Saturday, January 31, 2015

Beauty of Mpala, Majesty of Nature

Sir David Attenborough describes Africa as “the only place on Earth to see the full majesty of nature”. Mammals, birds, insects, plants, and all the other organisms, there’s always “more to see than can ever be seen”. During the stay at Mpala, I felt so lucky to see Martial Eagle and Fish Eagle enjoying their meals, male dikdiks and giraffes practicing fighting skills, as well as wagtails’ and guineafowls’ devotion into the next generations: scenes that I’ve only heard about or seen from books and documentaries. 

I was always wondering what to do when I encountered interesting animals or their behaviors: can I move closer and closer, or stay as far as possible when I can observe them with my binoculars? Should I do differently when I have camera with me? Things become complicated if there’s a guide during game drive: they may assume that getting closer would make their clients more enjoyable, and which may usually be the case. The answer to the question for me seems to be using binoculars and the choice won’t change when I have camera: what I would enjoy is their normal behavior and interactions, but not to frighten them, interrupting their life or to see them walking away. 

It is true that I want to take good photos and share with others about what fantasies I’ve seen, but not from scaring wildlife, getting too close to them or even chasing them around as those would inevitably disturb and harm them: I wish others would also have the chance to see what I have seen out there in the wild, but not can only try to imagine that from old photos if we lost the wilderness of Africa.

Only when we show more respects and considerations to it, would the nature show its full majesty to us.

(More pieces that I was lucky enough to see when I was there can be found at

Monday, January 19, 2015

Python Spirit Guide

Computer science graduate students (left to right, Alessandro Oddone, Anthony Perritano) collaborating on a Python program to parse an image dataset. Alessandro, our 'Python Spirit Guide', a seasoned Python programmer answers questions as he platoons for different projects.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Baboons in branches: a networked approach to how monkeys decide to turn down for the night

Having a home base is important for many animals. These places offer both shelter and predictability in the otherwise chaotic day-to-day happenings of an animal’s life. For many primate species, home is a stand of several trees centrally located within their home range. Although most primate species live exclusively in trees, baboons spend nearly their entire day foraging on the ground and only return to the trees in the evening to rest. As part of the Mpala Field Computational Ecology course, we are trying to understand how individual baboons make decisions about where to go and where to rest when they ascend their sleeping trees in the evening. This project includes computer scientists and biologists from several institutions:

Ph.D. Students
Ivan Brugere (Computer Scientist, University of Illinois- Chicago)
Vena Li (Computer Scientist, University of Illinois- Chicago)
Ari Strandburg-Peshkin (Biologist, Princeton University)

Damien Farine (Biologist, UC-Davis, Oxford, and Smithsonian Institute)
David Pappano (Biologist, Princeton University)

We are focusing on a troop of olive baboons that rest near River Camp here at Mpala. Olive baboons (Papio anubis) are among the most common of these semi-terrestrial Old World monkeys living in east Africa. Their face and muzzle resemble the jackal-headed deity, Anubis, hence their scientific namesake. Olive baboons are female philopatric, meaning females remain in the same troop their entire life while males disperse at adulthood to join neighboring groups. A troop of olive baboons can range in size from 20-100, but tend to average around 50 individuals. Baboons are among the most successful groups of primates and can be found in a range of habitats throughout eastern and southern Africa from dry brush land to dense rainforest.

photo credit D. Farine

Every evening we head to River Camp within the Mpala Research Station and set up cameras to monitor a the baboon troop as their ascend their sleeping trees. To determine how individual baboons make decisions about where to go within their sleeping trees, we are modeling both the physical tree and the ascension paths the baboons take as networks. We are then using flow prediction over the network to understand how the state of the tree determines the baboon’s decision. Through this method we hope to uncover patterns that would not be directly observable to scientists on foot using more traditional focal-animal based sampling methods.

photo credit D. Pappano, network by I. Brugere

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Field Computational Ecology 2015 edition

Happy New 2015 Year everybody! Welcome to the 2015 edition of the Field Computational Ecology course. We are building on the success of the pilot version of the course from 2010 and the first full version in 2011-2012. The two courses produced 8 peer reviewed publications, 2 MS thesises, and many conference presentations by the students. This year, we have computer science students from University of Illinois at Chicago and ecology students from Princeton University and the Be'er Sheva University in Israel. We will converge at Mpala Research Centre in Kenya on January 7 and will spend the following two weeks working on a number of exciting interdisciplinary projects. Follow us on this blog!

The pilot version of the Field Computational Ecology course was in 2010 (read about it in earlier posts), funded by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University and the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois through the generosity of a private donation by Bill Unger. The first full version of the course in 2012 was supported by a grant from the US National Science Foundation. This year's course is supported separately by each department.