UF in Kenya
UF in Kenya is a three week long ecology field school and research program run by Todd Palmer in Laikipia, Kenya. I participated in this program in 2013 and I continue to draw upon the experience. During these three weeks we observed African wildlife, learned about current problems in conservation, and studied the mutualistic relationship between ants and Acacia drepanolobium.
0n the savannas in Laikipia, Kenya four species of ants have a mutualistic relationship with Acacia drepanolobium. A. drepanolobium have specialized thorns that grow into hollow bulbs, ants can drill into these bulbs and make a home in these trees. In return, the ants attack animals that attempt to eat A. drepanolobium. If an elephant attepmts to eat A. drepanolobium, then a swarm of ants will charge into the elephants trunk. The trees provide a home for the ants and the ants provide protection for the trees.
There are still many questions about this mutualism. Such as, how is it being affected by climate change and how does the mutualism vary for different ant species? During the UF in Kenya program, we studied ecology field research techniques by attempting to answer similar questions with our own research on this ant-plat mutualism.
Additional Field Research Techniques
Ecology is a wide field with numerous important techniques for studying animals. In order to observe research techniques that are not used to study ants, Todd introduced us to various local researchers. One group taught us various techniques for studying birds. They set traps on the ground for catching birds and used mist nets to catch birds in flight. Then, they taught us how to tag the birds with bands around their ankles. Another group introduced us to GPS collars. They gave us several lectures and explained the basics behind doing research with these collars.
Before this program, I did not appreciate the complexity of conservation. Part of each day in Kenya was spent studying conservation with Wayne Sentman. Wayne taught us about the global political issues surrounding conservation. Often, he would present us with a present-day issue and challenge us to propose possible solutions. For example: “How can we reduce plastic in the world’s oceans?”, “What role should trophy hunting play in conservation?”, “How can we reduce the demand for poached animals?”
Wayne showed us some groups that we tackling these issues. One of the most memorable being OceanSole a group in Kenya that turns flip flops that wash up on beaches into sculptures. This encourages locals to clean the beaches and helps give money to local artists. These sculptures are available for purchase in the US at OceanSoleUS.
Education goes hand in hand with conservation. When a society is more educated, they understand the benefits of conserving endangered species and important habitats. Wayne introduced us to some groups that were attempting to increase access to education for women by simply increasing the accessibility of feminine hygiene products.
During this trip, we participated in many excursions where we observed African wildlife and got to experience Kenyan culture. These included visiting Nairobi and Nanyuki, traveling to a Masai villages, and observing African wildlife. We made many friends along the way and had many unforgettable moments.
Ultimately, I decided that a career in ecology was not right for me. But I do not want that fact to down play the impact that this program had on me. This program changed the way that I view the world and the way that approach research in physics. I am incredibly grateful to Todd, Wayne, and the University of Florida for this phenomenal program. I truly believe that every university student should participate in a study abroad experience.