Tuesday, January 24, 2012

More quotes

“Lets go to see the fish that eats those lamb chops!”
Doug, one of the scientists here who studies river ecosystems, collected lamb chop remains the previous evening to use as bait for the fish. In the morning we all piled up to see if he caught something. He did.

“Watch out for the monkeys on the road.”
Tons of vervet monkeys running around. A particularly interesting case of sexual dimorphism

“Why is the hippo bobbing up and down in the water?”
‘Cause he is making more hippos.

Islam: “I haven’t used that software, I only looked at the code”

“When you hit the tall grass on the soccer field – it’s nasty”
Our course went to visit another course: undergrads from Cornell, living at the riverside campside (it’s very cushy, with platformed tents and electricity and everything). We played a game of soccer (we won) on a grassy field full of patches of tall grass and ground squirrel holes.

“Why don’t the bushbabies come out? It’s time already!”
While visiting Cornell course at the riverside camp, we waited for the bushbabies to come out in the dusk. They did eventually. Their eyes light up like huge orange saucers in the light of a flashlight. And they move so fast around the tree!

“This line is to look at the midges under the microscope, the food line is the other one.”
Still at Cornell. One of the faculty (an entomologist) from Cornell set up a microscope with midges (the same ones that infest the acacia trees, the same ones that one of the projects was studying) next to the food line.

Dan: “You step on all dung you measure: if it’s green it’s two days old, if its soft it’s a week old, after that you don’t care. Spread your arms out, make a daisy chain (hold each other by hand) - that’s 4 meters. Then go through and count the dung.”
Explaining how to measure animal activity through dung (for the boma project)

Molly: “I think it would be hard to get the midge out of the cage without squishing it”

Tires are always flat because of the acacia tree thorns. And so are soccer balls

“Need to fly early in the morning, otherwise it’s too windy and hence bumpy.”
But we did fly! It was out of this world AMAZING. We hooked up Macho Ya Mungu rig to the struts of a microlite airplane (smaller than Cessna) and flew over Mpala. 3D acacias! 3D zebras, giraffes and impala! 3D life from above!

Moth in the hand soap.

Dust everywhere. Everywhere. EVERYWHERE. And so are the ants.

Wild dogs in the morning, giraffes in the evening.

Impala on the road. Every evening. Jumping gracefully.

Bruises on the butt from sitting on top of the car (on the roof) while it’s bouncing over the barely existing roads.

Too many zebras (plains, not Grevy’s)

The camera clicks are too loud and too numerous to enjoy the animals properly.

The rubber boots are too thin to protect against acacia thorns.

Group hug after mapping out the trees. Mapping the trees is hard.

Jason: “I could wash dishes to pay for my stay on Mpala”
Jason and I think that there are still many critical things that need to be done for the projects that require us to extend our stay here. We are writing a letter to our dean and department head.

[Alessandro] Last days in Kenya.

Our Kenya trip is sadly coming to a closing. Today the Princeton students leave, while the UIC troopers will leave tomorrow. The fact that this makes me feel sad is indicative of how great this experience has been.

On sunday we went up to the village for a soccer game and to distribute some candies and little gifts we had for the children. They literally went crazy and almost assaulted us at the first sight of bubble gums, but thanks to the help of the mothers we managed to have a fair distribution! The women collective was selling hand crafted items, so we also got to do some shopping, and we played with the kids while watching the soccer game. Interacting with them was extremely rewarding.

Giving out candies to the kids.

Marco tossing a little girl in the air!

In other news, some of us went out on a game drive with Matt last night. We were so lucky to see a couple of animals that apparently are some of the rarest spots around here: one aardvark running through the grass and a couple of almighty honey badgers on our way back to the research centre!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

[Alessandro] Hyena puppies and wild dogs.

Yesterday, a group of us spent the day at Ol Pejeta Wildlife Conservancy (the rest of us went there on Tuesday.) We didn't get to see any big cats, but we were lucky enough to see a pretty big group of adorable hyena puppies!

Hyena Puppies at Ol Pejeta. In the background, a warthog and some gazelles.

This morning, we all went out to the highest point in the Mpala ranch, in order to spot some wild dogs. We indeed saw several dogs, and when we got the the summit after a very pleasant hike, the panorama was breathtaking...

Panorama from the highest point in the Mpala ranch.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Macho Ya Mungu

Tanya and I spent the afternoon on Monday building a hyper stereo rig which consisted of two inverted tripods with HD video cameras on each end. We asked the Kenyan students for help in naming it and eventually settled on Macho Ya Mungu - the eyes of god (not too grandiose :)

We took it out to Ol Pejeta the following day to test it out. Below are two cross-eye stereo snapshots of the videos. The subjects in the photos were over 50 feet away so the hyper stereo helped place them in depth. Partial zoom was used to bring the subjects close enough to see. Unfortunately of course that tends to flatten out the subjects so they look like cardboard cutouts in 3D.

[Alessandro] Sunset game drive.

A few of us (Emma, Jacob, and myself) went out on a drive with Rob yesterday before dinner. The light at that time of the day is simply beautiful, and when the sun starts setting nature displays its best. We ran into a group of zebras and gazelles watching out for two spotted hyenas nearby. It was interesting to see how calm the herbivores were once they were aware of the presence of the hyenas, who couldn't count on the surprise factor. Here's one of the hyenas.

Spotted hyena at sunset.

On the way back to the Research Centre, we drove by a giraffe. Little did the giraffe know that Rob was going to run out of the car and after the poor animal!

Action shot: Rob chasing a giraffe.

Sausage Fly

This is the sausage fly:

(I didn't have a decent picture, so I stole one from the internet)

According to Wikipedia, it is the male of the army ant genus Dorylus, and its large abdomen is bloated with sperm. According to most people here, it is the queen, and its abdomen is bloated with eggs (and also sperm, hopefully). Either way, there seems to be agreement that these are the largest individuals in any ant species.

Tanya claims to be deathly allergic to them; many others are deathly grossed out.

According to local entomologist folklore, these queens seek out a new location to start a new colony. According to Wikipedia, these males seek out a colony with virgin queens; when they find one, their wings are cut off (by themselves or by worker ants), they impregnate the queen, and then their life is over. A remarkable case of convergent evolution with humans.

When the time is right (which seems to be now, to Tanya's chagrin), all sausage flies leave their colony for the nuptial flight, to found or fertilize (depending on whom you are listening to) another colony.

Of course, Islam knows how to deal with these apostates:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ants everywhere

A poem for the day. ☜ click this

Every morning I wake up to find ants crawling all over my pillow and sheets. Which is actually a step up from sleeping in Chicago.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Smile for the camera !

A happy camel coming back home to the Boma after some good grazing.

Sports of Kenya: Birdball

  • 1 human
  • 1 bird

  • 1 bat, broom, or other swiping implement
  • 1 bird

The start of the game is signaled when the bird flies into your room and shits on your desk. This may be done in the absence of the human player; in that case, the first step upon discovery of the bird poop is to look for the bird. It is customary for the bird to be flying around near the roof, or perching on a support beam.

Once the presence of the bird is ascertained, the human player should procure an adequate swiping implement, possibly a broom or a long stick; this is referred to as the "bat". It is helpful for the bat to have a large head, as is the case with brooms.

In this asymmetric game, the bird's goal is to fly around the room for as long as possible; the bird player accrues points as time goes by, and may gain a bonus score by pooping everywhere. The human's goal is to drive the bird out of the room.

The game action plays out as follows: the bird flies around in circles close to the roof, while the human attempts to whack it with the bat. The game ends when the bird is driven out, at which point the human player gains twice as many points as the bird has accumulated so far, thus winning the game.

Take that, bird.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

[Alessandro] Love is in the air.

While taking samples along a transect on the black cotton soil, we spotted this couple of stick-bugs having some fun.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

[Tanya] Quotes of the day

Tanya: "I dropped the hard drive"

Jillian: "What matters: on the way there it's the equipment, on the way back it's the data"

Iain: "Proper fieldwork is too hard"

And the day ended with two sightings of cheetah and a leopard

Lion hunting at night

[Alessandro] Look at that acacia!

It's official: Acacia Mellifera is the nastiest tree in the world. Not only it has humongous thorns to scare off big herbivores; it also has tiny hook-shaped thorns all over its small outreaching branches. It's impossible not to get your clothes or hat caught in and your skin scratched when passing by.

Anyways, yesterday was a good day for the BOMA team. Lab processing in the morning and work at the new black cotton boma in the afternoon, along with the Virtual Mpala folks, who took pics, videos, and interviewed us!

Team BOMA FTW! (From left: Henry, Emma, Adam, Clara, Me, Jacob, Josephet, Islam)

Amber forming on a dead acacia tree.

[Tanya] Notes and notable sayings

- Characteristic sunburn of working on a laptop in the middle of Africa: from the wrists down the hands
- You have to attach bright tape to camera trap keys, in case you drop them into the grass
- You should take doxycycline (antibiotic which works to prevent malaria, Q-fever, anthrax, etc.) in the evening: otherwise you may get so sun sensitive that in 10 minutes flat you will get sun stroke.
- You must cover your computer when leaving it to charge at night so you don’t get insects inside it
- Keep the car engine running while putting on camera traps, in case the elephants fighting near by decide to turn their attention to you
- Between a statistically optimal experiment design and nature, nature always wins
- What looks like fungus on acacia trees is actually midges
- When you break a euphorb it has “milk” which quickly becomes sticky. It is poisonous and will give diarrhea from just three drops
- Something around here smells like a skunk but there are no skunks in Africa. Haven’t met anybody yet who knows what it is
- Don’t touch your eyes if you have touched a Nairobi fly: the eye will swell shut

“There is a moth in my coffee.”

Catherine: “Tanya, don’t move your feet: my praying mantis is on your pants”

Islam: “These impala are too close to photograph”

Dan, while driving through Ol’Pejeta conservancy with Jason, Islam, Emma, and Tanya (me) on the roof and waterbuck, impala, Grant’s gazelles, warthog, and zebra all around: “What is everybody doing?”
Tanya: “Taking pictures”
Dan: “I mean the animals. See? The waterbuck are ruminating”

Islam, while trying to figure out why a computer on Ol’ Pejeta is so slow: “I am going to delete all the videos, but not the personal ones.”

“We couldn’t get enough camera traps up because the elephants where fighting”

Alessandro: "I can't do this transect straight, there are too many melliferas there"

"Is this fence electrified? Let's check!"

Victor: "Go around the ant trail, your shadow is in the camera view!"

Iain: "Lets paint ants' antennae and eyes and see what happens"

Friday, January 13, 2012


Another beautiful morning out here, and a very tasty omelet. I will be hard to go back to my normal vegetarian eating .. actually it will be just hard to go back :)  Here is my other bird friend.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Friendly birds here !

The most colorful birds seem to be the most friendliest birds.

[Alessandro] Field work continues.

Red soil, black cotton, old glades, new bomas. Field work is going on at full thrust. It's a nice feeling to leave for the site after breakfast wishing everybody a good morning of work, and to reconvene for lunch and relax sharing what we have seen and done. Then off again for the afternoon! Driving to the site always means seeing some animals around. Yesterday I tried to photograph a nearby giraffe while riding on the roof of the van. It was quite bumpy, but I was still able to get something. Thanks giraffes for being so tall.

While collecting bugs along one of the transect in a "herbivore exclosure", Jacob and I ran into the same kind of spider Ruthie has posted a photo of. Here's our take.

And yesterday two close-to-zero-probabilty events happened. First, Jacob found Adam's Sharpie that I had lost in the morning right in the middle of a tall-grass area. Second, I found the master key to all the locks of the camera traps that apparently had fallen under a tree while setting one up. I believe a black hole was generated right there.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Drive through...

In Kenya, you cannot find MCDonald's... however, you can still drive through a column of elephants driving a soccer mom minivan...!!!

A few pictures from the first few days at Mpala

Some of Catherine's Harvester Ants

Nephila Spider with her Orb in an Acacia Drepanolobium

Yawning Hippo!

Moonrise at Jenga House

Camillo with our prime specimen
After hours of media work, I am ready for some nice Mpala vegetarian food !

[Tanya] The projects have started

Yesterday (Monday) the projects have started in earnest. We have 4 so far:
Glades - various aspects of the glades (grass patch, typically created by previous livestock grazing sites) habitat;
Ants - looking at the harvester ant colonies;
Fungi - acacia fungi;
and Virtual Mpala - creating a 3D virtual replica of Mpala.

All project have many facets to them and will have a few sub projects.Everybody is pretty excited, few (if any) complaints about the heat, ticks, setbacks

I went with the fungi project. Team members are: Ruthie, Molly, Jillian, Marco, Chayant. And when I say "I went" I mean I drove the team. Driving the minivan (2 rear wheel drive, bouncy suspension, no power) brings back memories, ahhhh.... Anyway, I digress. In the morning, we went to one of the locations where yesterday (or was the day before?) we saw a good number of infested trees (never saw anybody being so excited about tree infestation as Ruthie was). Found a good 40m by 40m patch. Hurray! The team started to map out the trees and the distances between them, using a never-before-seen combination of measuring tape, range finder, and an iPad app. Yep. You want to map out the acacia trees in Africa? We've got an app for that.

In the afternoon we returned with an addition of Jason, who came to keep an eye on the virtual Mpala project, part of which is to take pictures of every other project (a bit recursive here, isn't it? So should they take pictures of themselves, too?). Jason and I were immediately put to work tagging the trees. Which means writing a number on a piece of orange tape attached to a 4 inch zip tie, then putting the tag on an extremely spiky tree full of biting ants. Yes, a full professor (Jason) and an associate professor (I) in computer science were deliberately getting their hands scratched, bitten and pricked while collecting an army of ticks on their legs and miraculously avoiding all the poisonous snakes, all in the name of science. 108 trees tagged! One hundred and eight! Watafiti mwendawazimu ("crazy scientists" in Swahili). Turns out, we may have suffered for naught: the ants attack anything put on their precious trees and will probably cut off the tags within a day or two. I feel like this was a big practical joke that biologists played on computer scientists :)

While at dinner, we got a word of a lion in the area. Everybody has abandoned the food and piled up into three cars, standing room only. We drove bumping in the dark for about 20minutes but as expected, the lions did not wait. We circled the area but with all of us loud and smelly, we did not see them. Most people went home though some went on a night game ride.

[Alessandro] Field work!

Yesterday we began field work for the main three projects we will be working on. It was a whole new experience for me, being out there and collecting samples, evaluating strategies, struggling with the hard life of a field ecologist. But it is so rewarding to work with great people in such a marvelous landscape!

Also in the news: close encounter with hyenas on the way to my room, and night game drive on the big landing strip.

Adam, pass me that root-to-shoot.

Virtual Mpala

First trials of image capture for the Virtual Mpala project began today. Goal is to capture 3D stills, 3D panoramas, and 3D HD videos to be able to create a virtual tour of Mpala and the three course projects.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

My major discovery at Mpala

[Alessandro] Day 3 at Mpala.

I woke up early this morning to see the sunrise, and it was totally worth it. Seeing the sun coming up over the African landscape and just on the side of Mount Kenya was utterly beautiful. After breakfast, we all went up to the northern part of the Mpala reserve. We climbed a huge black Cambrian rock and got a breathtaking view of the plains spreading to the North. Afterwards, we visited a number of glades, and got to see more of the amazing creatures that populate this land.

Right past lunchtime, Catherine (PhD student from Princeton) finally joined us! Some of us drove out again in the afternoon looking for ants stuff, while others, me included, went on talking about projects and chilled out playing some frisbee. I also went on a run! Fun fact: while passing by the local village headed to the landing strip, I got caught up watching kids playing soccer and ran into the electric fence meant to keep the elephants out the research center area. While it was not the most pleasant thing for me -- the thing keeps out ELEPHANTS -- the kids found the scene pretty amusing. Anyway, four of them joined me running on the landing strip, someone being very talkative and someone relatively shy. It was great to meet and interact with them.

At sunset, the tenants of the Jenga House (i.e. our faculties) invited us over for a few beers and sodas on their veranda. "I can easily get used to this" was the most appropriate comment I heard.

The sun rises at Mpala Research Center. The outline of Mount Kenya is visible on the right.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

[Victor] Mpala Revisited!

While it has only been only two years, the excitement of getting here is even bigger than the first time! Weather has been awesome so far and we have seen all the big and small animals: Zebras, Elephants, Giraffes, Hippos, Impalas, etc. Familiar faces everywhere and the food is even more awesome than the last time! The center is now surrounded by a "live" wire so no more elephants during the night :(

Greatest moment so far: The realization that there are around 90% less moths, insects, etc. during the night!!!!

[Alessandro] First news from Mpala!

For someone, the journey didn't actually kick off in the best way. Three of us (Marco, Camillo, and myself) got delayed in Milan and didn't make it to London in time for the connecting flight to Nairobi. Luckily enough, we were put on a nighttime flight, so yesterday we were able to make it to Kenya in time for being transfered to Mpala. From that point on, nothing but awesomeness.

Waiting for us at the Research Center was a delicious and generous late lunch, which gave us the strength to overcome our jetlag and be ready for the first tour of the reserve. We went off on two vehicles, crowding the roofs with our cameras and binoculars, ready to catch the many wild creatures that populate the ranch. First came hippos, then mpalas, gazelles, zebras, giraffes, elephants, and others! For the unexperienced, me included, it was an unbelievable display of nature, in all its gorgeousness. Back to the center by dusk, we were served a very good dinner and then off to bed, to get some rest in preparation for our first full day at Mpala.

Adam, Khairi, Emma, Mike, and Jacob watching and photographing Oryxes from Dan's car.

This morning we visited some of the diverse habitats of the reserve. At the "Black Cotton" plains, the attractions were the ants populating the domiciles on the acacia trees. Jacob desperately tried to get bitten by one on its fingers, with no success. Frustrated, he put one of the ants on its tongue, hoping that the soft mucose would be more vulnerable. As expected, he drowned the little bug instead. After lunch, we briefed on projects (more to follow on those) and then off again to find some fungi on acacias and some old bomas! It goes by itself than during the whole time spent out in the field, we kept seeing the most amazing wild animals, which we religiously proceeded to photograph.

Giraffe and zebras at dusk.

And here we are, after another amazing dinner at the center. The staff here is great: happy, cordial, and helpful. What to desire more?

Part of Mpala Research Center in the morning.