Monday, October 31, 2011

Week 7 - Halloween!

Happy Halloween Everybody!
Note the curled mustache
A giant praying mantis that appeared after a rain storm

    Halloween is here, the sun is shining, and you couldn't find a trick-or-treater for hundreds of kilometers. Hearing of the snow in New York, I'm starting to dread the return journey. I've gotten used to the constant sun and over-100 degree weather. Living here has also caused some serious changes in my mentality. I no longer think of texting, see any advertisements, I have very little idea of what's going on with the news, and I don't even keep track of the time of day. When I see people outside of the compound, I smile and wave and say "Ejoka", which is Turkana for hello (I think). Now I no longer find it strange that they are baffled by our skin, our hair, and our digital cameras. I also don't mind the bugs anymore! But I'm getting ahead of myself.

    This week we started our unit on Human Evolution. Before taking this module, I thought of myself as being fairly knowledgeable about human ancestors and human evolution. I had the impression that we had most of the kinks in our family tree worked out and this evidence was being taught to us as a fait accompli. But I was completely wrong.
A complete cast of the famous Lucy fossils for us to examine

    Hearing our professor, Bernard Wood, discuss the fossil record I was struck by the extremely limited extent of our knowledge. Within the scientific community, virtually nothing is agreed upon. With very early fossils, it is sometimes unclear whether they represent hominins (the family we belong to) or merely fossil apes. And with the slightly later fossils (around Lucy's age), researchers argue about whether certain fossils represent distinct species, or if they can be lumped together in the same category. Even the extent of our genus Homo hasn't been decided upon.
    The problem mainly boils down to a lack of evidence. Bones are the only thing that are normally preserved, and while we can tell quite a bit from bones, reconstructing evolutionary relationships from them can be, in the words of our professor, "a bit dodgy". Even the bones we do get are mangled and distorted most of the time, which adds another layer of difficulty.
An evolutionary tree of all living primates
A modern human skeleton
       This lack of certainty may seem very frustrating at first, but it is also very exciting. There is wide open space for researchers to enter this field and start clearing up some of these controversies. What drove human evolution, and what exactly happened during the six million years after we diverged from the chimpanzee lineage is still one of the great mysteries of modern science.
    But apart from engaging in the intellectual battle of scientific uncertainty, we also had a bit of fun this week. On Saturday we decided to throw our own little Halloween party. We had very little resources to work with for our costumes, but some of us got on quite well.

My classmate, Hui, dressed as a Zebra. I call it a Huibra

    The next day, we painted a newly built medical dispensary. TBI and affiliated organizations help build these dispensaries and give them enough supplies to help the people living in the area, who have little else to turn to.
 Another great week in the Turkana Basin. Now go out and enjoy your Halloween candy!


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Week 6 - The Life of Francis

Me in traditional Turkana garb
Sieving for small fossils
This week was the second week in our paleontology module. Main activities includes more fossil hunting, a research project, and an exercise in visualizing geological time (using toilet paper!). A lot of important fossils are very small, like teeth, bits of cranium, and rodent fossils. So paleontologists sieve the area to recover anything they might have missed while walking around.
The entire 4.5 billion years of Earth's history scaled to the size of a roll of toilet paper

But this week I wanted to redirect your attention from our activities to one of the staff -- Francis Ekai Emekui.
Francis on top of a mountain

Francis has been many things to us in the last six weeks: he is our guide when we leave the compound, he delivers our food from the cooks, he helped me conduct my interviews two weeks ago, and he always has cookies in his bag for when we get hungry out in the field. Additionally, he's a great guy to talk to.
Francis is 36, and has lived in the area for the majority of the great archaeological and paleontological discoveries. He remembers following scientists around during the excavation of Turkana Boy, when he was just 12 years old!
Francis celebrating after finishing sieving
He was born in 1975 in Nariokotome, which is a few hundred kilometers north of here. His father, Ikai Emekui was a goat herder with around 200 goats, and had two wives in addition to Francis' mother.
In 1999 he started working with local researchers a few months out of the year, and in 2002 he joined a team of French fossil hunters. Francis has a great eye for fossils, and so he was hired as a surveyor, to go out into the field and seek out potential places to excavate. He worked with that team for eight years until he was recruited to work here in 2010 by Richard Leakey.

In addition to his services to us, his main duties are to find, clean, and organize fossils. Like his father, he has three wives, who he only gets to see two or three times a year for the few weeks when he isn't working.
In response to my asking how the area has changed, he says that tradition is waning. When he was a kid, everyone wore only the skins of animals, and subsisted mainly on a diet of goat milk and goat blood. Now western cloths are pervasive, and many people buy food from Lodwar instead of getting it from their animals.
The life of Francis is an excellent example of how institutions like this can affect positive change in the area, both in the realm of scientific knowledge, and social aid. By employing local people like Francis, and training them in a specialized skill, TBI is contributing to the long term growth in this area instead of just exploiting the available scientific evidence.

Back to the group, this morning we went into the nearby town Lodwar to shop for a few things. Almost everyone ended up buying traditional cloths.
Tomorrow we start a module on human evolution and the great discoveries of this area.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Week 5 - Paleontology


My head next to an elephant mandible
This week we began the third module of our time here: paleontology. We started off this week by familiarizing ourselves with the various components of the mammalian skeletons. Having no prior experience in bones, I couldn't tell a femur from a fibula, but one tends to learn quickly when you study all day.

On Tuesday we went out into the field to look for fossils. The area surrounding our compound is literally covered with fossils just sitting on the surface. But, not knowing what to look for, I had never noticed any of them. When we began our search, everything looked like rocks to me. Rocks and rocks and rocks. But as soon as you find your first fossil, they magically appear all around you as your eye keys in to the characteristic shape and texture. I ended up finding about thirty pieces of bone! (almost all of them were fish)
Can you find the fossil?
Here it is!
It's a piece of fish!

We also learned about taxonomy and evolutionary trees. Did you know that horses are more closely related to rhinos then to camels? I didn't.

Later in the week, we learned how to clean the sediment off of bones. you use an air powered drill and look at the bone through a magnified glass or a telescope to make sure you don't scratch the surface. We practiced on real dinosaur bone (dinosaur bones!!). It's amazing holding something that is so old in your hand. One feels a strange connection for the distant past and a woozy feeling in your stomach from trying to imagine millions of years. It's also cool seeing a fragment of a leg bone that's as big as your head!

Fellow blogger Hui with a fossil she found
At the beginning of this week, I didn't even know where a humerus is on your body. Now I can tell the difference between the proximal and distal ends of long bones, tell which side it goes on, and give a reasonable guess at the animal. I also find fossils even when I'm not looking. Just yesterday I spotted a fossilized fish bone next to the dorm. They're everywhere!

 At one site we found a lot of crocodile. To the left is my classmate Kate holding a crocodile pelvis she excavated. And Hui actually found a species of giraffe that was never found in the area before. Also, I learned that iPads are replacing notebooks in the field. On Thursday, I found a pig tooth that our professor wanted to collect. Meave Leakey walked me through the process of recording all of the necessary data before bagging the specimen. She pulled up an excel spreadsheet on her iPad and had me type it all in!

Another great week in the field
Until next week!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Week 4

Hullo everybody!
Week four, and we're still going strong.

This week of ecology was dominated by our independent research projects. In case you didn't read the last post, we were all instructed to come up with a feasible experiment, perform it, and then write a paper on our results. But we still had a couple of class trips this week, my favorite being our visit to the pilot farm.

The Turkana Basin Institute recently invested in creating a small farm for the people in the area. The idea was to reduce their dependence on food aid by teaching them to grow crops for themselves. The farm consists of a small plot of land situated right next to the river. It's very difficult to grow things in this environment because of the heat and the poor soil quality, so tending the crops requires constant effort. To water them, they set up a foot-powered pump that siphons water from the river. The people grow eggplants, onions, watermelon, spinach, and tomatoes.
My classmate Hui on the water pump

After we took a tour, we sat down and talked with the women. One of the questions they asked us was, "it seems that there aren't many men in America, does this mean that women are the powerful ones?" (of our ten students, only three are male). We answered that it depends, but sometimes. When we were done talking with the women, they all sang a song for us. For our turn, we opted to sing "Yellow Submarine", but somehow managed to forget the words halfway into the song. Woops!
Later that day we ate eggplant purchased from the farm for lunch. It was delicious!
The rest of my week mostly consisted of collecting data for my project and writing the paper. I was attempting to measure the effect of goat grazing on a particular plant: Indigofera spinosa. Indigofera is a small shrub covered in very prickly needles. Not a fun thing to step in, but somehow the goats have no problem eating it.
TBI is surrounded by a fence that keeps the goats from eating getting inside. So by comparing the vegetation inside the fence to outside, one can get a reasonable estimate of how goats are affecting this landscape. For my data, I collected vegetation density and reproductive success on the plants inside and outside the compound. I also designed a survey and administered it to some goat herders in the area.
After I crunched all of the numbers I found that there is six times more Indigofera inside TBI than outside, and each plant produces on average six times more seed pods. If you just compare pictures of the plants inside and outside the fence, you can clearly see the size difference:
This is from inside TBI, note the long branches on all of the plants
And this is a typical plant that has been grazed over, also notice that there are far fewer of them

A door made from unwound vegetable oil cans
What I found during the surveys was that the goat herders around here just let their goats out in the morning and allow them to find food wherever they like. That means that the goats spend around 12 hours a day searching for food and eating it. Another surprising result was that over the course of last year, every herder lost about 2/3rds of their goats, mostly due to starvation. These are people who depend entirely on their goats, so it would be like losing 2/3rds of the money in your bank account. The general survival strategy is to accumulate as many goats as possible, and then when drought hits and most of them starve, they still have enough to live off of. Unfortunately, it creates a vicious cycle, because if everybody gets as many goats as they can and all of the goats forage for food, they eat all of the food and majority of the goats die.

But convincing people to own fewer goats is difficult because they are at the basis of many social interactions. For example, giving 150 goats for a bride-price is not uncommon around here. Guess I'm not getting married anytime soon!
The assembly at the school
After some late nights, everybody managed to get our work done. Then we presented our finds on Friday and Saturday to the class. Seeing all of the information people gathered gave me such a deeper understanding of this environment. I learned about two species of ants and their survival strategies, the several species of mosquitoes and who they prefer biting, the giant solifuges (scary spider things) that I see running around at night, camouflaged insects, how food aid is distributed, and how fast the bugs and plants can react to additional water or food in the environment. The way that animals and people survive in such a barren landscape is always fascinating, and is a testament to how adaptable life is.
On Saturday morning we took a class trip to a primary school in Lodwar. To celebrate the life of nobel prize winner Wangari Maathi, we planted trees around the school. It was a great time, and it's always fun to interact with the local kids. After visiting the school, we went to an IDP camp (internally displaced peoples) and did the same thing. Again, we got a little music performance from the crowd.
My classmate Sarah having a wonderful time with the kids
Altogether, another lovely week in Kenya.
The beautiful flower of an eggplant

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Week 3 - Ecology and the Kerio Delta

This is a picture of the farmers tan that I'm developing
 And so ends the third week of our trip! This week, we moved on to our next unit of study: ecology. On our first day of class, we talked around campus while our professor, Dino Martin, identified the major plant species in the area. We were ambushed by ticks while we stood in the shade of an acacia tree. Everyone's was frantically brushing them off of our legs while we ran away in a mass panic.
This is one of the ticks on the end of my knife

After that, we moved on to bee catching. Running around with a net, looking for exotic bees to catch gives one a strange mix of feelings. At first, I felt like a little kid again. But if you let yourself get carried away, you start to feel like a lion stalking it's prey. And then you realize that you look ridiculous. In spite of the emotional roller coaster, we managed to catch a large variety of bee species. One group bagged 11 different types of bees. Me and my partner only had 8. Can't win 'em all.

Us trying to catch very small and fast parasitic bees. We got 30 in the end!
A major component of this unit is conducting original research and writing a paper on it. I choose to research goat diet, and if goat herders actively try and prevent overgrazing (it's important!). Another student here is researching mosquito bite frequency in relation to blood type, and a couple of others are researching the insect ecology of mammalian decomposition. We have students studying ant behavior, somebody researching the effects of rainfall on flora (she's watering a couple plots of land), researching the effect of food-aid on local development, and another student doing research on the ant-mimic spider. So we all scatter during our mid-day break, and come back sweaty and tired to tell each other about our progress. On Thursday, I spent an hour counting the seed pods of the major grazing plant species. As soon as you start to sweat, sting-less bees swarm around you looking for moisture. At one point I must have had well over 30 buzzing around my face!
Dung beetles proving their namesake

On Saturday, we took a trip the Kerio Delta. The Kerio River is about thirty kilometers south of TBI, but short distances can take a long while on sand roads. The delta was beautiful though. As soon as you get near the water, the normally barren environment gives way to a dense forest that you have to crawl through on hands and knees. Unfortunately, most of the vegetation has been replaced by invasive prosopus plants that were originally introduced to provide food for goats. But the plants are both extremely bitter tasting (I tasted one) and toxic in larger amounts. So because nothing can eat them, they've multiplied exponentially and nobody really knows how to kill them.

Nonetheless, the delta was gorgeous. We took a boat ride and looked at some of the birds in the area. There were some truly beautiful birds, my favorite being the Goliath Heron, which is about five feet tall! I've never seen a bird even half as big. I couldn't get the camera out in time to photograph it though.
When we got back from the boat trip, we hung out with some local kids from Kerio Primary. They were really fascinated with our digital cameras, and so we spent a half hour taking pictures of each other and laughing.
This was taken by one of the kids

On the way back to camp, we parked near a school. As soon as we were in view, all of the children swarmed around us and surrounded the truck. They climbed in through every opening, smiling and laughing the whole time. It was really wonderful. I hope being the center of attention won't inflate my ego. By the time I return to the states I'll expect people to treat me like a movie star!
 And so ends another week at TBI. I'll leave you with a picture of the beautiful glorioso flower.