Sunday, January 24, 2010
Everybody is helping the ants project, which is Collin’s and Viktor’s. They are looking at the species of ants that live in little nodules, called domiciles, on branches of acacia trees. When you tap a branch the ants run out of the holes of the domiciles. Those are the defenders. The workers and larvae are in the nodules. If you crack a domicile open the workers right away start carrying the larvae to another domicile. Not all domiciles have the same number of larvae and workers. Is there any logic to it? Are the defenders concentrated in some strategic domiciles while the larvae are in the safer ones? Nobody knows and that’s (part of) Collin’s project. Viktor’s main focus is on visualization of a schematic tree and the information Collin and he gather about domiciles and the distribution of ants. Gathering that information is an extremely time consuming process. First they cut down one tree, instantly killing all the ants on it (using special gas). They measured the exact topology of each branch, counted the number of each type of ant in each domicile. Insane. They and Iain have tapped dozens of branches, letting the guard ants come out and sting them, enduring little stings for hours, to estimate the number and distribution of guards. They’ve opened hundreds of domiciles, estimating their contents. That’s what everybody has been helping them do the last day. Counting ants.
Qing, who is studying zebra stallion behavior, is downloading gigabytes of GPS data. Ann and XingLi are wrapping up their butterfly project, Maria and Jenni are done with mapping out weaver nests, and Sebastian is in the lab, trying to process for parasites all the dung he has collected (don’t ask).
At 8:30 am Dan, Mayank, and I set out for Mpala, carrying 25 GPS loggers, the same ones that were used to track the sheep. We are going to give them to Ol’ Pejeta so they can put them on scouts and trackers. Among many other things that Ol’ Pejeta is doing, is rhino conservation. There are numerous rhinos on its property and the number is growing, all brought in. Every rhino must be seen at most once every 3 days. Ol’ Pejeta has 23 trackers who patrol the preserve and find the rhinos. They are also acting as security for the preserve and protect the preserve’s extensive wildlife against poachers. Batian, the director of security for Ol’ Pejeta, wants to make sure the trackers are doing their job, that the entire preserve is covered, that there are no blind spots, and, possibly, to see if there is a pattern to rhino sighting. From tracking sheep to rhino conservation, not bad.
Almost as soon as we enter Ol’ Pejeta, we see a group of wild dogs. This is great, especially since they have just introduced wild dogs on the preserve only 2 days ago. As we ride, we wave “Good bye” to countless animals. Ol’ Pejeta is giving us quite a farewell.
After we come back to Mpala, we eat our late lunch and a group of us sets out to the Mpala school. People have brought little things for the kids (about 200 of them on Mpala), like stickers, etc. Rajmonda and I also have brought soccer balls. We arrive at the school and al the kids are assembled in the schoolyard, politely waiting for us. The headmaster introduces himself, directs the kids to welcome us, we say our hellos. Then we give out the four soccer balls. The kids (both boys and girls) instantly start playing in little groups. Our boys (Iain, Andrew, Albert, XingLi) join in. In the meantime, the headmaster explains about the school, tells me that he has only 6 teachers, shows us the tiny school, the sheets with kids’ marks and the handmade posters displayed on the walls. We also give out stickers to kids. Over the last couple of weeks, especially during the soccer games with Mpala staff, I have gotten used to seeing dozens of little hands trust out and the screaming “Me! Me!” whenever we give something out to kids. At the soccer matches we gave out bubble gum and I played little games (like high fives and tickling) with the kids, which earned our team a great cheering squad who could chant in unison “COMPBIO!” (I hope it doesn’t mean anything in Swahili). Every time we have to say “only one” and every time the kids are trying to get away with getting more than one of whatever it is we are giving out ☺ Here, at the school, the scene has been repeated again. By now I recognize the kids and I know which ones are likely to try for more then one and I watch for them. As soon as the kids get the stickers they start putting them on their faces. It’s very cute.
The school bus picks up the kids from the Mpala village (where the research centre staff live) and leaves the Mpala ranch kids (the school is at the ranch so they just walk home). We follow the school bus to the village. There I take a glass pitcher of hot water and a couple of capsules of foam animals. I show the capsules to all the kids now assembled around me on the ground in a circle. They are uncertain of what’s going to happen. I dump the capsules into the pitcher and hope that they are going to dissolve quickly. They do. And as the foam animals unfold, there is a collective “Ah!” from the kids. They love it. I pull out one animal. “Goat!” somebody yells. Yep. Another. “Sheep!” I put more capsules into the water. “Cow! Pig! Cock! Ducky! Horse!” They give me both the English and the Swahili names. They don’t recognize a turkey or a goose. No surprise.
We hurry back to the center to meet everybody else, to pack our beers into cars, and to go to a rock for our last sundown. Oreste, the mechanic shop director, and Julius, the head of Mpala security, join us. With a couple of hiccups we get there perfectly as the sun starts setting. It’s gorgeous. We drink, joke, take pictures, and are sad to leave. We come back for dinner and Dan tells us that he has arranged for Turkana (the tribe most of the staff are from, similar to Maasai) dancers to perform for us after dinner.
After dinner we clear the tables from the dining area and turn it into a stage. It’s dark. Before we see the dancers we hear their rhythmic singing. The procession, led by Anthony, a young man who works as an assistant on various research projects on Mpala, enters the dining area. The dancers are dressed in various combinations of traditional red and black wraps and T-shirts saying things like “Go Aggies!” or “Bob Marley”. First song is just a performance but from the next song on the dancers/singers pull us into the dance with them, nobody is left sitting. It’s a lot of fun. Julius (head of security), Patrick (another security guard), and Laurence (the head of the kitchen staff), who are all Turkana, join in, too. After they are done with the traditional dances, the performers ask if we can put on our music and dance our dances. We bring speakers, a couple of iPods, and we all dance anything from hip-hop to salsa for the next hour. We still need to pack.
After the dance, Josphat, the driver that took the bird and the sheep people every day, as well as helped out with the bird project, suggested a night game drive. We try to find a spotlight but after half an hour of futile searching we set out armed with the car’s headlights and our head flashlights. In two hours we see many many hares and dik dik. But also Genet cats, aardvark, and a group of 9 giraffes and some zebra, sleeping. We get back at midnight. I still haven’t packed.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
* Male nematodes have a curving tail but females do not
* It is very hard to get moths out of your computer's vents
* Lions have spots
* Sausage ants look like wasps
* Lions eat cheetah (if they can catch)
* Rocks can cut tires
* Hyena sounds like a pigeon on steroids
* Sheep have LOTS of ticks
* Africans can get sunburned (but not as much as everybody else)
* Plains zebra make a whiny barking sound
* When bargaining for a price of a trinket, offering a pen or a hat (as requested) does not bring the price down
* Everybody can live without a TV for 2.5 weeks
* Giraffes fight (viciously) by swinging their necks very slowly (you can work out the physics)
* Everybody likes gum
* Zebras are not domesticated because they are insanely aggressive towards each other
2. Have a driver who is not scared.
3. Stop the car and rev the engine for prolonged period of time to show dominance
4. Ignore female in back screaming "Drive! Drive! Why are we just standing here! It's coming! What are you doing!!?! Agggghhhhh!
5. Drive away only after elephant has lost interest in car and will not follow car as it drives away.
6. Tease female rest of day by asking her if she would like to visit the elephant again.
I am now an authority on moth wing flapping sounds.
Fortunately, Jenni had a pair of tweezers, which Maria used to pull the little beastie out of my head, with an immensely amplified crunch as the tweezers grabbed the moth. No loss of cognitive abilities, or superpowers gained, as of this morning.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
It was a fantastic drive from Mpala Ranch to Ol' Pejeta, cruising along at 40 km/h on dirt road and 60 km/h on brief stretches of tarmac. The Land Rover lived up to its reputation, sliding around the road admirably, with a very sticky 3rd gear. All around us, zebras and cattle and giraffes scurried out of the way.
We got to Ol' Pejeta and the guard recognized me from our previous daily excursions. We stopped at our customary location just past the gate to prepare for the day's data collection. People got on top of the car, zoom lenses were polished and poised, notebooks were set under fresh ballpoint pens...and the car refused to start.
It was interesting to note that just two days earlier, we had stopped about a hundred meters away to watch a group of three lions feast on a freshly hunted warthog.
We tried the ignition again. We cursed. We tried pushing the car in reverse. We tried pushing the car in first gear. We cursed some more. We looked at the engine. Nothing would start the car, and only curious gazelle passed us by.
It took about 3 hours for us to radio for help and the Ol' Pejeta mechanic to arrive. Turns out the fuel pump was clogged, some connections were loose, and there was no way in hell that we could have fixed it ourselves . The mechanic flushed out the fuel system of the 30 year old Land Rover with the retrofitted diesel engine, piece by piece, under the blazing sun, while my passengers and I got a little delirious under the sun. It was about 2:30 p.m. before we were on our way, which seemed to be a bit late for catching the zebras at their best.
On the plus side, we got a tip from Patrick at the visitor's center that a group of lions had just been spotted about 6 minutes away from where we were. We set off towards the beasties immediately, and would have completely missed them if Maria (sitting on the roof) hadn't spotted them. Four beautiful lionesses! Fortunately, a dirt track lead right up to them, and it was far enough off the main dirt track that tourist vehicles sped right by without seeing us. It was just us and the four lionesses.
My project involves zebras, and I have tons and tons of photographs of them. I'm almost starting to recognize them by stripes, and I sometimes see stripes when I close my eyes (a side effect of staring at them through a 300mm zoom lens for 6 days). It's fantastic to drive around the savannah, Tusker beer is quite nice, and the food at Mpala is very good. Giraffes are nice to look at, and brilliantly colored starlings steal food from our open-air breakfast every morning. We saw a pack of wild dogs hunting an impala the other day, and the visitor's center at Ol' Pejeta has a pet rhino called Max. Nothing, however, quite compares to staring at a lioness in the wild at five meters, sitting in a car that has just broken down a few hours ago.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
In the afternoon, I go out with Maria and Jenny (joined by Habiba and Monda for the day) to see their bird nest project. They are looking at different species of weaver birds and mapping out the configuration of their nests on trees to see if there is a distinction in the geometry by species. I correct a little geometry error in their measurements and am satisfied with my contribution. The driver who takes the girls to their site every day, Josef, teaches us some Swahili. “Watafiti mwenwazimu” means “Mad researchers”.
In the evening, it’s the Princeton Friday beer hour. The Jenga house (thank you Leslie Scott) is transformed again into a night club with a campfire. Dan wanted to make smores, so he has ordered marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers. What we got was colored marshmallow twists, Cadbury inedible inferior grade, and digestives. Close enough ☺ We were happy. Most people had smores for the first time in their life and beer help make it go down better.
Another exhausting, sunburned, amazing, exhilarating day.
In the meantime, I joined the sheep crew on Thursday. I watched Caitlin, Ipek, and Khairi put on the GPS collars on our very own herd of 19 sheep (with some lambs). Each sheep has a number painted in blue on each side, for easy counting. “One sheep, two sheep, three sheep…” Well, not counting but identifying each individual sheep so we know which GPS belongs to which individual and from day to day, which individual sheep interacts with which other. There are flies and ticks all over. The process goes much faster now, on the fifth day of data collection. On the first day, Monday, it was sheep wrestling, stressful, rechecking of whether GPS were turned on, realizing that the casing that comes with them is not rugged enough to withstand sheep wear. At one point there were 7 people on one sheep: two holding it down, two putting zip-ties on the GPS, one clipping the zip ties off, and two writing down the numbers. The boma (the area where the herders live and keep animals) women and children were standing in a group watching the whole process and laughing. It was funny, in retrospect.
But on Thursday things went smoothly: in under 15 minutes we are done. Then Ipek watches the sheep behavior, especially instances of leadership, Caitlin counts the grazing rate and samples the vegetation. The pin drop vegetation sampling goes as follows: Khairi drops a metal wire stick sticking into the ground, Caitlin counts the number of leaves and stems touching it, and I write it down. Sheep graze. It’s hot, the day goes slowly, nothing happens, we follow the sheep, observe, measure, wait. And then we see a group of about 20 giraffes on a slope in the distance. Two males are fighting by swinging their necks. It looks brutal. We cheer and then it’s noon: time to get back fro lunch, yeah!
The zebras are around a waterhole and there are also impala, Grant’s gazelles, warthogs, waterbuck, giraffes, ostrich. Further away there are rhinos, buffalo, baboons, …
We then started taking photos for Mayank’s project. Each zebra has to be photographed on each side. We keep a blank shot in between individuals to keep track of who is who. It is an exhausting process of driving around zebra (off road) trying to get them to turn both sides. Through all of this I sitting on top of a 4 ton Lan Rover in the narrow strip in between two pop tops, my legs over the opening of the front pop top, hanging on for my dear life, burning to a crisp (first serious sun burn in my life). Throughout the day we got about 2000 pictures of about 40 zebra total. We give them to Dan’s field assistant Rosemary for identification of individuals (for the test set for learning algorithm). She is amazing, taking about 15 seconds to pick out the individual from the photo when she knows it.
After we drop off the photos we go to the Serena Hotel, which used to be Adnan Khashoggi’s house. It’s an expansive place with a swimming pool, 12 feet in every direction bed, a bathroom bigger than some houses, a walk-in closet the size of my living room, and pulleys in the dining room ceiling. A canoe used to be suspended on those pulleys and women would be sitting in it covered with fruit during the dinner. It would be lowered for dessert.
We thank the very accommodating house keepers and go to the information center to see Baraka (means “Blessing”, just like “Barak” in Barak Obama), the blind black rhino held in an enclosure. He is one of the poaching orphans rescued by the conservancy. His horn is sawn off to prevent poaching. He comes up to the observation platform and the keeper gives him some sugarcane. We touch him, feed him. A 2 ton pet – amazing. Dan is impatient: “C’mon, guys, we need to get back before dark” But I want to feed Baraka and take a picture with the keeper (and his AK 47). So Dan walks to the car hoping we follow. We do, after the pictures. Dan is dishing it out: “You guys missed some jackals, a whole bunch”. I answer that between touching a rhino and seeing jackals, I am ok with missing the jackals (I have seen them before). “Ahhh,” says Dan, “but what if had missed some cheetahs?” “Then I would have been upset”. We pile back into the car and take off on the way home. Not five minutes later we see four cars standing on the road. Must be lions. No! Cheetahs! A momma with a baby. When we saw it, it was laying with the mommy, but then it got restless and started bouncing around. Mom got up an started walking away. He ran around, back and forth, play hunting andpouncing. Sat for a while, looked at us directly and then got restless again. It was fantastic! We try not to look too smug when we get back to Mpala but our poker faces don’t work.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
And then, around dusk, we drove right past it on an off-road trail.
The stimulus in the brain starts off as a mild reaction. "Oh, a lion," you think to yourself nonchalantly, while adjusting the wide-brimmed hat you bought at the airport. And then someone yells "Lion!", the car screeches to a halt, and a hard and heavy lump forms in your throat.
This one was about 5 meters away from us, casually walking along the side of the road, completely oblivious to our existence. It accidentally made eye contact with us, but it looked right through. Not an ounce of fear, not a shred of deference, not a smidgen of uncertainty in those eyes. It walked along the road with us, slinky like a ramp model, a deceptively tame beastie carrying giant chompers of death. Lesser mortals would have soiled themselves.
Monday, January 11, 2010
now i know what you're thinking - flat tire, okay. painted dogs, cool and unusual but it's Africa so it makes sense. ancient tools, also somewhat logical. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SHEEP??
the bulk of this course is spent working on small group projects. the goal is to facilitate interaction between computer scientists and biologists, and with our powers combined, solve some interesting problems (and be captain planet). the project i am working on involves looking at social networks in sheep, and hopefully discovering a way to predict who the key individuals in the network are using network properties and behavioral data. we have individually marked and collared all the sheep in our herd, and will be using a combo of video, direct observation and GPS data to answer our questions. our cs guys will help with visualization, network analysis and whatever else we might need.... so awesome!
with that basic project design in mind, we trooped out to the field to wrassle ourselves some sheep. we picked out 20 individuals from a large herd, and individually pinned, collared, described and photographed them before letting them free. man, was it a lot of work! i had never realized just how strong sheep are until i tried to hold one down. i was kneeling on the ground next to it, holding it tightly around its massively pregnant belly. the rest of the team was working on securely attaching the GPS units to its lanyard collar and everything was going smoothly. then mama sheep decided she didn't want to be held anymore, and, all of a sudden, i was on my back with a sheep on top of me! i kept my hold so that the others could finish their job. i sure looked ridiculous though - there were plenty of kenyans as well as people from our course standing around laughing at me! i was quite happy when we were done with the collaring and i could get up and dust myself off.
the afternoon also held some adventures. we decided to paint ID numbers on each sheep so that we could consistently identify them in the video footage. this involved dan making a paintbrush from a stick, working with the herders to retrieve all our sheep from the communal boma (corral), and then struggling to hold the sheep down while we painted them. question of the day - how many people does it take to paint one sheep? answer - 3 to hold, 2 to paint, and 25 to stand around and laugh at the silly foreigners painting sheep! in the meantime, we also learned the swahili words for the numbers 1 thru 20, and got to meet some cool locals.
quote of the day:
mama 1 - "papa 1, papa 1, do you copy?"
papa 1 - (silence)
mama 1 - "papa 1, papa 1, do you copy?"
papa 1 - (silence)
mama 1 - "papa 1, papa 1, we have a flat tire! DO YOU COPY?"
papa 1 - "there's an ostrich off to the left!"
mama 1 - "papa 1, we have a flat tire!!"
papa 1 - "does everyone see the ostrich?"
After having breakfast we have been informed that we will not do any field trips today, but have lectures and discuss about our projects. The whole morning, Tanya, Dan and Ian gave us really interesting lectures, afterwards we ate and then we sat at the table and each one of us proposed the projects we are interested in. We had a long constructive discussion that fueled us up for thirst of beer! At about 6.00 pm we want to Dan's house, the "Jenga" and the party began! We had beers, music and different kinds of chips! After some beers, the dance come so there was some salsa dancing and a lot of fun! It was a nice break that relaxed us all.
We went to bed at about 23.00 pm and after inspecting (as usual) the bed and the surroundings of the bed (scorpions and tarantulas can be found in these area) I laid into my bed that was covered by the mosquito net. Right about when I was ready to switch off the flashlight, I saw a black spot inside of the mosquito net exactly over my head. I focused to see what that was and I trembled of terror: It was a huge spider, that looked really really dangerous. After the experience with the wasp, I did not wanted to take any risks at all! I jumped out of the bed and thought of ways to kill the insect. In the meantime, because of my agitation, Alex (one of the Kenyan roommates) woke up and I explained him my tragic and dangerous situation! He immediately jumped out of the bed and helped me out! After a coordinated attack on the creature, we managed to take it out, so I finally could rest without worries! I double checked my head mosquito net and the bed before actually sleeping.
Today Dan wanted to drive us more north so we can see sheeps and cattails. The reason was to study the social behavior and the interaction between the different species. We drove almost 1 hour and we finally reached a ranch with some sheeps. On our way we saw elephants and a big group of giraffes - about 25. The shepherd was good and let us take some pictures of him and he also brought the herd closer so we can study it. Locals are really kind and friendly in these area. They are always willing to help and greet you with a big smile when they see you, even if they don't know you. After the sheeps, we went on a big rock and we climbed again and enjoyed the view from up. Andrew found the scull of a dead cow that was in pretty good condition and we took some nice pictures with it!
On our way back, we spotted a herd of camels and again we took some nice shots with the shepherd. The shepherd had a metal spear and he showed us how he throws it. In our way back we also saw Masai natives, that were really cool. They had huge piercings in their ears and their clothes were full of colors. We went back to the camp at around 2.00 pm to have lunch and while we were eating Julius (the head of security) came to inform us that some lions were spotted killing a camel. Dan and Tanya immediately recruited us and we buckled up in the next 20 minutes. Everyone was full of excitement about the opportunity to see lions. We drove about 30 minutes and even the sight of elephants, zebras and giraffes did not stopped us. We just wanted to get there as fast as possible. On our way, we saw about 10 vultures that informed us that we are getting close.
We arrived at the spot were some locals were expecting us. Tanya's car crew was relocated in a open truck that could penetrate into the vegetation. We immediately began the lion chase and after 3 minutes we spotted the dead camel that was surrounded of 1 male lion and 2 female lions. Everyone was so excited but as soon as the lions saw us they run away. Some of us had the opportunity to see them for 5 seconds, but unfortunately the most of us did not had that chance. Dan gave instructions to circle the lions so we can get them back, so our truck began a crazy drive into the wild. The driver was totally driving off-road and because the truck was open, branches with gimps were flying around our heads. Habiba had her shirt ripped and got hit in the shoulder by a branch. The other had small scratches but no one really cared! We were chasing the lions with passion and enthusiasm! We chased them for about 10 minutes with the only result to push them further away instead of getting them back to the camel.
When the lions were completely lost from our view of field, we returned to the camel and strategically positioned ourselves hoping that the lions will come back to the pray. Three other vans with Cornell undergrads joined us and we waited ... and waited ... and waited ... Dan gave us instructions not to go out of the van or speak and create noises, so our bodies were completely cramped! At some point the Cornell students spotted the lions behind a bush, but only one van of the 6 cars that were there was in the right angle to actually see them. We had to move the cars, but that scared the lions again so once more we had nothing... At about 7.00 pm we decided to leave, tired and disappointed but at least it was a cool experience! On the road, Tanya's car was stuck again in sandy area and we had to get out of the car and figure something out. Dan came, as always, waving us to do nothing so he can evaluate the situation. The van seemed completely stuck but then Dan jumped in front of the wheel! 20 years of field experience is enough for impossible to seem possible! With an acrobat's precision he drove the van out of the pit! Everyone cheered up and was happy and we could continue our way back.
We arrived at the camp at around 8.00 pm, being completely tired so we ate and hanged out for a while in the library to check e-mails and send updates to friends and relatives that we are still safe and sound.
While we were preparing for sleep, once more Khairi went to the bathroom to brush his teeth and came back pale white because there was a huge bug on the mirror and he did not noticed it. Frank (Kenyan student) took over to kill the bug, so Khairi went ahead to brush his teeth again.
Quotes of the day:
- "Dustin Dustin Dustin, this is Dan"
- "Dustin Dustin Dustin, do you copy?"
- "Are we waiting for the lions or are the lions waiting for us?"
- Maria is studying the spatial arrangement of weaver-bird nests in trees to see if there are preferences or characteristic behaviors within each species. From a computer science point of view, there are a bunch of problems here in vision and machine learning. For example, can the rough 3-D shape of the tree (just the trunk and main branches) be outlined from a series of photographs taken from different angles? Can the branching angles be estimated from photographs? For visualization people, can a 3-D model of the tree be reconstructed from these photographs? For machine learning, can the shape of the tree, the arrangement of the nests, and other ecological variables be used to correctly predict the species that lives in the tree?
- Iain, Jenni, Colin, Victor, and possibly some other people are working on ant colonies. They are going to take HD video of the colonies and track ants to study their behavior. Can the motion and interactions of the ants be used to automatically infer simple behavioral models for individual ants?
- Gazelle are not easily frightened away at night, even if you shine a bright flashlight into their eyes.
- Bull elephants are very dangerous, especially when you nearly drive into them.
- It is best to ignore the scratching, snarling, buzzing, breathing sounds at night.
- (Some) field biologists spend a lot of time poking into and graphically describing animal dung.
- (Some) computer scientists spend a lot of time complaining about insects.
- Watching a giraffe run is like watching slow-motion video.
- Going out into the field with biologists means that you can climb up and sit on top of the Land Rover as it goes off-road and into lion country.
- The local village football team consists of very fast runners, and they can kick a ball with devastating force (I have the tread marks on my thorax to prove this).
Sunday, January 10, 2010
So the first thing we did was test the GPS (iGotU) accuracy. We designed a few controlled experiments: a chain of 7 people walking in a file, holding hands (so cute) in a large circle, a chain of 7 walking in a straight line, making a step every 15 second (sooooooo boring), etc. Turns out the GPS SUCK! Big time! Though some of them may be ok. After being depressed about the complete failure of technology (the high def cameras are not charging the extended life battery I bought for them), we think that there may be some useful data after all. We shall see.
Mike, the Mpala ranch manager, said he would create a heard of 30 female sheep for us. Tomorrow morning at 8 am we will be at the boma (a local word for ‘corral’) collaring the sheep.
At 5pm today there was a soccer game between the Mpala staff and our students. We all drove to the ranch house (saw kudu, guinea fowl, dik dik, giraffes), piled out on the field and that was the first time our team got a ball and realized they had to play together. Mayank on the goal, Sebastian defense, Xing Li, Alison (a researcher here), Qing, on the offense. We scored a goal in the first 5 minutes!! It was magnificent. A beautiful play by almost the entire team, resulting in Alison’s delivery. Unfortunately, I was so engulfed watching the game that I forgot to take a video. Then we got creamed. Kenyan side had incredible runners! Mayank, our goalie, had a save ratio of about 5/6 (including taking one in the stomach) but we still lost at the end 8:2. We’ll try to get even next Sunday. We need a good name for the team. In the course of the game we went from “geek team” to “compbio” to just “team”.
While the game was going on there were giraffes in the distance on the slope, just munching on the leaves. Surreal.
Jenga house was donated by Leslie Scott, the inventor of Jenga. It’s absolute luxury: I have my own room with a real mosquito net, we have a kitchen, and, most importantly, A REAL BATHROOM INSIDE THE HOUSE! Yeah! (Last time I stayed in a banda with a bathroom-dark place full of insects-about 20 feet away from it, which was the favorite elephant hangout space). The house has a back porch and a gorgeous view but that (the view) is true for most places here.
So, last night we all piled into the Jenga house, with 50 beers brought in from Nanyuki (and some soda). We talked and laughed for about 1 and a half hour. CS and bio people even started talking to each other. We went to the dining hall for dinner but felt there was a lot more party left in us so after dinner Dan got speakers, we came back to Jenga, put on some salsa, and at least 5 of us started dancing. Honestly, cannot tell you what the others were doing but Sebastian, Maria, Monda, Jenni, and I had fun dancing. At some point Victor, Mayank, and Qing mustered their bravery and joined in, learning merenge (did pretty well, too!) Dan arranged for the electricity to stay on a bit longer until 10:30
We asked the driver how far ICIPE was. “35 kilometer, about an hour or an hour and a half: there is no traffic so should be fast.”
On the way to the ICIPE guest house, the driver took the scenic route: through the downtown. “Here is the parliament”. Nice. Then some women on the corner, working. Night clubs and businesses. Looks like the industrial part of Jerusalem, Talpiot.
We arrive at ICIPE and pass out in our somewhat dilapidated but quite adequate rooms .
Friday, January 8, 2010
But life in the field isn't all about frivolous games of poison-wasp.
Even after two days, the serenity of this field station is still stunning. As Iain puts it, it's one thing to see animals in a zoo, and it's entirely another to see them in the wild, going about their business (which is often wonderfully intelligent and complex). Especially with the very real threat of extreme personal danger, as a family of wild elephants decides to munch on the grass 30m away from the dining area every night.
We're still in the introductory part of this course, so we've been going out on extreme safaris twice a day - once in the morning and once in the evening. This generally involves hanging out of open-top Land Rovers (or minivans) speeding through dirt roads, in order to get a feel for the vegetation and wildlife on the massive Mpala Ranch.
Which brings me to lions. Just after lunch today, we got a radio message about a lion sighting. They had just killed a camel, so we set off to see these elusive beasties feeding on their prey. The plan was to come back by the evening and get on with Beer Hour, apparently a notable and worthy Princeton Biology tradition.
To cut a long story short, we got too close, too quickly, and with too many people. We found the corpse of the camel, with its hind literally eaten out. We heard the grunting and breathing of the lions, but alas, saw no lion. Which isn't really all that bad for day #2, considering all the animals we've seen so far.
After waiting several hours for the lions, we gave up and came back to the field station. By this time, however, the general level of fatigue meant that Beer Hour has now been postponed to tomorrow.
- Oh my God, this is a HUGE bug! I think it can stink badly!
Initially I thought he was joking around, but when an insect expert speaks, his words must be heard! The biologists started feeling uncomfortable, Mayank joined the scared group and the creature was flying like a predator, searching for his next victim. At some point the wasp fall on the ground and started circling around and everyone started chasing the wasp to kill it. Ian was in the head of the hunt, holding a sheet of carton to defend himself. He tried one of those japanese techniques, where you are supposed to kill the fly with a sword. Instead of a sword he was holding a paper carton and instead of a fly we had a poisonous wasp. Mayank tried to capture the creature by throwing a piece of paper on top of it and throwing coins on in it. The trick did not worked, so Ian came into play: He slashed the wasp with the piece of paper into pieces! "Yeahhhh!" The wasp was dead, we were all happy and we continued our our businesses peacefully! Everything was so calm and nice and after about 15 minutes, Jenny opens up the door:
- Hey guys, there is a wasp outside.
Before finishing the sentence, the wasp evaded into the room, seeking revenge for it's BFF.
There was a moment of silence...
And then panic came! Everyone - even the biologists - were running around the room, while the wasp was gazing at the next victim. While the wasp was chasing us, it got caught in Tanya's hair, who went completely crazy - and she was absolutely right - and started shouting, screaming and running away. The wasp was still stuck there, so in her panic, she grabbed the wasp with her bare hands and throw it on the floor. Without any thought, Mayank took over, throwing a book on top of the wasp and Ian followed by punching, and hitting the book. It was a coordinated attempt in a complete anarchy, but it had a big success! The wasp was dead and Tanya was trying to calm down. After she calmed down and the adrenaline stopped pumping in her veins, she realized she was bitten by that creature! Her hand started swelling and we put some cortisone on it. Tanya did not know if she was allergic and Ian did not know how poisonous and dangerous the wasp was. Caitlin was googling and giving information about the side-effects of the bite and what Tanya should do, while Jenny went to wake up Dan. Eventually Tanya's hand was swollen - A LOT - and we all went to bed. I double checked that night my bed for insects, wore my head mosquito net and fall immediately asleep.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Day 2 started at 7.30 am. We had a quick breakfast and left at 8.30 am. The trip to Mpala took us about 5 hours and while on the trip we saw no animals.
After we arrived we ate lunch and Tanya with Dan took us out with the cars for a quick overview of the area. We saw for the first time in Mpala and for me in my life hippos, elephants, giraffes and zebras! The ride was full of excitement and you could hear the whole time "woaw"-ings.
The night was the first night in here and after Tanya told me some nice stories about scorpions, spiders and insects, I went into my bed full of excitement. I maked sure my mosquito net was put and after that I took out my "special" mosquito net that I bought for my head! Super-fine and super-safe! The nets did their jobs well, I slept like a baby :p
Highlight of the day: Wasps killing a tarantula and carrying it in front of our eyes!!! The biologists were in a total nirvana, pulling their hear and I was kind of not so excited seeing a tarantula and huge insects at the same place!
- Papa one, we just saw a huge hippo.
- We are gonna - HOLY SHIT - chase him !
We arrived at Clifford just before dusk and Dan together with a local guy took us into a small hike up the Clifford rock. The hike was gradually converted into a rock climbing and after some effort we reached the top of the Clifford. The view there was amazing and we took some nice pictures. During the descend, we met a 13 old child, named James. The girls loved him and were talking with him all the way down, so I thought that he is the right age to start becoming a "player". I proposed him to go tomorrow to the school and kiss the girl that he likes! The girls went completely crazy, telling him not to do that, but I think I changed his perspective of life with my advise. Will see.
We went back at the camp at 7.00 pm, ate dinner and we were expecting another 10 minute break and then lecture again and we felt so relieved when we were informed that we are free! I went for a shower, had an encounter with a huge wasp and then while I was relaxing in my bed, Khairi went in pale white, shouting that there is a huge bug in the toilet! He took our other roommate, Alex, to exterminate the bug and after 3 minutes Alex came back with a smile on his face. What Alex did not see and I did, was that the wasp followed him into the room. I shouted to him to look back and kill the flying object, he began spraying it and the insect went completely mad and started chasing him. Alex started shouting and spraying everything, I was ready to wear my mosquito net into my head and waited for the predator with my slippers on the hand. Eventually Alex managed to flank the creature with his shoe. Another adventure with a happy ending :)
The reason I am in Kenya right now, is a course named Computational Biology offered by University of Illinois at Chicago in collaboration with Princeton University and instructed by Tanya Berger-Wolf (UIC), Dan Rubenstein (Princeton) and Iain Couzin (Princeton). 5 Computer Science students from UIC and 11 Biology students from Princeton University are attending. We will spend most of the time at the Mpala Nature Conservancy studying animals and plants. The objective of this course for the CS students is to learn how to effectively collect data from a live environment (install and test the hardware, minimize the noise, etc.) and later on analyze and create a useful application that biologists can use. Also we will learn to write algorithm that describe populations and social behavior of animals.
Let's get back to the trip now.
I left Athens yesterday, January 4 at 12.55PM with Qatar Airways. The flight had a 14 hours layover in Doha, capital of Qatar, so I also had the chance to visit Doha for some hours. In Doha, I met with Khairi Reda and we went to eat traditional Arabic food, but unfortunately I had no camera with me. When I 'll get the photos from Khairi, I will post them here.
We arrived in Nairobi on January 5 at 1.20PM. The Princeton group was arriving two hours after us, with the Emirates flight, so we chilled at the unique cafeteria the Airport had. We waited for the Princeton guys for one hour, trying to make sure we won't miss them. The problem was that we had no phones or contact information for any of them, so we were concerned that if we miss them we are stuck at the airport. Except from Dan, we knew the other guys only from photos - that looked like prison photos - but fortunately we identified Dan and joined the group. Tanya and the rest were arriving at 9.00 pm so we went at a research center located at Nairobi to rest for the day.
The research center was about 30 minutes away from the airport, but because of the traffic jam, it took us about two hours. There were moments when the pedestrians were literally walking faster than us, so we had a good opportunity to take a lot of pictures.
The city of Nairobi seems quite dangerous. Maybe it was because we did not went into the center, but the route we followed was awkward. Most of the houses seemed old and shabby and there were houses build of aluminium foils or woods. People seemed poor and tired, but friendly and light-hearted. The arrival at the research center acknowledged the fact that outside was dangerous, because it was circled by a huge brick wall with gimped fence on the top. At the entrance guards with guns were guarding. Inside the center, a new world arose. Everything was clean and neat and all the buildings were nice. It was like I was in a 4 star hotel with really nice gardens. The best thing that happened that day, was the super fast free internet access! We went to sleep quite early cause the next day we had a long way to the Mpala Research Center.
P.S.: The internet connection at MRC is really slow, so I cannot upload photos now. I will do it as soon as I get a stable internet connection.
just the highlights for the moment.
1) dan. we got lucky today - two amazing dan moments! the first was when we stopped for an hour to watch several zebra harem groups. it was amazing to see these beautiful equids up close and personal, particularly with a resident zebra expert along to help show us novices what was going on behavior-wise. dan gave a great mini lecture about zebra social structure, which included identifying for us which individuals were stallions. how do you tell a stallion apart from his females? easy, dan taught us: look for the lunchpack its got between its legs! (iain's commentary: "that's not a male, it's got no nuts!")
dan's second highlight moment came when we drove along the road to some long-term exclosure plots. the barriers around these ranged from multi-layered fences to control plots to the oh-so-technical wire plus dingle-dangle set-up. the latter were set up to exclude elephants and giraffes but allow zebra and/or cattle into the plots. key to note about these exclosures - the top and bottom wires are charged, and can give the unwary visitor a nasty and, according to dan, memorable shock. despite our needling, dan refused to demonstrate the power of electricity on the first set of fences. we moved on to the dingle-dangle section after making a 37-point turn to avoid the black cotton soil, and dan bustled us out of the cars to talk about the exclosure. being careful to avoid the bottom trip wire, he grabbed ahold of the dingle-dangle......... "ouch!" and a quick jump backwards, followed by a rueful grin - apparently the soil underfoot was moist enough to transmit the current!
2) the renegade vehicle. here's what you've got to know about our trusty dusty somewhat musty vehicles - papa 1 (driven by dan) is a 4x4 with a pop-top roof; mama 2 (driven by tania) is a white minivan, also with a pop-top roof, that has a penchant to slide off the road into mud/lose its doors, etc etc; and papa 2/"shittest vehicle" (driven by iain) is a 4x4 with no pop-top and back windows that don't open. papa 2 is always trailing behind the others, stopping to look in vain for wildlife that we miss by being at the back of the pack. the general deal is that papa 1 stops at the animal, mama 1 stops with a semi-obscured view of it, and papa 2 gets stuck looking at some acacia brush. so today, we decided to take matters into our own hands when zen-master andrew spotted a hippo on the wrong side of a crossroads. by virtue of being the caboose, we threw the car in reverse and opted for the road less traveled - the side of the crossroad with the adult hippo and no radio contact with the other cars. as a result, we got to see the hippo up close and personal as it ran across the road only a few feet from our car! we subsequently made lengthy stops for a herd of mama elephants and their calfs, a juvenile tawny eagle, a baboon troop, a solitary giraffe, and a gorgeously sunlit pile of rocks. it turned out to be quite a successful strategy - spend lots of time admiring the wildlife and snapping photos, spend minimal time driving at high speeds along bumpy pot-holed dirt tracks, trying to catch up with mama 1 and papa 1 (whose radio broadcasts got increasingly irritated)!
3) how scared the computer scientists are of bugs. we're sitting in the library/computer room at the moment and there's a wasp flying around. the four biologists are sitting nonchalantly at their computers, working away. the four computer scientists alternate between discussing ad hoc networks, utm coordinates, and the importation of csv data points; and running away screaming (literally!) from a wasp that's flying around the room. every few minutes the wasp will come near one of them and there will be a flurry of agitation and fear as they leap around and discuss whether or not the wasp is likely to sting/bite/kill them if they stay on a particular side of the room. it's pretty hilarious.
over and out from here! gotta love africa - so nice to be in the sunshine rather than the brutual cold of either princeton of chigaco....
I came to my bed to find an old insect friend waiting for me. I had thought I left her in Guatemala where we shared a bed. My head on my pillow, her head on my head. However, she followed me here and even managed to find her way under my mosquito net, which impressed me. I got rid of her, but then she sent her friends after me the next day who ambushed me from the ceiling in the bathroom as I tinkled. After screaming, jumping around, stripping down and shaking my clothes trying to get them out of wherever they had fallen between my legs, I noticed my friend in the toilet sitting smugly in the water. I tried to flush her down but she wouldn't have it. Eventually, I felt guilty and I got her out with a stick. I draw the line at sticking my hand in the toilet bowl. Especially for her. Maybe if it were someone important to me, like my boyfriend or my mother, but not my insect frenemy.
Anyway, there's really no point to all this except that out here I guess size matters. If you're a big elephant, you get your way. If you're a little roach visiting from Guatemala you get your way. But I'm just middle-sized so I'm flippin burgers for to these little bastards giving it to them their way. But this place is amazing, so I don't mind. I'm having way more fun than I thought I would.
Monday, January 4, 2010
Over the next three weeks, we will be working with biologists in the middle of the Mpala ranch, but for now, I have a day to spend in Nairobi. My immediate impression is that it's almost effortlessly green everywhere, although this is probably because of the rain. Traffic moves along quickly into town until we hit congestion, and stop for twenty minutes. To my disappointment, traffic vendors walk past and don't try to sell me anything, possibly because I was sitting in a beaten up relic, surrounded in traffic by shiny and expensive late-model Toyotas.
The hotel is located in a commercial district opposite the Israeli Embassy. This apparently makes it one of the safest places in Nairobi, but there isn't much to do or see. It was with some difficulty that I managed to find a piping hot beef samosa and a cold Sprite for 80 shillings (about $1).
Tomorrow, I'm off to meet the rest of the group at the Duduville guest house at ICIPE.