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.
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.
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.
There she is (or, one of our twelve ladies):
What did you just say? Oh, you asked why it looks so puny? Ah, okay then. Here’s a bigger one.
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!
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.