Course Blog


Field Notes from Mpala's Undergraduate Field Semester
Princeton and Columbia Universities


Agriculture and Conservation at Mpala

April 20
By Lisa Sheridan

Lisa, a third-year student at Princeton University, reflects on how this semester's courses have influenced her thinking about the interactions between humans and the environment, particularly with respect to food production. 

Above, the group visits an agricultural area near Mpala Research Center.


During our first class, Vector Biology, Professor Mpala Executive Director Dr. Dino J. Martins took us to visit an agricultural area near Mpala Research Center to study the use of water from the Ewaso Ny’grio river for agriculture, and investigate the presence of disease vector breeding sites. We visited during the dry season when the riverbed was dry, save a couple of shallow, stagnant pools spotted here and there, which (we learned) were prime locations for mosquitoes to lay their eggs.

While we were there, we were lucky to get the opportunity to interview several agriculturalists about the crops they were growing, and the challenges they faced. Water was high on the list. One explanation of the water shortage stood out poignantly to me. As one farmer described, crop-growers are restricted by water management agencies to only using water on one prescribed day a week.

"If the river isn’t flowing that day, but it’s flowing the next, what can we do?" he asked. "Let our crops starve?"

Above, the group searches for mosquito larvae in stagnant pools of the Ewaso Ny'giro riverbed.

Our class came to understand the plight of Kenyan farmers more fully in subsequent classes. Our class on Community Conservation in Amboseli with Dr. Paula Kohumbu focused on Human-Wildlife Conflict, when we had the opportunity to speak to several more crop-growers whose farms had been damaged by crop-raiding elephants. In addition to water limitation, they also have to cope with the risk of damage to crops by wild animals and insects that seem increasingly resistant to traditional pesticides. Exacerbating these issues are things like a lack of adequate compensation for wildlife-induced damage, limited access to crop insurance, and, of course, climate change.

Our next classes on Savannah Ecology and The Natural History of Mammals gave us the opportunity to study the mammals on Mpala, wildlife and livestock alike, and their impact on the environment.

We got the chance to conduct research into the effect of cattle bomas on vegetation quality at Lewa Conservancy (in neighboring Meru county). We found that, at moderate intensity, cattle bomas can lead to the formation of “glades,” high-quality grazing areas for both wildlife and cattle. In our study of mammals, we learned about similar research that has shown how developing and adopting sustainable agricultural techniques like “bunch grazing” and “mixed grazing” can even improve natural resources for wildlife, and allow livestock to harmoniously coexist with wildlife.

Above, Juan and I conduct a vegetation transect at an old boma site at Lewa Conservancy with the help of our Mpala driver, Jackson, who also happens to be highly skilled at plant identification!

I think conservationists can often point the finger at agriculture as being culpable for a lot of damage we see being done to the environment. However, I believe that Mpala is one of the conservancies leading the way in understanding and (importantly) demonstrating how agricultural land-use need not impinge on conservation priorities. With the pressure of climate change and the accompanying food crisis mounting, these are invaluable lessons, ones that cannot be learned soon enough if our world and its diversity are to be protected.


Social Butterflies with Stripes:
Social Networks of Grevy's Zebra

"It's important to understand how the zebra work together, and for what reasons, because if social behavior is part of what can make a Grevy's Zebra successful, we could use this knowledge in thir conservation."

When we say zebras are social, what exactly does this mean? Columbia University student El Pressman explains what she learned studying the dynamics of Grevy's Zebra on Mpala. 

Above, Cecley Hill (left) and El Pressman (right), third-year students from Columbia University, observe zebras in the field

April 1
By El Pressman

One of my favorite projects in our course so far was during Dr. Dan Rubenstein's Natural History of African Mammals class. During this class, we conducted group research projects, and I was in a group with fellow Princeton and Columbia students Lisa, Zach, and Cecley. We were interested in studying the social behavior of Grevy's Zebra, an endangered species of zebra that can only now be found at a few places in Kenya, including Mpala!

We know that Grevy's social behavior is defined by fission-fusion groups: unrelated Grevy's zebra come together to form groups, which reduces the risk of predation and can increase the time each zebra can spend grazing. But when different zebra have different needs, they'll split apart to fulfill these needs, so new groups can reform and dissolve in as little as 10 minutes. We knew from previous work we did at Lewa Conservancy that mother Grevy's with young foals tend to spend time in fusion groups with other moms--so we wondered if they were forming groups with the same moms, or, in other words, forming social groups that, in spite of being fission-fusion, had defined social organization of individuals that interacted more with each other. Furthermore, these moms will spend lots of time on the territory of an adult male, who can watch out for predators while the moms graze, so we predicted that these territorials males, which interact with many different zebras as they come onto their territories, would have the largest social networks. 

In order to test this hypothesis, we got to use really cool software that the Zebra Project here has been working on: IBEIS. IBEIS, or Image-Based Ecological Information System, can take pictures of zebras and scan their stripes like a barcode, allowing us to identify unique individuals and track what other individuals they were spending time with. (Thank you so much to Dan, Kaia, Jason, and everyone else working on IBEIS!) For our field work, we drove around the south region of Mpala for three days (thanks Jackson!) and conducted photographic surveys of every group of Grevy's we saw--we took over 900 photos! Then, we imported the photographs into IBEIS and began using the software to characterize the social groups. 

Above, an example of a fusion group of Grevy's zebra that we photographed and then identified using their stripes! 

Our results were very exciting! We identified 94 unique individuals in 50 fusion groups over the three days, and, using an association matrix that IBEIS generated, we developed a model of the social network of the Grevy's in Mpala's southern section. This is what is looks like!:

Key: NLF means Non-Lactating Female; LF means Lactating Female, e.g. a mom with a young foal; TM means Territorial Male, and BM means Bachelor Male.

The social networks shows 2 different communities
--the large one here, and not pictured is another community of bachelor males that doesn't regularly interact with this main community. There are also 5 distinct modules (the pink, green, blue, and orange here), connected by particular individuals
 with large social networks-- modules are groups with stronger ties within then than without to the larger community. We had predicted that these "connector individuals" would be territorial males
, but we actually found both sexes served as hubs
! For example, the largest node (signifying the most well-connected individual) is TM1, a male, but the second is NLF1, a female! We also found, contrary to our hypotheses, that modularity did not follow reproductive state. Lactating females do not form modules just with other mothers, but mixed with other females! However, modules were mostly split between bachelor males or females, confirming our other prediction that modules would follow sex, if not reproductive state.


Finally, we found that measures of social connectedness were tightly postively correlated with each other, and were negatively correlated with measures of clustering, or "clique-ish-ness." This told us that, while highly social individuals tend to be social in all aspects, less social individuals are not solitary, but instead interact with fewer other zebra in small groups or "cliques." In other words, there were very few unsociable individuals, but there were discrete cliques that spent more time with each other. So, we answered our original question: certain Grevy's do enjoy hanging out with the same other zebras consistently, in spite of their fission-fusion dynamics! 

This project gave us new insights into the social behavior of Grevy's zebra. It's important to understand how the zebra work together, and for what reasons, because if social behavior is part of what can make a Grevy's zebra successful, we could use this knowledge in the conservation of Grevy's zebra. 


To the Rainforest!

February 28

The Vector Biology course taught by Dr. Dino J. Martins concluded with a week of fieldwork in Kakamega Rainforest in Western Kenya. The trip included rainforest walks and insect sampling, a field visit with public health researchers surveying malaria mosquitoes in the region, and a visit to forest caves to sample bedbugs and other small insects adapted to living with native bats. 

Here are some highlights from the trip - through the "eyes" of the students' cameras.

Welcome to the rainforest: Kakamega's lush environment is a world apart from the arid savanna of Mpala. The students explored how these different environmental conditons affect the ecology of vectors, particularly mosquitoes. Photo by Luke Carabbia.

Dr. Dino J. Martins shows the class the iridescent wings of a Mother of Pearl Butterfly. Photo by Luke Carabbia.

Students accompany public health researchers on household surveys measuring the abundance, species, and malaria-transmission status of mosquitoes around Webuye, near the rainforest's edge. Photo by Tong Mu.

Friends in the field: Anita Montero, a third-year student at Columbia University, is greeted by a curious locust. Photo by Lisa Sheridan.

The students survey the rainforest from above. The patchwork treetops reflect a history of mixed land use: undisturbed forest, selectively-logged forest, exotic timber plantations, farmlands, and forest segments dominated by invasive guava trees. Pictured, from left, are Zach Smart, Tong Mu, Luke Carabbia, Juan Gonzales, Quinn Parker, Meredith Mihalopoulos, Megan Drumell, and Jason Hagani. Photo by researcher Job Ilondanga.


Mountain Views

February 17
Post and pictures by Lindsay Martinez


Students enjoy a picnic lunch on the upper slopes of Mt. Kenya. Lindsay Martinez is wearing a grey baseball cap, just behind and left from Dr. Dino Martins (front).

Since we arrived to Mpala two weeks ago, we have been treated to extremely clear skies and awesome views of Mt. Kenya. This was no different this past Thursday, as we assembled around the mess hall at around 6:15 a.m. to prepare ourselves for a day at the mountain. We looked out at orange skies from the rising sun and could clearly see the mountain, feeling amazed that we were heading there while also crossing our fingers that the weather would stay as clear as it was at sunrise.

After making our packed lunched and piling into Princeton vans, we began our drive to the mountain, the entire time getting closer and closer and more and more excited. We passed through a bit of a rush hour in the town of Nanyuki as everyone was heading to school or work, before going through the entrance to Mt. Kenya National Park. From there, we proceeded up a steep, steep drive to Old Moses camp, where we saw hikers and caretakers preparing for the day.

We hiked up from Old Moses through an Afro-alpine ecosystem dotted with yellow wildflowers and full of a variety of endemic plants and animal species. This included a variety of birds, ranging from tiny pollinators to huge predators towering above us. We smelled different endemic plants and learned that some of them are involved in medicine, like a plant used for an antidepressant and another a malaria drug.

Mt. Kenya is bombarded by moisture moving off the Indian Ocean, which brings strong rains close to the mountain. While hiking, we could look behind us and see the entire Laikipia Plateau, including Mpala, identifiable by the peak of Mukenya, a large hill on the property. We also saw how much the land changed as distance from Mt. Kenya increased; the edges of the plateau looked dry and brown, but just below the mountain the land was very green. We learned that this land is incredibly productive, providing many of the fruits and vegetables we had been eating during meals at Mpala.

We were hoping that there would be no heavy rains during our hike, and our wish was granted. We hiked and climbed ridges until my ribs and legs ached and we were only about 600 meters below the main peak of the mountain. Clouds blew around but, for the most part, we had an amazing view of the highest point in Kenya and the glaciers surrounding it. With climate change, these glaciers are beginning to sublimate, their ice skipping the liquid phase and going straight to gas. This can affect all of Kenya below the mountain, as the country depends on water from Mt. Kenya.

Of course, we made this trip as part of our vector biology class, where we learn about the species like mosquitoes that transmit diseases to humans, livestock, and wildlife. We were searching for mosquito breeding sites on the mountain, and our professor, Dr. Dino Martins, told us he had found mosquito larvae above 4,000 meters. We checked about every bit of standing water we could find during the hike, but didn’t find any mosquitoes breeding.

However, we hiked past zebra dung and leopard scat during our climb, showing that the mountain provides a home to wildlife. We also came face to face with the structure that basically provides water to all of Kenya, and we were awed by its amazing peaks. By the end of our day, it was no wonder to us that Mt. Kenya is an important object in many Kenyan cultures, like the Samburu and Maasai. Even though we didn’t find any mosquitoes, it was clear to see that Mt. Kenya is a giver of life.

Karibu Mpala!

February 14
Post and pictures by Jason Hagani

Follow Jason on Instagram @jayhagani_photography and Facebook @jayhaganiphotography.


On their first weekend in Kenya, the students visited the equator in nearby Nanyuki town. Jason Hagani is in the back row, second from left.

I knew as soon as I stepped out of the Jomo Kenyatta Airport into the warm Nairobi sun that I was in for the experience of a lifetime. Despite the 30 hours of travel, the complete lack of sleep, and the incredibly annoying leg cramps, I was more excited than I had ever been in my life.

A reticulated giraffe peeks through the brush.

A little orientation: I am spending most of my 3 months in Kenya at Mpala Research Center in central Kenya. It’s a vast 49,000 acres of pristine wilderness that millions of animals call home – from enormous elephants to prowling leopards to hungry hippos. What makes Mpala so special is that it’s operated by not just Kenyan organizations (like the National Museums of Kenya), but also American ones like the Smithsonian Institution and Princeton. It’s an international conglomerate set on promoting the importance of protecting the increasingly threatened African savannah.

While it honestly doesn’t seem like it, I did actually come to Kenya to do work. Over the next 12 weeks I’ll be taking four research-based field classes dedicated to studying different interactions between animals, humans, and the environment. Our first class is Vector Biology – the study of the organisms that carry and spread diseases (mosquitoes, in particular). At first, I thought the class was a crazy idea. What kind of idiot goes to Africa - home of the world's deadliest mosquitoes - and goes out of their way to spend time with them? But after just a week I've grown a new appreciation for mosquitoes (although I'm still questioning my intelligence) and their role in transmitting some of the world's most infamous killers. The class is taught by the incomparable Dr. Dino Martins, accompanied by good boy Barabara (which means “road” in Swahili) and classroom distraction Dudu (“insect”).

It’s difficult to pick a highlight from my first week, but the game drives really stood out. Each one is a treasure hunt for some exotic and elusive animal, and you really never know what you’re going to find. Adding to the fun is the transportation: we drive around in these safari vans designed to allow us all to stand and peek our heads out the roof.

A few nights ago we spotted two male lions roaming around after dark. It is impossible to describe the rush we all felt as we watched those two kings stroll calmly next to our vans. They paid no mind to our excited whispers and the constant clicks of our cameras - like they knew that the savannah was theirs to rule.

If there’s one common theme from my first week in Kenya, it’s that everything here – from the villagers to the elephants to the army ants – works together in a harmonious environment the likes of which I’ve never encountered. This is the first place I've ever visited where the people truly consider themselves to be a part of the natural world, not above it. It's a mindset and a way of life that I hope the rest of the world will one day grow to rediscover.

If my first week is any indication, my time in Kenya is going to be truly special. Thank you for reading, and I hope you'll stay tuned for next week's post! I'll leave you with one final photo of the magnificent Mount Kenya during a classic sunrise.

Tutaonana baadaye - see you later!