Life on the Black Cotton

Mpala Ranch has two main soil types–black cotton and red soil–which host vastly different plant communities. Our research takes place on the black cotton soil, where the plant community is dominated by one tree species, the whistling thorn tree (Acacia drepanolobum). Acacias in general are known for having thorny stems and hosting mutualistic ant colonies. The whistling thorn trees have many long, straight spines on the branches, some of which have a swollen, hollow base, which ants can live inside. They also secrete nectar from the base of their leaves that ants can eat. In exchange, the ants may defend the tree against herbivores ranging from other insects to elephants.

The whistling thorn gets its name from the sound the wind makes when it blows through the holes in the hollow thorns. Other trees grown on the black cotton soil, including other acacia species, but the whistling thorn trees dominate. Underneath them grows a variety of grasses.

Many different animals use the black cotton, including wildlife (elephants, giraffe, antelope, buffalo, cheetah, lions), domestic herbivores (cattle, goats, sheep, camel), reptiles, birds, rodents, and insects. Each species affects the plant community in different ways. Grazers eat the grasses, often singling out their preferred species. Browsers pull leaves from the trees. Wood-boring beetles carve tunnels through the tree stems. Elephants will even rip up or knock over full-sized trees, possibly just because just because they find it fun.

These photos were all taken during the dry season, when the grass is brown and the trees drop most of their leaves. In a month or two it will all be vibrantly green again.

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From the Porch

Within the large wildlife reserve and research center that is Mpala, there’s a smaller area where researchers and staff live and lounge. This area is surrounded by electric fences that keep out the biggest of animals–elephants, hippo, giraffe, buffalo, and lions. Even just in this small space, though, birds and smaller mammals are abundant (and often very habituated to people). Also, the front porch of the kitchen/dining hall boasts sunrise views stunning enough to make jet-lagged 4:30am wakeups a blessing.

Kenya, Day 1

I was lucky enough to be invited to join my advisor on his 41st research trip to Kenya. For the next month I’ll be living at Mpala Research Center, helping with an experiment looking at the interaction between herbivory (by cattle or wildlife) and prescribed fires. We flew in to Nairobe late at night, and the next morning drove about four hours to the research station. The drive itself was incredible, seeing the change from drier lowlands to wetter uplands to dry again uplands–this time in the rain shadow of Mount Kenya, which remained shrouded by heavy clouds. I loved the alternating patches of farmland with towns, bright colored shops and roadside stands. The road itself boasted newer cars and Landrover-type safari vehicles, overburdened motorcycles and brightly colored buses with catchy shoutouts to Jesus painted on their sides.

The research station itself is incredible, with views looking out at the mountain range and an impressive diversity of wildlife. In just my first afternoon here I’ve seen eleven wild mammal species–zebra (Plains and Grevy’s), giraffe (reticulated), bush hyrax, warthog, dik dik, mongoose, bush baby, hare, vervet monkey, and bush buck–in addition to cattle, donkeys, sheep and goats. I wasn’t quick enough to get pictures of all of them, but I know there will be a lot more to see and many more opportunities! Our few hours in the field ended with thunderstorms in the distance and the setting sun lighting up the clouds over Mount Kenya.

Humes Ranch

We squeezed in a late-September backpacking trip up the Elwha. Despite a bit of chilly rain, it was a really beautiful trip, and we camped near a creek that feeds into the Elwha River. I’m really glad we managed this last-minute jaunt, as winter storms have once again destroyed the road leading to this trailhead, and it may not be passable next summer.