Monday, December 16, 2013

Building little rivers

We are planning to conduct an experiment in January using small, artificial stream channels. Scientists use these to experimentally manipulate rivers in a controlled way to understand causes and effects of river processes. They are often made out of metal or fiberglass, but these can be expensive and difficult to transport. Chris came up with the brilliant idea to make ours out of PVC canvas, so today we met with our favorite canvas guys at Savannah Africa Designs to see what they thought. They were excited about the challenge and should have a prototype ready by Thursday!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Sleepy Talek Rises

The Talek River is a pretty, lazy river.  The quality of the water in the Talek is a little "off" sometimes for a variety of reasons. makes for some great pictures.

If you're glued to our website (like I'm sure many of you are), you must have noticed that the Talek came up a bunch last night.  Here is data from our custom built automated data logger on the Talek.  It started texting us last evening at around 7PM to let us know the river was rising.  The river rose over 4 meters in 4 hours!

I'm still working out some of the bugs (some of the dropped values in the graph)...but it is nice to have live data. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Gambling on the Rain

Over the last few years working in the Mara, Chris and I have noticed a very interesting pattern. After the river has been low for a while, the next big rainstorm will usually bring a flushing event that will result in a crash in dissolved oxygen and sometimes an associated fish kill. In general, we believe these events are due to the flushing of large amounts of carbon, and associated microbial activity, through the system. However, we are still testing several hypotheses about where exactly all this carbon comes from. It could be from the scouring of hippo pools along the main channel; it could be from the draining of several low-flow tributaries into the Mara; or it could be from some other source we haven't found yet. To test these hypotheses, it is important to capture water samples during both the rising and falling portion of the flush. Last year, we purchased some automated water samplers that can be set in advance and triggered to start sampling when the river rises to a certain level, in order to better study these events. 

As you may have seen from the falling depth gauge on the top right corner of our blog (or under the Mara Live link), the river has been steadily falling over the last month, and getting to very low levels. Last week we spoke with Brian Heath, Director of the Mara Conservancy, and he told us that big rains were going to start in the next week. Brian has lived in the Mara for 11 years and knows it incredibly well-- when he says something is going to happen, you should listen! So Chris and I headed down to the river last week and set up our automated sampling machine, gambling that the coming rains would bring about a large flushing event

Setting up our automated sampler in anticipation of the rains

Yesterday, we awoke in Narok to a text message sent from our real-time water quality meter that the river had risen 3 feet and the dissolved oxygen (DO) had crashed to below 20%! Hopeful that the automated sampler had worked as planned, we hopped in the car and headed back to the Mara, arriving just as the levels were beginning to return to normal.

Graph from the Mara River showing depth, DO and turbidity in response to a flushing event
Excitingly, we arrived just one hour after the sampling program had been completed, and everything worked! The sampler had triggered after the river rose about 6 inches, and had taken samples all through the rising and falling limb of the flood! Now we can analyze these samples to determine where the water came from that caused the event, how much hippo feces it was carrying, and how much microbial activity was occurring in the river. This translates into us having a lot of filtering to do!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Lost and Found

October and November were rough months for us, in which we were hit with a series of challenges that really set us back a bit. Unfortunately, this resulted in us getting a bit behind on our blog updates. I thought I would just give a brief recap here of some of the things we lost, and found, in the last few months.

  • Four of the six probes on our expensive water quality meter that gives us real-time data on the Mara River. They were damaged when the meter got stuck in the river during high flows, and we're still uncertain how we'll be able to afford to repair them. It turns out insurance doesn't cover water damage for something that's supposed to go in the water.
  • My laptop computer, which was stolen out of my hotel room while I was attending a meeting in Narok. Fortunately, all of my data was backed up in multiple locations, but this took some time (and money) to recover from.
  • A reasonable portion of my lower lip when I was bitten on the face by a dog, just after returning to the Mara with my new laptop. Hilariously, I had just been teaching Geemi the meaning of the slang word “bummer.” A flight to Nairobi, several hours of reconstructive surgery, five days in the hospital, and two weeks on a liquid/puree diet later, and I'm healing really well, thanks to the help of lots of wonderful friends and an amazing doctor.
  • Even more motivation for Chris to keep working on developing these amazing, low-cost, home-made water quality and quantity meters he has been building. They are relatively inexpensive and easily built, repaired and tweaked in the field. This kind of low-cost technology is really the key to revolutionizing water resources management in developing countries, where expensive parts and repairs aren't feasible.
  • A deep appreciation for my mother instilling in me the importance of backing everything up in multiple locations, and for my husband actually helping me do it. Also a deep appreciation for how fortunate we are to be able to usually shop for electronics in the US, where selection and price are hard to beat.
  • A profound realization of 1) the importance of good friends, who were ultimately the ones responsible for getting me into the hands of the best facial plastic surgeon in Kenya within 3.5 hours of the attack; 2) the incredible medical personnel and facilities available in Nairobi, where I had wonderful nurses and doctors taking great care of me; and 3) how lucky we are to be happy and healthy and able to do the work we love.
I have to admit this series of events left me feeling a bit vulnerable to all the dangers and challenges that surround and await us, but it also ultimately made me feel very blessed to be as fortunate as we have been... and maybe a little more wary of dogs. 

Anyway, we've been back in the field the last few weeks, busily trying to catch up from some of our unexpected delays, so we have lots to post about in the upcoming weeks. Fish sampling, leopards in camp, nutrient chemistry, and gambling on a DO crash... stay tuned!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Baby bat

Processing samples late into the night... As a baby bat sits on our tent watching us...

Friday, October 25, 2013


Took me two skewers to figure out where the skewers came from....recycled bicycle tire spokes. The meat was fantastic.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mara River Water Users Association, 2013 Thiess International Riverprize Winner!

Congratulations to the Mara River Water Users Association (MRWUA) on winning the 16th annual Thiess International Riverprize!

The Mara River Water Users Association (MRWUA) is a community-based water resources management organization, with the primary objectives of 1) promoting the protection and conservation of the Mara River Catchment area, 2) supporting the sustainable and efficient use of water, and 3) assisting relevant authorities with water resources management and issuance of water use permits and water conflict resolution. Their primary office is based in Mulot, Kenya, on the banks of the Amala River, but there are a number of sub-catchment groups located throughout the basin. The MRWUA has worked closely with Kenyan Water Resources Management Authority, WWF, USAID, Songoroi Ltd., and other NGOs and partners in the region to accomplish an impressive amount of conservation activities, including protecting 40 km of riverbank, educating 1,000 farmers about land and water conservation, and protecting 40 springs.

The Thiess International Riverprize is awarded by the International RiverFoundation. They have been awarding this prize for 15 years, but the Mara is the first African river to receive the award! Stuart Bunn, a member of the judging panel, said,

"With a clear vision and in anticipation of potential conflict arising over scarce water resources, the community based Mara River Water Users Association overcame significant challenges and successfully collaborated with farmers, community groups, NGOs, consultants and many other stakeholders to implement the Mara River Environmental Management Initiative."

The prize not only comes with international recognition for the incredible work the MRWUA has done in the basin, but also a large grant for the MRWUA to continue and build upon their work. It also includes a grant for a "twinning" project, in which the MRWUA can help start up and mentor a river conservation project in another country.

We are so proud of the MRWUA and all their accomplishments, and we look forward to sharing more of their story with you!


A few days ago we had a minor breakdown.  It was the day before I was scheduled to go to Tanzania.  Which...makes it a bit more of a stressful breakdown.

One of the main support bolts came loose for one of the tie-rods.  It fell out somewhere along the way from Talek to Emarti.  We noticed it pretty quickly because the steering became erratic just after Aitong.  

We made a quick call to Lerijin and two of his brothers came out from Aitong on a pikipiki (motorcycle) and helped us get on our way.  Funny....because their father, Lokakwar, helped us replace a bushing on that bolt a week prior.  At that time, I remember telling him, "I have loctite, please put it on the bolt so it doesn't come loose."  And he replied, "We don't need loctite, I'm going to double nut it!".  

I snapped a quick picture to illustrate how Amanda was making good use of our breakdown by filtering samples in the middle of a cow herd while we were working on the truck.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Camp Baboons

Baboons are pretty cute on video...especially the young ones.  They're not cute when they steal a bag of flour from you as you're trying to make they did to me last week.

Here is short video of a young baboon catching a ride on his mother's back.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

River of Maggots

While sampling in the Mara River, we found a huge "bloom" of maggots floating downstream from the area in the river where all the carcasses have been rotting.  It was an amazingly disgusting sight... but also very interesting.

In the following picture, look closely at the water.  What are all those little white dots floating in the river?  

Here is another picture....a bit closer shot.  What are they?  What could they possibly be?  

That's right.  They're maggots.  Thousands of them... floating downstream to Tanzania.

Here is a short video of it.  I tried to capture it as best I could with my phone camera.

More on this to come soon....

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Camp Day

Days like today, are necessary.  Today was a Camp Day.  A day we stay in camp and tend to everything that we've neglected for the last week.

I'm amazed with all we got done today...
  • oil change for the Land Rover
  • oil filter change for the Land Rover
  • fuel filter change for the Land Rover
  • Geemi spent 3 hours cleaning the interior and exterior of the Land Rover (I didn't recognize it when he was done!)
  • 4 hours of computing statistics for our research on the computer (until the battery died)
  • drying the last week of sediment samples in the solar oven
  • cleaning the "lady cave" prior to Amanda's arrival, so she'll never know we were there
  • making bagels for the upcoming week (including pesto bagel pizzas for dinner!)
  • cleaning sample equipment with deionized water
  • going through the previously downloaded footage from the game camera
And with that...I leave you with video of a HUGE elephant tusking our game camera in camp.

No time for laundry or showers yet.  If you're planning a visit to camp, come by after Friday.  :)

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Lady Cave

Amanda joking refers to our laboratory tent as her "Lady Cave", because she spends so much time in there.  Well now...we can officially call it the Bat Cave!

A family of bats have moved in...and she has only been gone one week!

Sunday, September 29, 2013


It has been a rough week.  A ton of wildebeest have died in the river, our gearbox has serious issues (no first gear), I just learned our clutch plate is trashed and we have a crack in our pressure plate, we haven't showered in a week, it has been raining every day so we're covered in mud and our solar system hasn't charged anything, and we're running low on food.

But hey...we're having cheeseburgers tonight!  I dug out our secret stash of ground beef and Geemi and I grilled up some cheeseburgers on our biolite.  We had enough ground beef stashed so we cooked up and hooked up the neighboring researchers as well.

AND....I got my phone fully charged so I could make this post!  Things are starting to look up....

Friday, September 27, 2013

Another Failed Crossing Today

Another 1,500 wildebeest died today in the Mara River.  That brings us up to approximately 5,200 wildebeest dead in the last three days.

Last night, a flood pulse came through the Mara at around 11PM.  This flood came from they upper catchment.  The rising waters of the flood washed many of the wildebeest carcasses further downstream into Tanzania.  The following picture was taken at the Purungat Bridge at around 8AM this morning.

This picture, was taken at the same spot at around 4PM this afternoon.  

There were three large wildebeest crossings today in the southern half of the Mara Triangle.  The first one was between 9AM and 10AM, just downstream of the Serena Lunch Spot.  The crossing consisted of approximately 1,500 wildebeest and every single one of them drowned.  They crossed at a better location than the previous two days but the water was just too high and fast for them to make it across.  As you can see in the following graph, the water was highest today at between 9AM and 10AM.  This was courtesy of the Talek Catchment.  There must have been some heavy rains in the Loita Hills early this morning.  This also ended up causing a crash of the dissolved oxygen in the Mara at the Purungat Bridge.  

A second crossing occurred at approximately 2PM near the Hippo Pool, just North of the Purungat Bridge.  The crossing consisted of several hundred wildebeest and only 4 drowned.  The third crossing happened at approximately 5PM at the same spot.  All survived.  

While we were taking samples and surveying the river today, I tried to count what was left of the original herd that continues to try to cross at the Serena Lunch Spot.  There seemed to be only about 500 wildebeest left, on this side of the river.  The other survivors are somewhere on the other side.  I hope they don't try to cross tomorrow...with the river this high, they don't have a chance.  

I also checked on the wounded mother wildebeest from yesterday, the one who had broken her leg on the rocky bank at the crossing.  She was still alive.  Her young wildebeest son, was no longer there.  I'm guessing he left her there and joined the herd.  

Thursday, September 26, 2013


It all started with a dream.

Yesterday morning, I was talking to Amanda on the phone (she's in the US, I'm in Kenya).  Amanda said she had a dream that 2,000 wildebeest drowned and that I should go check the river.  Immediately after hanging up with her, I forgot.  

At around noon that same day, Charles, the Warden at the Purungat Bridge, called and told me that one thousand wildebeest had died in a crossing that morning.  I was shocked.  Then I remembered what Amanda had told me.  Geemi and I grabbed our gear and we immediately went down to the river.

The crossing that Charles was talking about happened at the Serena Lunch Spot between 8AM and 9AM on September 25th.  We arrived down in that area at around 1PM, grabbed a Ranger, deployed our monitoring equipment, took samples, and counted the carcasses in the river.  We counted 1,510 carcasses in a 3.5 kilometer stretch of river.  Over 2,000 wildebeest likely died in the crossing yesterday, the other 500 floated their way into Tanzania.  

Today, another ~2,000 wildebeest died at that same crossing.  We arrived in the area approximately 20 minutes after the crossing started and we counted over 1,300 bodies floating past us just downstream of the crossing. Overall, our total estimate for both events was 3,857 wildebeest.

Why did so many die over the last two days?  A brutal combination of higher than average flows in the river and the wildebeest choosing a bad crossing point.  There has been tons of rain in the Mara over the last week and it has been speculated that the wildebeest chase the rain.  Maybe they're crossing so much right now because of all the spotty showers?  Who knows...

As you can see in this picture, once they get to the other side of the river, there is no way up.  Maybe 50% make it up the hill, and the others drown.  

Once they drown, their bodies float downstream and eventually get hung up on rocky outcroppings.  

These drownings are a natural part of the system and seem to have been happening for a long time. We found a paper from the 1970's discussing the deposition of wildebeest carcasses in the Mara River. However, the size and frequency of these drownings varies from year to year. We're trying to understand when and where these mass drownings occur and how they impact the river ecosystem.  Even though we've documented a few of them, they are always tough to see.  The sounds of a drowning wildebeest are haunting.  

It is exceptionally difficult to witness this...a young wildebeest and their mother...having safely made it across the river and up onto the rocky outcropping...and the mother ends up breaking a leg on the rocks.  The young wildebeest doesn't seem to understand what has happened, and just waits.  We checked back on him four hours later after this picture was taken and he was still waiting.  Heart breaking....

We counted carcasses again this evening.  As of 6PM, there are 1,846 wildebeest carcasses in a 3.5km stretch of the Mara River.  

At least 3,857 wildebeest died in the Mara River in the last two days.  

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Our Gearbox

It is extremely difficult to get a gearbox back up into a vehicle.

Rainy Days

Ever since Amanda left last week for the US, it has been raining in the Mara.  Lots of rain have brought the wildebeest back up from the Serengeti.  It rains every day....sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, and almost always in the evening.  

This has made it incredibly difficult to keep all our electronics charged.  With all the overcast days, our solar batteries are depleted and we're having to keep our critical items charged from the Land Rover.  

The sun peeked out yesterday, so we took all our small solar chargers and everything else we needed dry, out into the small field next to camp.


We got a few hours of sun before having to quickly gather everything out of the field when the rain started.  

With all this rain, the river is up!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

My day...

I've been busy working on the gearbox since Amanda left a few days ago.  If you remember, I re-built it in July.  Well, something happened over the last few weeks where it was getting close to impossible to get the vehicle into first gear.

This is what happened...a small spring broke.  I can't even remember what the spring is called, but it holds these three things in place that help to shift and maintain a gear position.

Here is Lokekwar and Moses with my gearbox.  Lokekewar works for the Mara Conservancy as a mechanic and his son, Moses, works in Aitong as a mechanic.  Moses has worked on our truck before, while we were living in Narok a few years ago.  Thankfully, the Conservancy allowed us to work with their mechanics on our gearbox at their garage.  They've got some great mechanics...and a garage pit, so we could drop the gearbox down instead of having to remove the seats (like I had to do in Narok in July...a huge pain).  

During repairs today, we also found a cracked universal joint.  Luckily, I keep a few spares so we were able to swap it out fairly easily.  

As I type this, it is about 8PM here in Kenya.  I just heard the rumbling of an elephant in camp, probably 20 meters up the hill from my tent.  Geemi and I heard them breaking branches a bit earlier while we were cooking dinner (spaghetti, in case you're interested) but I thought they were just moving through.  I guess they are here to stay the night.  The rumbling of an elephant at night sounds much like a lion growling.  A very low "rrrrrrrrrrrrr" sound.....

We also had a ton of rain in camp tonight.  We were able to collect over 80 liters of water with our rain water harvesting setup in just one hour!  80 liters may not seem much, but we have to carry all of our water into camp so every liter we can collect from the rain is one less liter we have to carry.  

Oh yea, you may have noticed that our Purungat Bridge Water Meter has not reported for the last two days.  My bad...I forgot to feed the meter.  ;)  I have to send it 300 Kenya Shillings every month for it to send the data.  I just sent it the money an hour ago so it should start updating again shortly.

Should be done with truck repairs tomorrow.  Hopefully....

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Mara Day 2013

Happy Mara Day! Last year the East African Community began the annual tradition of having an official day to celebrate the Mara River Basin and work towards its conservation and sustainable use. The first Mara Day was held last year at the Mara River Water Users Association in Mulot, Kenya. This year, the celebrations were held in Mugumu, Tanzania, on the border of the Serengeti National Park.

This is a truly incredible event, as thousands of people come from all over the Mara basin to spend several days celebrating a river basin and talking about how they are working to conserve the remarkable natural resources the Mara provides. The celebrations went on for three days, including a research conference, tree planting events, bicycle race and the focal celebrations today.

It's difficult to describe the scale of this event. In a large fairground on the edge of town, there were rows and rows of tents. In the center was a large tent where the dignitaries sat and gave speeches. In front of them was a large open space for dancing and theatrical performances by community and school groups. In a large row surrounding this area were tents where a huge range of government, NGO and community groups from the basin presented on their work. And behind that was a huge row of tents housing small restaurants and bars serving freshly prepared food and cold drinks. Here's a great 360 degree shot Chris captured of the event.

Local government and community groups had developed a wide range of displays, including a miniature-scale version of the Mara River, complete with crossing wildebeest and feasting crocodiles.

There were a number of groups showcasing artistic work they are doing to support livelihoods that don't cause destruction of natural resources.

And our colleagues from WWF and the Mara River Water Users Association were there, talking about their work developing water users groups that promote grassroots water resources management.

We have been so excited about attending this event, as it's a great opportunity to celebrate the Mara River and to see colleagues from all over the Mara working on different aspects of conservation. Congratulations to the EAC, USAID (who provided the funding) and all the folks who worked so hard to host such a wonderful event!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Irony or Karma?

Amanda and I are staying the evening in Musoma, Tanzania.  We spent 7 hours driving down here from our camp for the Mara Day Celebrations in Mugumu, Tanzania, tomorrow.  After 7 hours of dirt road driving....we are covered in dust.  Glad to be back in Musoma.  Glad to be back to a hot shower.

The last few days have been extremely busy.  We covered our entire study area over the last few days.  Each day, we spent 8+ hours directly next to the river tending to experiments, in the heat of the sun (series we're currently watching).  We then spent several hours a day processing samples and driving to and from our sites.  On top of that, Amanda has been sick with a vicious cold.  Thankfully, she is starting to feel much better.

So....the point of this is that we are happy to be in our favorite Tanzanian town, Musoma.  We just had some amazing fish fingers and cold beers at our hotel and are ready for a hot shower....but...there is no water.

Musoma is on the largest tropical lake in the world, Lake Victoria....and there is no water at our hotel.  We study the quantity and quality of water of the Mara River...which flows into Lake Victoria.  I can smell the water from our hotel...I can see it from our window...but there is no water AT the hotel.  I can tell you exactly how much water is in the Mara River at the Purungat Bridge at any time, but I can't find any at our hotel right now.  We are here to celebrate an amazing river basin, the Mara River Basin, yet there is no water at our hotel in the river basin.  Irony or karma?

But thankfully, we do have we are catching up on all the recent music videos.  We'll be dirty for the celebrations tomorrow but at least we'll be caught up on pop culture.  

Live Data from the Mara River!

We are proud to announce that we now have real-time water level information from the Mara River at Purungat Bridge uploaded to the internet every 30 minutes!  This data is now available on our "Mara Live" page as a graph and at the top right of every page as a gauge tied to the environmental flow assessment recommendations.  The yellow and red areas on the gauge correspond to water levels that are below the environmental flow requirements.  When water drops below these levels, the river ecosystem begins to deteriorate.  Now, everyone can see what's going on with the river as it happens!  

The impetus for this project was our general unhappiness with the cost of water quality/quantity equipment.  This motivated us to design our own gear to do exactly what we want.  This system cost us under $400 to make and it only costs about $5 per month for the cellular service.  If we had purchased a similar system with these features, it would have cost us well over $2000 and up to $100 per month!  The best part about this unit is that it is open source.  

A big thanks goes out to the Yale Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design. We worked with four bright Yale undergrads -- Teddy Weisman, Travis Leighton, Kendrick Kirk and Bryan Duerfeldt -- to develop the first prototype of this design through a course taught by Eric Dufresne, Larry Wilen and Laura Chavez.

The Yale students designed the housing for the unit mounted at the Purungat Bridge, which uses a water filtration pump housing. We installed a second unit on the Talek River that is housed inside of a Pelican Case.  

The entire system is based off an open source microcontroller, Arduino.  We also have some other water quality/quantity measurement devices that we have built using an Arduino that we'll be talking about in the coming weeks.   

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Working with the Yale Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design

This past semester, we had the incredible opportunity to work with freshmen engineering students at Yale University through a course taught by the Yale Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design (CEID). Working at the CEID was one of the most exciting experiences I have had yet in academia. It's a large, working space with every kind of tool and machine and computer program you can imagine (think 3-D printers, woodworking tools, fume hoods, sewing machines, etc.), in which students, faculty, and other interested participants can come together and work on interdisciplinary approaches to the center's primary mission-- empowering students to improve human lives through the advancement of technology. 

The course we participated in brought together practitioners from various fields who had problems that needed solving, with engineering students interested in learning how to solve practical problems with innovative solutions. When we heard about this opportunity, we thought, "Boy, do we have problems!" From expensive water quality meters that occasionally get stepped on by large wildlife, to river monitoring needs in a remote environment, we had no shortage of ideas to pitch to the students that we really needed some help on. 

We were incredibly fortunate to have two awesome groups of students pick two of our project ideas to take on for their end-of-semester project. The first group-- comprised of Bryan Duerfeldt, Kendrick Kirk, Tavis Leighton, and Teddy Weisman-- decided to work on our problem of needing real-time data on the river's water level. As water level in the Mara determines water quality and the amount of water available for human extraction, knowing this data on a real-time basis is invaluable. However, commercially available solutions are prohibitively expensive.

The second group-- comprised of Charles Stone, Jack Holds, Brian Clark, and Natalia Dashan-- decided to work on our problem of needing to protect our expensive and fragile water quality meters, which we throw into a river full of really large animals. Last summer, a hippo stepped on the plastic housings we had improvised and cracked it, missing our meter by less than an inch. 

Both groups worked under the guidance of some awesome instructors, including Eric Dufresne, the CEID Director; Larry Wilen, a Design Mentor; and their Teaching Fellow Laura Chavez.

Throughout the latter part of the semester, we met with each group on a weekly basis, describing our problems and the Mara in more detail, hearing their developments on the project, and giving feedback on their progress. 

Chris meeting with the Depth Logger group
 After only about a month, each group had designed and built prototypes of their project idea, using a range of machines and equipment available in the CEID.

Components of the depth logger
 Each group gave a final presentation on their project, including the problem they were addressing, the challenges they faced in solving it (keeping costs low, making it easy to transport, etc.), and then presenting their final product.

The Depth Logger group presenting on their project
The Hippo-Proof Housing group presenting on their project
 It was really amazing the solutions these students came up with and built in such a short amount of time! The Depth Logger group designed a battery-powered ultrasonic depth logger with a SIM card to allow for data uplink to the internet, all inside a cleverly designed waterproof housing.

The Depth Logger group
The Hippo-Proof Housing group designed a meter housing out of aircraft aluminum, which they determined met both weight and strength requirements, with a sieve on one end and a polypropylene funnel on the other end to prevent meter clogging by hippo feces, which can both damage the meter and prevent accurate data collection.

The Hippo-Proof Housing group
Both of these projects addressed serious challenges we face in the field, and provided us with some really cool new equipment we're planning to deploy this field season. Most of all, it was exciting to work with such intelligent and interested students on addressing these unconventional challenges. Thanks so much to all the students and teachers at CEID for working with us on this. Stay tuned on the blog as we deploy these  awesome projects in the field and see how they fare!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Wildebeests are pretty funny...we never know if they're coming or going...and I don't think they know themselves.  Here are two videos from our camp taken within minutes of each other.  

Friday, August 30, 2013

Waiting in Aitong

Waiting in Aitong to purchase some fresh beef, which just arrived by wheelbarrow.

Land Rover Laboratory

Spending the morning processing water samples at our mobile laboratory, over a cappuccino of course!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

To Get a Liter of Water...

This afternoon, we went out to collect a sample of river water from one of our sites. This was a fairly simple task we were fitting in at the end of a long day, and we expected it to take about 30 minutes. At this site, there is a small track you can drive down, but at some point, you have to park and walk several hundred meters through the bush. We were fortunate to be escorted by a Mara Conservancy ranger named Julius, who is an excellent ranger with whom we have worked before.

As we were walking through the fairly open shrubland, Geemi and Julius suddenly stopped and crouched down. Feeling blind to whatever was in front of us, I stopped and crouched down, too, waiting for an explanation. Julius had spotted a hippo wallowing in a small, mud pit about 75 m ahead of us. I have no idea how he saw this, as I couldn't see the hippo even after it was pointed out to me! These rangers aren't just invaluable because they're armed-- they also have amazing eyesight and an incredible sense of wildlife and the bush.

Hippos are the most dangerous when they're on land, and you get between them and the water, which is exactly where we were heading. I was ready to turn around and call it quits for the day, but Julius strategically threw a branch just towards where the hippo was basking. It was just enough to startle the hippo without hitting it, but the hippo stood up a bit angry and confused, and we held our breaths as we waited to see which way it would run. Fortunately, he headed away from the direction the branch had come from; however, he only went about 20 m before stopping. A bit hesitantly following Julius's lead, we continued to follow up from behind, with Julius throwing branches at strategic intervals, and the hippo gradually moving along, until he finally returned back to the river.

This was about 5:30, so all the hippos are in the river and a bit alert at this time, as it's right before they come out to feed for the night. Hippos are notoriously territorial, and we could hear the ripple effect of this lone hippo returning to the river through the calls and grunts of other hippo groups up and down the river. As we headed to our normal river entry point, which follows a hippo trail down the 7 m tall riverbank, all the hippos were now spread out evenly between access points, and all the males seemed a bit flustered and argumentative. Just standing on the bank, they were bluff charging us, snorting, diving and re-surfacing, and generally acting very unwelcoming.

Again, I was ready to turn back for the car, but Julius carefully walked along the bank, looking for a break in the ranks of hippos. Finding a spot safely nestled between two different family groups, he suggested we could safely approach the river there. Geemi and I went down, and he quickly took a water sample while I recorded readings from one of our water quality meters. Just as I was noting the final reading, Geemi said, "Amanda, a large hippo!" Suffice to say, that reading was unintelligible in my notebook. I jumped back and saw a large momma hippo surface about 15 m in front of us with the smallest baby hippo I have ever seen. Mothers and their babies will often go a bit away from the family group to protect their young ones from larger, dominant males, and we had unintentionally disrupted this mother's nursery. I quickly re-wrote the last reading in better hand-writing, and we walked back up the bank to the higher and safer ground.

As we walked back towards the car, we were all on high alert after our close encounter with the wallowing hippo, but feeling a bit relaxed about being done with the river. We were about 100 m from the car, but still in dense shrubland, when I heard the sound of breaking branches, coming not just from a single point, but from a wide swath. I motioned to Julius, and he said unconvincingly, "It's just branches." But there was no wind blowing, and I had only heard this type of sound from one other thing... elephants.

Elephants will break branches as they are walking through a forest to feed on leaves at the tops of the trees, and maybe for other reasons I don't know, but this sound was coming quickly, like a large herd running towards us. Just as I was processing the possibility that a herd of elephants was running towards us, Geemi, who is normally a bit more calm about animal encounters than I am, said, "Animals!" with a sense of alarm I have never before heard in his voice, and took off running. I could see Julius had had the same realization, and had also taken off running, although a bit more strategically, watching the direction of the noise and holding his gun at the ready. All I could think was, "Stay close to Julius!," and I took off running too.

As I dodged through the bushland, I tried to think through our options... the car was too far to run to, and it was through a clearing. As highly as I think of Julius, I wasn't sure one armed ranger was going to stop a herd of elephants. To our left was a steep drop to the river full of unwelcoming hippos. We were surrounded by small, bushy trees that you could never climb, and were shorter than an elephant anyway. Who the hell gets trampled by a herd of elephants?

All of a sudden, Julius stopped running and seemed totally calm. "It's just wildebeest," he said. My heart was racing like a herd of elephants by that point. "Are you sure?", I asked, interested in more evidence that I no longer need to fear for my life. But he was sure, and even though I couldn't see or hear anything to support his claims, I knew he must be right. I'm telling you, these guys are good! We all had a little laugh about the "herd of elephants" scare, got in the car and drove out of the bush to a clearing where a small herd of wildebeest were milling around, looking just as startled by us as we had been by them.

Geemi placed our hard-won liter of river water in the cooler, looked over at me, and exercised the perfect use of a new English word I have been teaching him. "Epic?" he asked. "Epic!" I replied.

Hippo Breakfast

A Hippo, feeding on grass early one morning in our camp.

Testing one of our custom data loggers

It survived!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Roast Chicken

We've been on a kick lately...making roast chicken in our charcoal jiko.  I don't know how we ever lived in the bush before we got our Cookswell Jiko!  

And yes....we may post a bunch about food but we do water research too!  

Monday, August 26, 2013

Baby Season

It's baby season in the Mara.  Here is a video from our camp earlier this month of a baby Impala licking her mother.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

How Many Bones are in the Mara River?

In both 2011 and 2012, approximately 8,000 wildebeest carcasses per year went into the river due to mass drowning events that occurred during river crossings. Thus far in 2013, we have already had about 2,300 carcasses go into the river, and we have about 2 months of the migration left. So what happens to all these carcasses and how do they affect the river ecosystem? A lot of our research is aimed at answering these questions.

Last year, to quantify how long it took a carcass to decompose in the river, we put different sections of the carcass (skin, muscle, intestine and bone) in small mesh bags, and measured the change in mass over a month period. By the end of the month, almost everything was gone... except the bones, which had lost only about 10% of their mass.

The skeleton makes up about 20% of a wildebeest carcass, which has an average mass of about 150 kg, so this is about 30 kg of bones per carcass. With 8,000 carcasses per year, that means there are about 240,000 kg of bones going into the river each year...and 90% is still remaining after one month?!

Because we will be in the field until May this year, we have the opportunity to measure bone decomposition over a longer period of time. This year, we made mesh bags of only bones we had retrieved from one of the carcasses in the river. Here is a picture of Paul Geemi, our field assistant who is helping me out while Chris is away in Tanzania, holding up part of our pretty bad smelling experiment.

We learned last year that if you just put mesh bags with carcass material in the river, the crocs and Nile monitors consider these little goody bags that they happily pluck off the string... hence the tough wire mesh cage we had welded in Narok to house our little bags. Here are Geemi and Charles, the Warden at Purungat Bridge who was our armed ranger for the day, with the highly scientific-looking unit we're about to install in the river.

I'm thinking we should take bets on how long it will take these bones to decompose. We put in sections of leg, rib, vertebrae and scapula, with two different mesh sizes-- one smaller mesh to only allow microbial decomposition, and one slightly larger mesh to allow aquatic insects and small fish. We will measure these bones each month until the end of April. I'm betting there will still be significant amounts of bone left after 8 months in the river. If this is true, think how many bones may be remaining in sections of the river where a lot of drownings have occurred! How long do you think it will take these bones to decompose?