The recorded ramblings of an unschooled writer, aspiring biologist, amateur equestrian, ardent bookworm, avid music appreciator, increasingly addicted runner and college student spending the summer in Ely, MN.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Zebra watching and hyena talking...

November 12, 2009

Its not even lunchtime yet and already today has been excellent. Kai and I spent our first morning doing zebra research! Our methods of collecting the data must look pretty funny when viewed from an outside perspective. One of us picks out a specific zebra in the herd and yells out “Head up!”, “Head down!”, “Chasing!”, “Displaced!”, “Nursing!” or “Grooming!” anytime one of these activities happens and the other runs a stopwatch for five minutes while writing down the times each of these activities start to occur, so that later we will be able to calculate the cumulative average time spent performing each of these activities for mares, stallions and foals and also for zebras in herds of different sizes.

The main question we want to answer is: Does the amount of time spent maintaining dominance hierarchies differ between zebras in large herds and zebras in small herds? We think that zebras in large herds will likely spend more of their time interacting with one another simply because there are more individuals among which an order must be maintained.

It is advantageous for zebras to be in larger groups because it reduces the risk of predation for each individual which means that each zebra can spend more time grazing and less time looking around for things that might leap out of the bush and eat it! We are recording “Head up” (non grazing) and “Head down” (grazing) time to see if at some point a larger group actually decreases grazing time instead of increasing it.

It was really fun to head out in the truck with Mwalimu Ken as our driver and one of the camp Maasai as a guide. It took awhile to find a place where the Maasai weren’t out with lots of cattle and pushing away the zebras, but after a while we were able to find it and the real work could begin. Strange as it may sound, I LOVE staring at zebras for hours on end and am now even more sure that field bio is the way to go, career wise! The sky started to dump buckets again, so we headed back to pick up poor Sam and Miles who were out examining ants on whistling acacia and headed back to camp for a bit. However, we will be headed out again after lunch in order to watch more zebras and I’m super excited!

Camp is much more quiet, still, without the GC students, but life goes on its usual amusing ways.
1. This morning, Kim walked up to Douglas and started singing the song “I Believe I Can Fly”. Douglas, an avid birder and native Tanzanian said to her in reply “Why do you think that if you don’t have any wings?” She was undeterred and continued singing until he suggested if she really believed that, why didn’t she climb to the tall rocks, spread her wings and jump!
2. Rachel and I continue to function as Kai’s alarm clock. She unzips his tent and says very sweetly and quietly “Kai, its time to get up!”, whereas I kick the side of it and recite irritating rhymes or lyrics from showtunes.
3. Rachel and I continue to wrangle beetles and bees out of our tent. I am the best beetle catcher, able to pick them up with my fingers without crushing them and she is a far superior bee chaser, able to shoo them away with just a composition notebook for a tool.
4. Our Maasai guide kept inexplicably getting out of the Land Rover and slamming the door, frightening our zebras away!

Sadly enough, I get excellent cell reception here, but due to the fact that I wasn’t able to buy minutes in Arusha have no way to let my family know that I “probably don’t have reception in Oldonyo Sambu”, but rather have excellent reception! I want to tell them all about how cool watching zebras is and how much I love this whole science thing after all.

I just wish I could figure out some sort of field biology career that involves horses. There has to be somewhere remote in the world where the best way to observe your study creatures is from the back of a horse, doesn’t there? Because if I could ride around all day, watch creatures in their natural environment, do experiments, take tons of notes on it, write up big papers about everything and travel back to civilization every now and again for human company, internet access and smoothies, I’d be as happy as a zebra in a field of green grass free of lions!

I wish you all could be here and see how amazing this is! Since the rains have started, its like a different world out here! The bush is teeming with life of all shapes and sizes and I’m right in the middle of it!


PS Evening update: Didn’t go out in the afternoon again because it was raining so hard that all of the zebras would have been hunkered down in the brush and hard to see. I worked really hard on organizing my hyena notes instead and even ended up giving my presentation this evening. Rachel helped me out by letting me practice it for her in our tent (which was hilarious because I kept getting nervous and starting over and then realizing I’d forgotten a note card or had them out of order, or something equally ridiculous) and then listening to the whole thing over again only a few hours later. I think it went pretty well, though I did say “um” a few more times than I would have liked and I’m not really sure if I had the right content or not because I was the first one to give my vertebrate presentation. I won’t bore you with all the hyena notes right now, but if you’re curious I’d love to talk about them more when I get home! They are absolutely amazing creatures and are my personal favorite safari animal!

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