje wasee? Hawayuni?”, Kenyan slang that basically means, “what’s up guys??”  He also did a traditional Kenyan dance at his state dinner that night.  Long story short, Obama is widely seen as a cool dude.

This weekend was filled with logistics and planning: heading in the nearby town, Nanyuki, to pick up one of the lab’s cars from the shop; grocery shopping at the store and the greengrocer; eating pizza at the lone, genuinely-Italian pizza joint in town where an older Italian gentleman makes wood-fired pizzas for $4 USD apiece (okay that last one is in no way logistics or planning, but holy hell that pizza was good); etc.  Next week is going to be a similar flurry of activity, and I’m trying my best to plan for it all.  More updates, pictures, and Swahili to come!