Rutgers - Science Summer Abroad 2010
Nine Science Undergraduate Students Around the World

Friday, May 28, 2010

Written May 27th, on my birthday

Well, today marks my 22nd revolution around the Sun. If you had told me a year ago that I would be sitting here in South Africa, listening to hyenas cackle in the night…I probably would have believed you. At the time I was preparing for a two month internship at the La Selva Biological Research Station in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, Costa Rica before embarking on the three month OTS South African savanna ecology course. But, tell me two years ago that I’d do any of these things, and I would have choked on my burger and told you that you were crazy. Not that I haven’t almost choked already today. The gang gave me a 50 mL shooter of mampoer (South African moonshine) with a mopane worm inside. It was reminiscent of a tequila shot with a Hypopta agavis larvae, except the mopane worm was the size of my pinky finger. It was spiny and did not go down on the first try. I think I can still feel it crawling around in my stomach…

Anyway, the REU gang has been in Skukuza since last Sunday. Shingwedzi was a nice place - it seemed every morning held the promise of a lion sighting. That being said, I think the research camp in Skukuza feels a little more like home. Ryan, Jay, and myself share Hut 10, which, I have to admit, is very comfortable (wireless internet!). We will be leaving the research camp on the 7th or 8th, and moving our things about half a kilometer to the vet camp that we stayed in during the OTS course. It’s small and fenced in, so sometimes it can begin to feel like a ratcage. That same cage, however, protects us from the wild things, so let it be known that I am not complaining.

So, let’s get down to it. I submitted my proposal and literature review today and the details of my project have been ironed out, more or less. I still have to decide what statistical analysis I am going to run my data through, but those decisions are for a later date. So, I am assessing bat activity at 15 riparian sites along the Sabie River in the Kruger National Park. The sites are divided up based on their canopy density: dense, intermediate, sparse, and open. They are essentially being used as a proxy for elephant disturbance. I will set up a bat echolocation detector at each site, just after sunset, and let it run for the night. Using Bat Sound Pro, I will analyze the recordings and identify each call down to guild and species level. I will also be setting up a Malais insect trap at each site so that I can get a measurement of insect prey activity on the nights I record bat activity. To make my life much easier, I will only identify insects down to the level of order. With all of this information, I should be able to compare canopy characteristics (density of tall trees, canopy cover, canopy heterogeneity) with prey abundance and bat activity to get a clearer picture of what has the greatest effect on bat community assemblages. I will also try to identify any trends that I notice as canopy density decreases. When elephant population densities increase during the winter months, they tend to aggregate around sources of water, and I’m hoping my project can add to the literature by establishing the shifts that bat communities undergo as elephants disturb/alter riparian vegetation.

What’s cool/scary about my project is that I will be in the field, on foot, at sundown, when predators are on the prowl. Because of this, a game guard (Graeme armed with a bolt action rifle) will be making the trip with me every night. The other day, while we were completing vegetation surveys at each site, I startled a waterbuck, which leapt out of the bush towards me. Until it turned and sprinted in another direction, it was only a brown blur of fur, and scared the **** out of me. Had it been a lion or leopard, claws and teeth would have been on me before I could have blinked. Having an armed guard by my side is reassuring, but when the sun goes down and predators move that fast, I can’t help but wonder about my chances if something were to happen.

(5/27/2010) Morning game drive: completely uneventful for about 45 minutes. Wearing a thermal, a sweatshirt, and a fleece, I was still unable to fend off the bone-chilling cold. Jay spotted a vulture nest, and we watched as one individual climbed (yes, climbed) across a couple of branches to gather some twigs (pictured above). If you look closely, you can see that the vulture is actually using its head and neck to stabilize itself on the branch.The whole event was very awkward, but the vulture managed to return to the nest without falling. A passing car stopped and tipped us off to a Wild Dog kill just up the road. I was able to great some great photos and some video (pictured above). We followed them for a while until they ran off into the bush. Wild Dogs are the most successful hunters (80% kill rate), while lions are only successful 30% of the time. Hooded Vultures eventually found the kill and I also snapped some photos of them as well. On the drive back to camp, we found a massive Warthog male harassing a female. He followed her relentlessly until she allowed him to mate with her. It brought a bunch of jokes and laughter from the group.

ps – The third picture is one of myself gripping a Rock Monitor that Graeme found during our vegetation surveys. They are related to (and resemble) komodo dragons.

pps – I think I am the only Philadelphia Flyers (let alone hockey) fan in all of South Africa.

1 comment:

  1. Happy Birthday. Your posts are great and the photographs are so exciting! Keep up the great work. We are enjoying every single post!