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 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.
BACK TO NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC AND CELEBRITIES ON SITE:
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: