Thursday, August 25, 2016

Kwaheri Mara!

It's always bittersweet leaving the Mara. This place is our second home, and we have a beautiful camp, good friends and an amazing river we hate to leave behind. On the other hand, after several months of no running water, limited solar power, and the same 4 outfits, you do start to long for modern conveniences. I usually crave salad, hot showers, a nice cappuccino, and a leisurely morning spent on my computer with the screen at full brightness. Nevertheless, the time has come to return to the US-- we have a lot of samples to analyze in the lab, lots of papers to work on writing, and Chris is a teaching assistant for a class this semester. It's going to be an exciting year... We'll be working with Ella and James to write up their senior research projects. Chris and I both have several papers we're working on publishing from our research. And we have a super exciting field season we're planning for 2017! Already excited to think about heading back here.... Until then, kwaheri Mara (goodbye)!

Hippos on the bank of the Mara River

Our home in the Mara

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Why we need wiper blades on our sensors

It's really important for our research to be able to measure water quality in the river on a continual basis over long periods of time. To do this, we have some pretty amazing water quality sensors made by Eureka, that can measure lots of different water quality variables and store the data for weeks or months at a time. We have had these sondes for 6 years, and we have put them into some of the most challenging conditions I can imagine, and they just keep plugging along. Our model has the extra benefit of a wiper blade that cleans the surface of each sensor just before taking a new measurement, which is critical in the Mara for preventing biofilm or dirt from fouling the sensor and compromising the measurement. However, we still have to pull the sonde out of the river every few weeks just to clean off all the bugs, hippo poop and biofilm that accumulates.

Our water quality sonde after 3 weeks in the river

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Where is all the algae going?

Hippos and wildebeest load a lot of nutrients into the Mara River... like, a lot. All of those nutrients should fertilize the river and produce a lot of algae. It's what the textbooks say should happen, and it's what research in other rivers show should happen. We see it happen in some portions of the river where there are only moderate levels of hippo inputs. However, it is not what happens where the hippo and wildebeest inputs are highest. Why not? I don't know. 

This-- getting results that don't fit your expectations, that surprise you-- is simultaneously the most exciting and the most frustrating part of science. It's the part that makes science addictive, that keeps you coming back for more, that makes you think grand discovery is on your doorstep. It's also the part that can drive you crazy and make it difficult to publish your research. If you're getting an unexpected result, you need to 1) be absolutely sure it's a real result and not an artifact of something you screwed up on accident, and 2) figure out why you're getting it. "This is weird, and I don't know why it's happening," will only get you so far. 

So, back to our algae... Why don't we see more in the river? Is it not growing in the first place? Or is it growing and going somewhere? I have been asking this question a lot over the last year as I have been working on the final papers from my dissertation, and this summer I was able to run a pilot experiment to test what is becoming my primary hypothesis... hippo and wildebeest inputs provide so much food for bugs and fish that their populations increase and they then graze down the algae. This would be really cool if it turns out to be true, because it would show that animal inputs can enter the river food web through various pathways, and which pathway they follow determines how those inputs shape the river ecosystem. Or I could be wrong and it could be something else entirely... See? Exciting, and a little frustrating. 

So, to test this hypothesis, I set out a grazing exclusion experiment this summer. I basically grew algae in the river on glass discs (the white circles in the picture below). Some discs were protected from grazing (either by a cage to restrict fish or by insecticide to restrict bugs) and others were not. If there was more algae growing on the protected discs than on the not-protected discs, that would suggest that algae can grow in the river, but it doesn't accumulate there because it gets grazed down. 

Before deployment in the river
I wasn't originally planning to run this experiment this year, as we already had a full schedule, but I was excited to be able to put this together almost completely with supplies we had stored around our camp. I built two of these that I deployed at two different sites in the river. I left them out for two weeks and hoped they didn't get stepped on by a hippo, washed away in a flood or collected by an enterprising Maasai person with a need for some glass discs. I always consider it a major win when we put something out in the river and return later to find it still there. 

After 2 weeks in the river
After two weeks, we collected the glass discs and measured the chlorophyll on them as an indication of how much algae was growing there. To my excitement, the discs protected from grazing by insects had more algae than the discs that weren't protected, supporting my hypothesis! To my frustration, the cages protecting the discs from fish caught a lot of hippo feces which influenced those data, and the variability was so high that my insect results weren't statistically significant. Ah science... the perfect career for those who love a good challenge! So, I can't say I've solved this mystery yet, but I'm getting closer, and I'm already excited about getting back to the field next year to try again. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Sundowner farewell

One of the great traditions in East Africa is the sundowner, where you head out into the savanna, armed with a box of wine or a cold Tusker and some cheese and crackers if you're lucky, and watch the sunset. It's hard to describe the splendor of this moment, with the grassland turning golden in the last moments of light; the streaks of red, purple and gold reflecting across the wide open sky; the silhouette of elephants in the distance. It seemed the perfect way to send Ella off after a great and successful summer of field research. Kwaheri Ella and thanks for a wonderful summer!

Ella watching the sunset from the roof of the Land Rover

Friday, August 12, 2016

Testing hypotheses in artificial streams

Ella has been able to collect detailed data on gas emissions from 13 hippo pools, in addition to the 12 hippo pools we sampled last year. This will give her a nice range of hippo density and river flow level in order to test how these two factors influence gas emission levels. However, all the variability often present in the field can often make it difficult to accurately determine the influence of various factors, so Ella designed an experiment in the artificial streams to test her hypotheses more directly.

She added blackwater from the bottom of a very concentrated hippo pool to the artificial streams in varying concentrations.

Ella adding black water to the artificial streams
Then she ran the streams at different velocities.

Ella's artificial stream experiment
At various time points, she collected water samples from each stream and collected dissolved gases from each sample into vials which will be analyzed back at the Cary Institute. Actually, we had a team of 4 people working as fast as possible every 45 minutes throughout a whole day to collect the water samples at specific times. Again, we were lucky to have a great team!

Ella collecting a gas sample
We couldn't analyze any of the gas data in the field, so we won't know the results of this experiment until the fall, but all of the dissolved oxygen data from the streams suggest we were successful in capturing the range of conditions we were hoping for. Can't wait to see how all of this comes together!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Greenhouse gases from hippo pools

Over the last few weeks, Ella has been collecting water samples from a lot of different hippo pools in order to measure how hippo pools may contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases. Hippos load a lot of carbon into pools through feces, and as that feces decomposes, it uses up the oxygen in the water and the decomposition process emits greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Ella is studying how the number of hippos and flow of the river influence the quantity of greenhouse gases being emitted. 

To collect these data, Ella has had to collect water samples from a lot of different hippo pools, which can be a... let's say... exciting adventure. Hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa, and it is particularly dangerous to get between them and the river. The easiest way to access a hippo pool in the Mara is to follow a hippo trail down to the river's edge, and crouch there while you fill your sample bottle, keeping an active lookout for hippos and crocodiles. We always hire an armed ranger and spend a lot of time scouting a hippo pool before we collect samples there, and we always make conservative decisions about which pools we feel we can sample safely, but it is still an activity that really makes you feel alive. Ella handled it like a complete pro!

Ella collecting a water sample from a hippo pool
Much of the sample processing needs to be done as soon as possible, so we take a mobile lab in our Land Rover and do a lot of chemistry in the field. However, some samples need to be analyzed later in our lab tent (affectionately called the Lady Cave, because of all the hours I have spent doing chemistry in there, it's small cave-like interior, and the tendency of bats to roost in and around it). Here's Ella busting out some serious field chemistry in the Lady Cave, late into the evening, equipped with a head lamp to see the readings. Epic!

Late night chemistry in the lady cave

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Low cost sensor course in Tanzania

In August, Chris taught a course on low-cost sensor technology for the Tanzania water resource management authorities. This course was part of SELVA - the Serengeti Lake Victoria Sustainable Water Initiative for the Mara River - which is run by our friend and colleague Beth Anderson at FIU. Chris taught the course participants how to build low-cost water depth and water quality sensors using the open-source Arduino platform, and then the team was going to deploy various loggers at sites throughout the basin. This technology is so powerful, especially in places like East Africa, because it allows people on the ground to build and maintain their own sensors, rather than relying on expensive "black box" instruments that have to be shipped off for repair at great expense. Chris has already done some really great work training people in Arduino sensors in the Kenyan portion of the Mara Basin as part of MaMaSe - the Mau Mara Serengeti Sustainable Water Initiative - and this is an exciting new extension of that project. Ella was interested in learning about low-cost sensor development, so she attended the course.

Ella at Lake Victoria
For me, this meant a lovely week off hanging out with Lily in the charming lake-side town of Musoma. I love this town! It's right on the shores of Lake Victoria, so there are beautiful beaches, delicious fish, and a laidback beach town vibe. Musoma is located very close to the Mara Wetland, where the Mara River flows into Lake Victoria, so we have visited here a number of times. We currently have an ongoing project with WWF analyzing sediment cores in the Mara Wetland, so it was a great opportunity to visit the wetland as well and check in with our colleagues.

Beach on Lake Victoria
Musoma is also an amazing place to shop for kitenges, the brightly colored and boldly patterned African fabrics that many women wear. I love shopping for kitenges, and I was excited to get Ella into it. We couldn't resist having a few outfits made for us in the market.

Ella visiting with a seamstress in the market

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Can we make a hippo pool in a bottle?

This summer Chris set up one of the big experiments for his dissertation. He is interested in studying the influence of the microbial community on biogeochemical cycling in the bottom of a hippo pool, and the interacting effects of carbon loading and microbial community structure on those effects. He came up with a really clever way to test this by developing small "hippo pools" in 1 liter bottles, which allowed him to have lots of replication across different treatments. In total, he set up around 150 bottles!

Chris weighing hippo poop into a bottle
We sampled the bottles for about 12 different parameters at various time points over a few weeks. We could see some of the results immediately in the field as we collected the data, and it was really exciting to watch the changes in the different treatments over time. A lot of additional data will be analyzed from this experiment back in the lab at Yale. 

The team at work
It was a ton of work, but the preliminary results are really interesting. We saw some of the changes we expected to see, and others that were a complete surprise. Unexpected results are often the most exciting in science because they suggest new hypotheses and mechanisms you may not have considered already. We also had a great team, which makes all the difference. Everyone had a job, James played DJ on his ipod, and we had a lot of fun!

Team Hippo Pool

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The migration

We drove up to the Old Mara Bridge today and could see huge expanses of the wildebeest herd as far as the eye could see, meandering across the savanna in straight lines, as they follow individuals they've seemingly randomly picked as the leader. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

James' Farewell

After 6 weeks of studying, sampling and running an experiment in the Mara, it's time for James to head home. For his farewell dinner, we pulled out all the stops with bacon cheeseburgers and cold Tuskers! 

Thanks for a great summer James! See you back at Yale!

Monday, July 25, 2016


Our little streams continue to run beautifully, and so far nothing has disturbed them. Geemi and James have been taking turns spending the night there to help further deter wildlife, and they have both awakened on different nights to find elephants and buffalo grazing remarkably close to their small tent. The other night I received a text from James, telling me that he had gotten out of his tent to start the generator (that runs the streams when Serena power is off), and he had found a buffalo just a few meters in front of him, between him and the streams. He asked if he should go ahead and leave the tent. That's a dedicated student! For the record, I told him no:)

James and his streams
James is interested in how hippo feces and wildebeest carcass influence the river food web, so he has stocked the streams with different animal inputs and aquatic insects from the river. He is sampling the insect's body tissue over time, to see what they are eating. He also has set up nets over each stream to catch the insects after they metamorphose and leave the water as winged adults to see what emerges from different streams. 
James sucking bugs out of stream nets with an aspirator
Each morning is a hunt for insects inside each net, which James sucks out into a bottle (or sometimes your mouth on accident!) through a handheld aspirator. Each stream gets its own bottle for storing the emerged insects. At the beginning of this experiment, we weren't sure whether we would be able to successfully rear any insects, but James has been catching tens to hundreds of emerging insects each day, and already has started to see some interesting emergence patterns between treatments. So exciting!

Emerged insects from different stream treatments

Monday, July 18, 2016

Thank you Caitlin!

It's been a really busy few weeks! James's experiment is underway, Ella is busy collecting samples in the field and Chris is getting ready to start a big experiment. Fortunately, our friend Caitlin Staley came in to help with fieldwork this week. Caitlin is a senior in high school in Nairobi, and she is interested in pursuing a science degree in college, so we were excited to give her some field experience in ecology... and super grateful to have her help!

Caitlin doing chemistry in the field

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Yale Mara Field Crew

We have had a great team of folks in the field this summer. David was able to come for 3 weeks, to help teach the food web course and start two big experiments, and it was so great to have him in the field for that long. His visit also overlapped with both Ella and James's trips, so we had our full Yale team together. Good folks make all the difference in fieldwork, and this season, we truly couldn't have had a better team.

Ella, David, James, Amanda and Chris

Freshwater oyster or crocodile eggshell?

One of the beautiful but lesser-known creatures who lives in the Mara is Etheria elliptia, the freshwater oyster. We often find their shells on the river bank, but we've only ever found one alive, despite many hours spent kicknetting and digging around in the river. They are a type of freshwater mussel, which play important roles in river ecosystems as filter feeders and natural filtration devices. They can form a cement-like attachment to rocks or other shells (like the two attached shells in the photo below), which is remarkably strong and difficult to break (a friend broke a wooden rungu trying). They lay down their shells in layers, and I have long been interested in analyzing the elements in the different shell layers as a type of data recorder over time for conditions in the river. However, in order to date the layers, we would have to find live specimens. 

We have been told by several Maasai that they think the shells are crocodile eggshells, a description which I love, as it is exactly what I would imagine a crocodile eggshell would look like if I didn't know that they are actually flexible and almost paper-thin. But couldn't you just imagine a little crocodile, with bony scales and needle-sharp teeth, crawling out of one of these?

Etheria elliptica shells on the bank of the Mara River

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Welcome to the Mara, Ella!

Ella Jourdain, an undergraduate student at Yale and a participant in our NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates program, just arrived in the Mara. Ella will be doing research this summer on the influence of hippos on greenhouse gas emissions from the river, using both field and experimental approaches. Ella is from NYC and has never been camping before, but she is excited to spend her summer in a remote field camp with no electricity or running water-- pretty awesome! Karibu Ella!
Ella Jourdain

Monday, July 11, 2016

Streams up and running!

We set up our streams on the concrete pad, filled them with water, lined them with sand and gravel, and plugged in the motors. We watched the water start to lazily move around the 18 little rivers, riffling over cobbles, moving sand around the bends, and we took a moment to celebrate. We got our artificial stream experiment up and running in the middle of the Maasai Mara! 

Will they survive for the duration of the experiment? No idea. 

David, James and Chris celebrate

Our artificial stream array in the middle of the Mara

Sunday, July 10, 2016

And some fencing....

We were planning to set up 18 artificial streams in the middle of the Maasai Mara, fill them with water, put rotting wildebeest meat in several, and run an experiment for several weeks during which three rows of propellers had to turn 24 hours a day to circulate the water and nothing in the streams could be disturbed.

There's a lot of very large wildlife in the Maasai Mara, including a lot of animals that might be attracted to either water or the smell of rotting meat.

These two statements seem to be incompatible with one another. However, Brian assured us it could be done, and he's never been wrong before. We figured we would at least need a good fence and maybe some cowbells for good measure.

James helps set up the fence around our streams

James is really excited this is coming together

Saturday, July 9, 2016

6,500 liters of water

Water, water everywhere, and not a drop for our artificial streams...

This is how I felt as we embarked on the next challenge - how would we get enough water to fill our 18 streams with 60 liters each and conduct a 50% water change every other day (kids, take note... this is why math is important!). There was water at the Mara Conservancy headquarters, but it came from a borehole and is salty, and we weren't sure how that would impact our experiment. There was water in the nearby Mara River, but it was in the realm of large wildlife and thus full of hippo poop. One thing we were planning to test was the influence of hippo poop on the diet of aquatic insects, so we needed control water that didn't already have hippo poop in it. There was freshwater in a nearby borehole, but many people rely on it for drinking water and it occasionally runs low, so they weren't comfortable with us using so much water from it. There was water in the Mara upstream of hippos, but that was a 2.5 hour drive away on terrible roads, so it would be a logistical challenge to get it into our camp. Did you say logistical challenge?! We're in!

After about a million phone calls to everyone we know, and all of their friends, and all of their acquaintances with trucks, we finally found someone willing to sell us some water tanks that they could transport to the Mara, and someone else willing to drive a water tanker 2 hours from Narok, fill it up from the Mara upstream of hippos, drive the water 2.5 more hours to our camp, and fill up our tanks. I'm pretty sure everyone thought we were crazy, but we were on our way to having 6,500 liters of water!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Artificial streams in the middle of the Mara

We set up our first artificial stream experiment in 2014, using a portable artificial stream array we built in Kenya. It was so exciting to be able to conduct rigorous experiments in the field, with controls and replication, which is usually quite difficult to do at the ecosystem scale at which we normally work. In 2014, we set up the stream array at the Mara River Water User's Association in Mulot, which is a grassroots water resource management group. Working there was a great way to stay in touch with local stakeholders in the basin and involve them in our research, and they had electricity and a water pump and holding tank that made running the streams fairly easy.

We were excited to use the artificial streams again this year, but we were hoping to stay closer to our camp, which is in the middle of the Mara Conservancy. We also planned to expand our stream array to 18 streams. But how could we get 18 streams full of water and running continuously at a remote field camp with no electricity or running water? Ah, a logistics challenge is hard for us to resist!

The first step, which is often the case, was to consult Brian Heath, CEO of the Mara Conservancy. In addition to managing the Mara Triangle, Brian is  a consummate naturalist, logistics expert, and supportive friend, whose advice and guidance has been critical to our success more times than I can count. Brian generously offered to let us use a vacant concrete pad located near the Conservancy headquarters, and we had a good start. The manager from the nearby Mara Serena lodge graciously allowed us to use their electricity for the experiment. Now, all we needed was water.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Crabs in the Mara?

During the food web short course, we had several great scientists from the National Museums of Kenya join us, including Laban Njoroge, Head of the Invertebrate Zoology section and an expert in aquatic macroinvertebrates, and John Kochey, a scientist in the Invertebrate Zoology section and a doctoral student studying freshwater prawns. John brought along some prawn traps to set in the river, and at the New Mara Bridge, on the border of Kenya and Tanzania, we caught a crab! We have seen a similar type of crab in the upper Mara, but we have never seen these in the lower Mara, and it turns out this is the first time this species has been documented in the Mara. It is Potamonautes niloticus, which is found within the Nile Basin, including Lake Victoria and its tributaries. It's a beautiful animal, with an olive green back and bright red claws tinged with blue. It's so exciting, after all the time we have spent in the Mara, to still be finding new animals there, especially one as unique as this.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Food Web Short Course

This year we taught our first short course on food webs and stable isotope ecology in the Mara River. The course was taught by myself, David Post, Emma Rosi-Marshall and Frank Masese, with funding from the National Science Foundation. We had 12 participants from Yale University, the National Museums of Kenya, Egerton University and Eldoret University. Some of the course participants were senior scientists or professors interested in learning more about these topics, and others were undergraduate or graduate students still planning their research. The course began with a day of lectures, followed by three days of a field sampling campaign, and then a final day of data analysis.

It was a really wonderful group of scientists and colleagues, all of whom work on different areas of freshwater ecology, and we had a wonderful time together in the field! The best part about the course was that everyone had different areas of specialization, so we all learned from one another.

Our outdoor laboratory

Searching for macroinvertebrates

Sorting bugs

Electroshocking for fish

Setting gillnets for fish

Streamside lecture

The requisite breakdown

Outdoor laboratory #2

Electroshocking for fish

Picking bugs out of hippo poop

Sampling with an armed ranger

Collecting wildebeest bones to sample biofilm

Lecture on aquatic macroinvertebrates

The team

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Welcome to the Mara, James!

This summer we have two undergraduate students joining us in the Mara for the first time. They are part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program through our National Science Foundation grant. The first student, James Landefeld, joined us in the Mara this week. James will be conducting research on the influence of hippo and wildebeest inputs on the Mara River food web, using both field sampling and artificial streams. Karibu James!