Brought to you by PhD student Rebecca Finger:
As temperatures start to drop and the colors change, graduate students are returning from near and far field sites to fill EEES laboratories with samples and specimens. For me, the spring and summer brought me to western Greenland, along with fellow EEES graduate students Melissa DeSiervo, Christine Urbanowicz, and Jessica Trout-Haney, where I spent over 7 weeks tracking the progression of the short Arctic summer. I am particularly interested in modelling the phenology of plant systems and biogeochemical cycles to better understand potential changes occurring as the climate warms. Some of the questions I am asking include: How do soil characteristics relate to plant traits? As temperatures warm, are growing seasons lengthening promoting more plant production or are soils becoming drier and limiting plant growth? How is Greenland different than other parts of the Arctic?
Currently I am sifting through over 200 soil cores and thousands of shrub leaf samples that were collected from May-July in order to better understand plant-soil linkages in the tundra of Greenland. But before I can answer any questions, samples must be sieved, sorted, extracted, ground, and analyzed. It is going to take quite a long time, but luckily I have all fall and winter to transition a freezer full of samples into spreadsheets full of data. Perhaps that is just one of the hidden perks of being an ecologist; each season brings about its own tasks and challenges. Well that, and we sure do get to do a lot of cool science that matters in some truly special places.
The mathematical inequality statement is seemingly simple: (16 feet of giraffe) > (4 feet of grass). Under this premise, it’s easy to imagine that locating groups of giraffe in the open grassy savannas might be a relatively straightforward task…but occasionally giraffe behaviour trumps rudimentary mathematical representations. It was mid-afternoon during the second day of our seasonal giraffe surveys of Murchison Falls National Park and as we bounced along the dusty game track, we saw what appeared to be a lone giraffe standing in an area of open savanna. I pulled my Nikon Monarch binoculars to my eyes and as I glassed the apparently solo adult female, several other giraffes in repose gracefully lifted their heads above the swards to reveal a group of Rothschild’s giraffe in what – moments before- appeared to be a silent sea of grass.
The Rothschild’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi) is among the most endangered of the giraffe subspecies, with fewer than 2,000 individuals scattered across isolated populations in Kenya and Uganda. The largest population, found in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, has recently exhibited some very interesting trends. Following a period of civil unrest in the region that ended nearly two decades ago, the giraffe population in Murchison Falls National Park has grown remarkably and now contains roughly two-thirds of all known wild Rothschild’s giraffe. These population-level trends run contrary to the many of the other giraffe populations throughout Africa, which data suggest have declined dramatically over the same timeframe.
Dartmouth College, The Giraffe Conservation Foundation and the Uganda Wildlife Authority are working together to understand the factors that might contribute to these population dynamics. Like Grevy’s zebra, giraffe have unique coat patterns that almost act as a name tag and allow us to track unique individuals over space and time. With digital photographs and pattern recognition software, we can accurately assess survival and reproduction as well as map out changing spatial distribution over time. Combining these methods with other giraffe movement studies, we hope to better understand the complex relationships that giraffe have with this fascinating ecosystem, examining how changes in ecological interactions can influence individual giraffe behaviour and giraffe population dynamics.