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Lessons from Laikipia

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The last portion of my stay in Laikipia was a bit of a whirlwind, but I managed to accomplish my goals for the field session and make it home from Kenya safely. It was nice to be back and catch up with family and friends, but I’m also already looking forward to returning to Laikipia next year.

Once the rains came in late March/early April, the landscape blossomed with unbelievable speed. Wildlife began pouring back into the area, and sightings of everything from beetles to elephants became much more frequent. Some people may think that you miss out on seasons at the equator, but the revival of the flora and fauna in response to the rains can be just as dramatic and awe-inspiring as that of a temperate landscape waking from winter.

Bat-eared fox

Bat-eared fox. Photo: Anne-Marie Hodge

The only downside to the wet season was a marked tapering off in my success with capturing mesopredators. I had gotten used to what was nearly an embarrassment of riches with trap success during the dry period. When the landscape is lush and the small vertebrates are abundant, however, the cost-benefit ratio for a mongoose to venture into my traps to grab a sun-baked scrap of beef fat seems to tilt in the other direction. This is something I will have to keep in mind for the next sampling session, and is also a prime example of why having an experimental field season is a huge benefit for a project: you collect whatever data that you can for preliminary analyses, but the most important part is to use the time to test methods and learn what will and won’t work, so that you can hit the ground running during the following field session. Every habitat and ecosystem will have their own dynamics, and designing a successful field biology study depends on understanding those factors and how they affect the research questions you seek to answer.

As my trapping grids became decidedly less fruitful in the wet season, I decided to use my remaining time to focus on locating territories and burrows for some of the rarer species on my “wish list.” My invaluable field assistant, Simon, had askaris (guards) and herders all over the ranch keeping an eye out for bat-eared fox (Otocyon megalotis) burrows. The benefits of social networking are not limited to Facebook: his query this led to a flurry of reports of active den sites, many with pups.

Serval

Serval. Photo: Anne-Marie Hodge (technically, photo by serval)

I hoped to acquire at least some representative fur samples from the foxes, so that I could include them in preliminary comparisons of isotope signatures between mesopredator species. Bat-eared foxes are insectivores, and I am interested to see how their nitrogen enrichment compares to that of Laikipia’s other mesopredators.

Trapping the foxes was a bit frustrating. At every burrow site I targeted, a greedy black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) would go after the bait and become stuck in a trap right outside the foxes’ home. Said jackal would proceed to engage in noisy and smelly jackal activities all night, which seemed to be a very effective way to discourage bat-eared foxes from going anywhere the place. (For a review of a fascinating study of fox-jackal interactions in South Africa, see this post on my Nature blog, ‘Endless Forms’). As far as the fox captures went, I struck out. Simon and I have some schemes in mind to better target the little guys next year, though.

Vervet monkey

Vervet monkey. Photo: Anne-Marie Hodge

Another “wish species” that eluded me was the aardwolf (Proteles cristata). Although the aardwolf is actually a member of the hyena family, it is also primarily an insectivore (and thus of high interest for my isotope comparisons). Two other researchers kindly flagged a burrow that they had seen an aardwolf using, and so Simon and I put forth another targeted trapping attempt.

Alas, the aardwolf was not interested in being captured either, despite the fact that Simon spent hours collecting beetles and other delicious insects to use as bait. This wasn’t a total loss, however, as the traps were investigated by an unexpected and exciting visitor: a serval (Leptailurus serval). It was a nice addition to my list of camera “captures,” and was a handy demonstration that the cats will actually fit into one of my traps, if I can ever successfully lure them inside.

Students from a local girls' secondary school out for a day in the field.

Students from a local girls' secondary school out for a day in the field. Photo: Matthew Snider

Despite the evasive actions of the bat-eared foxes and aardwolves, the field session felt extremely successful overall. I ended up capturing three species of mongoose (dwarf, slender, and white-tailed), two species of genet (common and blotched), and of course those pesky black-backed jackals (confession: despite my grousing about them during the fox endeavor, the jackals may actually be my favorites out of the lot). I learned invaluable lessons about handling the animals—something that can’t be perfected without hands-on experience, and I had the chance to observe interesting things about morphological variation within species and differences in behavior between species. I also obtained extremely interesting camera sequences of large carnivore behavior with my game cameras.

Over the course of the field season, I learned some important things about my study animals that aren’t necessarily reflected in field guides. I learned that if you catch a black-backed jackal in a trap, its mate will patrol around the trap, keeping its imprisoned partner company throughout the night. I learned that white-tailed mongoose (Ichneumia albicauda) each have a unique tone/voice when they scream-roar at you, which will tip you off as to which individual is in a trap before you even lay eyes on it. I learned that slender mongoose (Galerella sanguinea) exhibit striking color polymorphisms, (see a discussion of this on ‘Endless Forms’) and that the males tend to be extremely battle-scarred as adults. I learned that dwarf mongoose (Helogale parvula) have spunky attitudes that bely their diminutive size, and that genets’ large ears are especially convenient for installing identification tags (as well as being pretty darn cute). I learned that although both spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) and striped hyenas (Hyaena hyaena) are too large to enter a Tomahawk trap, the spotteds will worry over a trap for hours, like a difficult Sudoku brainteaser, eventually giving up leaving the trap undisturbed, while the stripeds just tackle the trap and drag it around until it yields a prize, treating it more like a piñata than a puzzle.

I also gained invaluable experience with some logistical aspects of working in Kenya—everything from learning to drive a manual shift (on the left side of the road!) to attempting to pick up some Swahili to learning how to find and deal with the best suppliers for materials in town. Above all, I had a great time interacting with the local people. The field assistants, research station staff, herders, school children, and other locals impressed me on a daily basis with their knowledge and insights, in addition to their warmth and humor.

I’ll wrap up on a light now, with a few non-research related discoveries that I made:

  1. If your kitchen windows are not secured, you will come home to a vervet monkey waving your own mangoes at you after she has helped herself to your fresh groceries (which you won’t be able to replace for over a week).
  2. If you reinforce your kitchen windows, the vervets will express their displeasure by using your kitchen windowsill as a latrine.
  3. Don’t get too attached to the cute baby gecko living in your bathroom. Voracious ants driven crazy by the dry season will consume the entire thing in the five minutes it takes you to take a shower.
  4. If an elephant wants exclusive rights to a given area at a given time, its wish is granted, whether you needed to work there or not.
  5. Rock hyraxes are unabashed beggars.
  6. The colloquial term for wine in Kenya is “papaya,” and the papaya fruit is called “pawpaw,” which can produce surprising but not totally disappointing mix-ups on grocery delivery day.
  7. Bats in the ceiling negate the need for an alarm clock, because you’ll be awake when they come in from their nighttime adventures at approximately 3:37 each morning.
  8. The Kenyan dishes ugali and sukuma wiki are comforting for a lonely southern girl missing her grits and collard greens.
  9. The rainy season brings generous dosages of afternoon rainbows arcing over the plateau.
  10. The honey badger will continue its habit of not caring, no matter what wonderfully tasty dead things you offer it.

I’m very excited about the future of my study in Kenya, and I appreciate everyone who has followed and commented on my ‘Expeditions’ series this year!

Mount Kenya

Mount Kenya. Photo: Anne-Marie Hodge

Previously in this series:

Laikipia Plateau: mesopredators in Kenya
Laikipia Plateau: I have arrived
Laikipia Plateau: First Scouting Session
Laikipia Plateau: What is a Mesopredator?
Laikipia Plateau: Mesocarnivore Update
Laikipia Plateau: Rain Dance and Dog Excitement
Laikipia Plateau: Intraguild Interactions on Camera
Laikipia Plateau: the Honey Badger did not care

Anne-Marie Hodge About the Author: Anne-Marie Hodge is currently working on her doctoral degree at the University of Wyoming. She graduated from Auburn University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in Zoology, including a concentration in Conservation/Biodiversity and a minor in Anthropology. During her years at Auburn, Anne-Marie was a founding member of Alabama's first chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology. She completed her a Master of Science in Biology at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington in 2012, and has participated in field research trips in the southwestern U.S., Mexico, Belize, Ecuador, and Kenya. When she is not chasing carnivores at the equator, Anne-Marie blogs at Endless Forms on the Nature Network and is a frequent contributor to Ecology.com. Follow on Twitter @aubiefan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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