Friday, December 2, 2011


I believe this may be the most irresponsible thing by a safari guide that I have ever seen.  The problem here is not the depth of water...but the velocity.  I'm actually speechless.  I can't understand how a safari guide would actually attempt to cross that river.

I'm not sure which tributary of the Mara this river is...but it is likely one of the smaller ones feeding the Talek.  The tributaries to the Talek are very flashy.  They don't stay high for very long.  If the guide had only waited for a few hours, it would have dropped.  But he didn't...

A few hours away and a few days ago, 10 died while attempting to cross a flooded crossing -

Sunday, November 27, 2011

More Lab Work

Here is a shot of Amanda processing some of her samples on the flow analyzer.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Colors of the Mara River

Here is a quick picture of one of the analyses I'm doing on the samples I brought back from the Mara.  The different tubes have soil samples for different parts of the Mara catchment.  I'm trying to determine the relative amounts of clay, silt, and sand in each catchment.  There are only 16 tubes in the picture but I have over 120 samples!  The color of each tube really doesn't have anything to do with this specific analysis but I think that it was pretty interesting...the distinct colors from different portions of the catchment.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hippo Pools...

One of the items we accomplished this summer was some intensive, 48-hour monitoring of several hippo pools.  Not everything worked out completely as planned but we got some very cool data.  We placed our in-stream data loggers above and below the hippo pools and set them to log every minute.  We also used a GoPro camera to record the actual movements of hippos so that we could tie those movements to potential changes on the in-stream data loggers.

Here is a short excerpt from one of the hippo pools near the Amani Mara Lodge in the Olare Orok Conservancy.  As you'll notice, we hid the camera in a small rock crevice.  We ended up pulling the camera shortly after this video was taken because there were baboons watching us and we were worried they would take off with the camera as soon as we left.  The hippos are all in the water directly in front of the camera.  If you look closely, you can see some of their movements.  I'll be posting some more exciting videos soon.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

More Pictures from Paul's Wedding

The Bride and Groom

 This is what the "6k", two-hour long walk back to the Land Rover looked the rain...

The seating area...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

New Agreement to Help Manage the Mara

Great job by the Lake Victoria Basin Commission.  It appears they just secured an agreement to help "enhance governance and promote integrated natural and water resources management in the Mara River Basin" from the different county councils in Kenya and Tanzania.

Read more about it below....
Councils in a joint project to save Mara

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Big Croc...

We were doing some sampling of water above and below hippo pools in the Mara River and ended up surprising a large crocodile as were looking for a place to get into the river.  This footage was taken with a GoPro.  Those big crocs can sure move FAST.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Wedding

At the end of our field season, our field assistant, Paul Geemi, got married.  Here is some video from his wedding...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Bad Year for the Wildebeest, Good Year for Scientists Studying Dead Wildebeest

David arrived in the Mara about 2 weeks after the big wildebeest die-off event in which nearly 5,000 perished, but he was still able to see the remnant carcasses piled up in the river. However, near the end of his stay, another fairly large die-off occurred in the river, which gave him the opportunity to see this event firsthand. After receiving notice about the event from Brian Heath, Director of the Mara Conservancy, we headed immediately to the location to conduct a carcass count.

David counting wildebeest carcasses
 They were much easier to count fresh, although it's still difficult to keep track of individuals in the mass of bodies washed up on the rocks. 

Wildebeest carcasses in the Mara
It's very helpful to have two observers present, as well as a hand-held counter! During this event, we counted 590 carcasses.

David and Amanda counting wildebeest carcasses

Since this event, observations from us and others suggest that nearly 1,000 more have died in the river, with several months of river crossings remaining. Much of our research this summer focused on determining the effects these kinds of events have on the river. Some of our data supported our hypotheses, while others just raised more questions. 

I'm so fortunate that David was able to visit this summer and spend so much time in the field, observing the river and helping with research. Despite the long hours and challenging conditions, he absolutely overflowed with ideas and questions and thoughts for future research throughout his whole visit. We are really excited about pursuing all these ideas, and we can't wait for David's next visit to the Mara. Thanks David!

Visit to the Ntiakntiak River

Some of the most interesting data we got this summer came from the seasonal tributaries that drain into the Mara River from the Loita and Aitong Hills. One of those tributaries is the Ntiakntiak River, a small seasonal stream that joins the Olare Orok and runs into the Talek before joining the Mara. During David's visit, we traveled to visit the Amani Mara Lodge on the bank of the Ntiakntiak River. A friend of ours from the Mara River Water Users Association, Joseph Kones, is the Manager there, and he had invited us to visit this ecologically-minded lodge. Unlike many lodges which are built in the riparian thickets along the river banks, which encroaches on critical habitat for many wildlife, the Amani Mara is built in the open plains, offering spectacular views and great wildlife viewing. It's also incredibly luxurious, which was a wonderful place to visit after 3 dusty, bouncy, sunny days of traveling around and camping in the Mara.

Cottages of Amani Mara
 During our stay, one of the local guides took us on a morning walk along the river. It's a small but beautiful river with unique boulder formations along its banks and lots of wildlife living around it.

Walking along the banks of the Ntiakntiak

David, of course, always his eyes out for fish, and he spotted this impressively large skull of a Clarius, or mudfish, which are like catfish. It was surprising to see how large of a fish had come out of this small, seasonal river.
Examining the skull of a mudfish

It was also interesting to see a pod of about 16 hippos living in a small pool on this river. Given the small amount of water flowing through this system, this pool looked like the perfect place to measure hippo effects on the river. 
Overlooking the hippo pool on the Ntiakntiak
 Fortunately, the owner of the lodge, Ashif Suleman, was very interested in our research and excited about having us collect data on the river, and he graciously invited us back. During our return visit, we got some of the most interesting and clear-cut data of our whole summer field-season. We look forward to doing some more work on this beautiful river!

The Mara in a Bottle

During David's visit to the Mara, we did our first experiment to look at the effect of hippo feces on water quality. Experiments have more power to determine cause and effect than just monitoring and observation, but they can be difficult to do in large systems. So we made the Mara smaller-- bottle-sized, in fact. Chris started with a pilot experiment that we ran for several days, even as we traveled around the Mara. Here are Chris and David collecting data from the experiment from our mobile laboratory.

After we got some really exciting initial results, we decided to scale up the experiment to bigger and more bottles. This time we set it up at our camp and devoted several days to collecting data. The best part was that we got to purchase a kiddie pool to maintain a consistent temperature-- I can't wait to relax in this once the experiment is done!

Although bottles are completely different than the Mara River itself, this experiment gave us some good ideas of what kind of changes hippo feces can cause in the water. Now we can look back at our monitoring data from the river and look for similar patterns.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Big 5 in 48

Both of our last two visitors (JJ and David) have been our first two visitors to see the Big 5 during their stay. The Big 5 is a big deal in safari lingo, and it refers to lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhino. All safari guests aim to see the Big 5, but most are usually foiled on the rhino and/or leopard. David, however, had some epic wildlife viewing luck during his visit, seeing the Big 5 in his first 48 hours in Kenya! This included seeing a leopard with a kill and a rhino spotted from a hot air balloon. Not bad!

Leopard resting with a tree with its kill nearby (hanging in the tree on the right)
Leopard close-up
Elephant with a baby

Post Lab at Work in the Mara

During my labmate JJ's visit, we built and deployed a fairly large experiment at three different study sites. The experiment was designed to determine what nutrients limit river productivity both above and below the effects of large wildlife. After sitting in the river for three weeks, we pulled the experiment out during my advisor David's visit. I doubt either of these guests knew how much work was in store for them in the Mara, but they were both incredibly gracious and helpful field assistants.

Here we are pulling the arrays out of the river. 

Each array had 60 cups with different types of nutrient additions and different substrates for algae to grow on. To my amazement, we only lost about 7 samples out of a total 180! Here is one of the cups with some algae visible. 

After we removed the substrates, we used several different techniques to determine how much algal and microbial activity there was on each substrate. Here's David measuring dissolved oxygen on the bank of the Mara with Paul and me.

Here's David... still measuring dissolved oxygen, now with Paul and Chris. It took about 8-10 hours to pull and analyze each array, so this resulted in a lot of time spent sitting on the riverbank.

After hours doing the experiment, we still had our routine sampling to do, including sampling macroinvertebrates and periphyton. 

David has done this kind of sampling in rivers and lakes around the world, so to have him help out with this work was really invaluable. I really appreciated how enthusiastic he was about collecting this data, despite the many, many hours we spent baking in the sun doing it. Thanks David!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mobile Office

Paul Geemi saves the day!

One of our water meters has been stuck in the river for the past week. Big rains and high flows wedged it into some rocks and we have been unable to pull it out. Today, our field assistant Paul came up with a brilliant idea to get it free, and he successfully rescued it from the river, without even having to go swimming. Just in time, too, as we are closing out our field season this weekend. Great job Geemi! Now we can go celebrate!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Freak hailstorm in the Mara

Right after we pulled our lowest meter and depth logger...a freak hailstorm hits the Mara. Not the best timing but the first hailstorm we've seen here in 3 years.

Karibu Mara David!

My advisor from Yale, Dr. David Post, just spent 9 days with us in the Mara, and we had an amazing time traveling through the basin with him. David has researched how animals move nutrients across landscapes in several different systems, so his perspective on wildlife effects on the Mara River was invaluable. As usual, we stayed very busy during his whole visit-- we sampled half the length of the Mara inside the reserve within hours of his arrival!-- so I'm just now catching up on sharing some pictures and stories from his trip. Stay tuned for more...

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Best Birthday Ever!

Pulled my first experiment from the Mara River and got cool data, took a hot shower in the woods with an entire 4 gallons of water, and had my amazing husband fly in pizza and sushi for a fabulous birthday dinner with friends! I am so blessed!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tall grass is bad... and other experiences from JJ's visit to the Mara

On the way to pick JJ up from the Mara Serena airstrip when he first arrived, we came across a pair of lions blocking the road.

That's when we knew we were going to have an amazing time during JJ's visit. It was hard to keep up with the blog during his visit because we stayed so busy, so I wanted to recap some of the highlights of our two weeks together.

1) Traveling several hundred kilometers through the Mara River Basin in a 1994 Land Rover

2) Building and deploying 3 nutrient diffusing substrate arrays throughout the basin with a total of 180 individual samples

3) Collecting and filtering an epic number of water samples

4. Seeing an incredible amount of wildlife, including miniature giraffes!

5. Living in a safari tent, where you can hear lions just on the other side of the canvas

6. Seeing wildebeest and zebra jumping down a cliff in a dramatic river crossing

7. Having lunch at a luxury tented safari camp with good friends

8. Walking 4 km along the banks of the Mara River, counting 3,376 wildebeest carcasses

9. Collecting water samples and water quality information from the banks of the river

10. Kick netting for macroinvertebrates in "The Most Dangerous River in the World", full of crocodiles, hippos and wildebeest carcasses

11. And of course, from  the title of the post, learning that "grass is bad" after surprising, and being surprised by, a buffalo! No pictures of that experience... we were too busy running!

Thanks for an amazing time in the Mara, JJ! We're looking forward to your next visit!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

River Crossing Gone Wrong

The wildebeest migration arrived in the Masai Mara in early July, and by about July 10th, they had started crossing the river. This spectacle draws tourists from all over the world, to watch as huge herds of wildebeest leap into the river and swim through crocodile-infested waters to reach the other side. Typically a number of animals are lost during each large crossing due to crocodile attack, exhaustion or trampling from other wildebeest desperate to reach solid ground. However, sometimes very high losses can result when the wildebeest cross during very high flows or at a particularly bad place.

A wildebeest crosses the Mara as another one behind it is taken by a crocodile
On July 14-15, a very large river crossing went terribly awry, and thousands of animals drowned in the river. We were traveling to collect our water meters at the time for some more focal sampling, and when we returned, the river was literally full of wildebeest bodies. The folks at the Mara Conservancy tell us that the wildebeest had been crossing at a particularly bad place, and they believe they tried to cross at night, which resulted in the high mortality. River flows are a bit higher than normal for this time of year, which may have contributed to the event, but that doesn't seem to be the major reason in this case.

Crossing location where many wildebeest died
It is hard to imagine how so many animals could die during a single event, but we had the opportunity to watch an earlier crossing that occurred at the same location. Animals were streaming across the river and piling up on the far bank, which has a steep, rocky face that is difficult for them to climb. Even as some animals were stranded there, others kept swimming across and then desperately trying to get out of the water, trampling others on the way.
Wildebeest crossing the river

Scrambling up the river bank
Stranded below the rocky ledge
This huge input of animal-borne nutrients into the river is one of the focuses of my dissertation work, so although this was a tragic event, it also was a unique opportunity for me to capture some critical data on the effects of such a large pulse of nutrients into the river. We immediately deployed our water meters above and below the bulk of the carcasses and began collecting water samples. We also walked ~4 km of river bank counting wildebeest carcasses, and determined there were about 5,000 dead wildebeest in the river! 

Wildebeest bodies piled up in the river
 This huge pile-up of bodies also attracted large numbers of vultures and Maribou storks, as well as incredible densities of fat and happy crocodiles, who are seizing this time of fattening to start mating.
Vultures feeding on wildebeest carcasses in the Mara River
Crocodiles mating in the Mara
Although this a huge number of animals to perish in such a short time, it is a relatively small number compared to the estimated size of this herd, which is over 1 million, and these large mortality events are relatively rare. The last die-off in the river of this magnitude happened in 2007, when the Mara Conservancy estimated nearly 10,000 animals had died in the river over the course of several days. We hope to learn as much as we can this summer about how an event like this affects the river and all of the other wildlife that depend on the migration in various ways.