Friday, March 15, 2013

More catching in Voi (and bush babies too!!!)

Where to start...

The elections have so far gone off without too much of a problem.  I say "so far" because they're not really done yet- one of the candidates has gone to the courts to contest the results, so we'll see what happens.  At least Kenya is peaceful, and that I appreciate!

The weekend the results were being released though, we decided to go to my helper's (Alex) rural home to visit with his parents.  There, there is no TV, no electricity, no running water, and very little mobile phone service- so relatively little contact with the rest of the world, and therefore if problems were to arise, would be very, very safe.  I did admittedly have other motives though- I wanted to see bush babies!  Bush babies are one of the few animals in Kenya that I really wanted to see that I haven't yet.  Also, I had run out of the hormone that I inject into the birds and was waiting for a package from the US that would replenish my stock.

So after we finished the first 12 birds in Voi, we left for Mutito- it's a 9 hour drive from Voi (although not as far as it sounds, it's just the roads aren't wonderful) and stayed there for 3 nights before coming back.  I DID get to see bush babies (see the picture below, it's so cute!!)- something that people actual kill in this area for eating their chickens.  Bush babies are a primate, but they are also nocturnal, unlike most other primates.  They have several evolutionary adaptations that have helped them survive their life style- big eyes (to acquire more light to best see at night), long tail (arboreal life), etc. 


Also, I got to experience how those less fortunate live on a daily basis.  Coming to Kenya definitely helps me appreciate what I have and had growing up and I wish all children in the western world could experience it.  One thing I did while there was fetch water from the river- no one has running water into their houses, so they need to go to the river (which is actually a dried up sand bed), dig a hole until they reach the water table, collect water into a 20L jug (which weights 44 pounds) and carry it back to their house (either using their head or if they're lucky, which I was, a donkey).



Since then, we have returned to Voi. On the way back, we saw these VERY large ants crossing the road carrying food and a couple squirrels crossing the road.  Alex told me both of these things were considered good luck here in Kenya (which I wasn't really sure I believed).  BUT, as soon as we got to Voi, we found out that both packages I was waiting for would arrive the next day and we had really good luck catching house sparrows!  If you remember from the last post, we had some trouble catching here in Voi the first time.  On Tuesday, we went out and set up 2 nets...we needed 12 birds.  We caught more than 50 in less than 30 minutes!!!!  It was so crazy!  But now we're halfway through the second round in Voi. 




I've also had a couple (Skype) job interviews, so fingers crossed something works out there (more ant and squirrel luck??)!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Last post WITH PICTURES!


Things are still going well.  We have caught multiples times now, and things seem to be progressing.  This is a couple of pictures of our field site in Mombasa. 




Not as glamorous as one might expect a “field site” to be.  We caught house sparrows here last Saturday.  I needed 12 of them, preferably 6 males and 6 females…that’s what we ended up taking back with us….after letting about 18 other birds go!  There are many, many house sparrows in Mombasa, and they seem to love the garbage.
Since then, we’ve come to Voi, about 160 km from Mombasa.  There seem to be MANY birds here, but they are spread out everywhere (I’m not even sure where).  We have seen several trees that likely have a couple hundred house sparrows hanging out in the tree at night.  But where they go in the morning is still unclear.  We watch them go towards town, towards petrol stations, and towards the bush, which doesn’t make sense to me.  Maybe more on that later.  We arrived on Thursday and Friday morning were up and out by 5:15 am to catch some birds.  This time, no dumping site.  We were lucky enough to catch in a petrol station (where the people are so nice!!!)  We had seen many house sparrows at this site and I have caught there before (2 years ago) very successfully (24 birds in 1 hour!) so I figured we were set to go.  Catching in Voi would be easy peasy.  Except we caught only 3 birds in the morning.  :-(  We set up the nets in the industrial area (at a cereals storage facility) in the afternoon and caught another bird.  So we had 4 total.  We went out again Saturday morning, hoping for better luck.  And we had it- we got the other 8 birds we needed.  Although, it wasn’t easy and for some reason, we caught mostly females, so our male to female ratio is uneven.  But beggars can’t be choosers.   We will have to catch again in another 6 days, but we hope that we know where we’ll put the nets for more success next time.
As soon as we catch the birds, I need to bleed them.  I’m testing for stress hormones (glucocorticoids) so, as you can imagine, as soon as the birds get into the net, they are “stressed”.  That means I need to get the bird out of the net and bled within 3 minutes of it first going in.  Sometimes it can be stressful for the researchers too!  We then weigh them and bring them back to the hotel to test their memory.  Good thing the birds aren’t too noisy and distract the other guests in the hotel!
Each morning I give every bird an injection of glucocorticoids to increase their stress for a short time.  I have two doses I’m using (a high one and a low one) and I also inject some birds with a control.  The control has no glucocorticoids in it; this is to see what the effects of the injection alone are.
 
 
Each afternoon, I give the birds the “behavior tray”.  It’s similar to the one I used last year, but this time all the disks are painted black.  This is because I’m interested in SPATIAL learning, rather than ASSOCIATIVE learning.  Spatial learning is the ability to discriminate places in space- so I’m trying to get the birds to remember a specific spot on the tray (the upper right hand corner, for instance) rather than a specific color (as I was doing last year). 


I do the injections and learning for 4 days in captivity.  On the second day of captivity (if the day they’re caught is day 0), I also test to make sure that the doses of corticosterone are working.  To do this, we have to bleed birds before they become “stressed” and then again after an injection of corticosterone.  To bleed a bird before it becomes stressed means that every bird needs to be bled within 3 minutes of a human walking into the room.  Can you imagine trying to bleed 12 birds in 3 minutes?  Or even 6 birds (since there are two of us who can do the bleeding)?  Not possible, even for a really good bleeder (if I do say so myself…)  SO, the night before we need to bleed the birds, I split the birds up into two rooms (and the bathrooms of those rooms) so that we can spread the birds out and make it a little bit easier for ourselves.  After we bleed them that first time, it’s not so hectic, we can inject them, and then bleed them in a calmer fashion.  I don’t have any pictures of this, because we need all available hands ready to bleed, so no one can take a picture.
Interestingly, after my struggles last year to determine when birds are breeding- I still have no idea.  Birds in Voi are interesting- at the hotel we’re staying at, there are house sparrows breeding in the ventilation in the buildings, which suggests they’re breeding now.  We caught MANY MANY juveniles (which I don’t want to use for my experiments because young individuals might be different learners than adults just because they’re young), which suggests they have been breeding recently.  And we also caught many individuals that were clearly molting (losing their feathers)- one individual had no feathers on the top of her head- which suggests the house sparrows are done breeding here.  So I don’t know.  Further, we checked nest boxes when we were in Mombasa and of the 100 or so boxes we have there, only 2 had eggs in them and only one had a female sitting on the nest.  
 
 
On a more personal/fun (but still science-y) note- I got a chance to go SCUBA diving in Mombasa last week.  It was a really great experience and got to see the reefs up close.  I saw two turtles (!! one of them was a big one too!), a blue spotted ray, an eel, lobster, and many, many colorful fish!  It was really awesome.
And on a less science-y note, the presidential elections in Kenya will be held on Monday.  EVERYONE is hoping for a peaceful election, but more on that soon.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Done with Mombasa and onto Voi...



There are supposed to be pictures in this posting, but I can't seem to publish when the pictures are attached.  I will try again in a couple days to edit, but in the meantime...

Things are still going well.  We have caught multiples times now, and things seem to be progressing.  This is a couple of pictures of our field site in Mombasa. 


Not as glamorous as one might expect a “field site” to be.  We caught house sparrows here last Saturday.  I needed 12 of them, preferably 6 males and 6 females…that’s what we ended up taking back with us….after letting about 18 other birds go!  There are many, many house sparrows in Mombasa, and they seem to love the garbage.
Since then, we’ve come to Voi, about 160 km from Mombasa.  There seem to be MANY birds here, but they are spread out everywhere (I’m not even sure where).  We have seen several trees that likely have a couple hundred house sparrows hanging out in the tree at night.  But where they go in the morning is still unclear.  We watch them go towards town, towards petrol stations, and towards the bush, which doesn’t make sense to me.  Maybe more on that later.  We arrived on Thursday and Friday morning were up and out by 5:15 am to catch some birds.  This time, no dumping site.  We were lucky enough to catch in a petrol station (where the people are so nice!!!)  We had seen many house sparrows at this site and I have caught there before (2 years ago) very successfully (24 birds in 1 hour!) so I figured we were set to go.  Catching in Voi would be easy peasy.  Except we caught only 3 birds in the morning.  :-(  We set up the nets in the industrial area (at a cereals storage facility) in the afternoon and caught another bird.  So we had 4 total.  We went out again Saturday morning, hoping for better luck.  And we had it- we got the other 8 birds we needed.  Although, it wasn’t easy and for some reason, we caught mostly females, so our male to female ratio is uneven.  But beggars can’t be choosers.   We will have to catch again in another 6 days, but we hope that we know where we’ll put the nets for more success next time.

As soon as we catch the birds, I need to bleed them.  I’m testing for stress hormones (glucocorticoids) so, as you can imagine, as soon as the birds get into the net, they are “stressed”.  That means I need to get the bird out of the net and bled within 3 minutes of it first going in.  Sometimes it can be stressful for the researchers too!  We then weigh them and bring them back to the hotel to test their memory.  Good thing the birds aren’t too noisy and distract the other guests in the hotel!


Each morning I give every bird an injection of glucocorticoids to increase their stress for a short time.  I have two doses I’m using (a high one and a low one) and I also inject some birds with a control.  The control has no glucocorticoids in it; this is to see what the effects of the injection alone are.

Each afternoon, I give the birds the “behavior tray”.  It’s similar to the one I used last year, but this time all the disks are painted black.  This is because I’m interested in SPATIAL learning, rather than ASSOCIATIVE learning.  Spatial learning is the ability to discriminate places in space- so I’m trying to get the birds to remember a specific spot on the tray (the upper right hand corner, for instance) rather than a specific color (as I was doing last year). 


I do the injections and learning for 4 days in captivity.  On the second day of captivity (if the day they’re caught is day 0), I also test to make sure that the doses of corticosterone are working.  To do this, we have to bleed birds before they become “stressed” and then again after an injection of corticosterone.  To bleed a bird before it becomes stressed means that every bird needs to be bled within 3 minutes of a human walking into the room.  Can you imagine trying to bleed 12 birds in 3 minutes?  Or even 6 birds (since there are two of us who can do the bleeding)?  Not possible, even for a really good bleeder (if I do say so myself…)  SO, the night before we need to bleed the birds, I split the birds up into two rooms (and the bathrooms of those rooms) so that we can spread the birds out and make it a little bit easier for ourselves.  After we bleed them that first time, it’s not so hectic, we can inject them, and then bleed them in a calmer fashion.  I don’t have any pictures of this, because we need all available hands ready to bleed, so no one can take a picture.

Interestingly, after my struggles last year to determine when birds are breeding- I still have no idea.  Birds in Voi are interesting- at the hotel we’re staying at, there are house sparrows breeding in the ventilation in the buildings, which suggests they’re breeding now.  We caught MANY MANY juveniles (which I don’t want to use for my experiments because young individuals might be different learners than adults just because they’re young), which suggests they have been breeding recently.  And we also caught many individuals that were clearly molting (losing their feathers)- one individual had no feathers on the top of her head- which suggests the house sparrows are done breeding here.  So I don’t know.  Further, we checked nest boxes when we were in Mombasa and of the 100 or so boxes we have there, only 2 had eggs in them and only one had a female sitting on the nest. 


On a more personal/fun (but still science-y) note- I got a chance to go SCUBA diving in Mombasa last week.  It was a really great experience and got to see the reefs up close.  I saw two turtles (!! one of them was a big one too!), a blue spotted ray, an eel, lobster, and many, many colorful fish!  It was really awesome.



And on a less science-y note, the presidential elections in Kenya will be held on Monday.  EVERYONE is hoping for a peaceful election, but more on that soon.



Sunday, February 17, 2013

2013- and I'm back in Kenya!

Well, as some of you know, I'm back in Kenya to do another (hopefully productive) field season.  This year, I hope to work with  a local Tampa middle school biology teacher to share my experience here with her students.

A recap of what happened last year after I got back to the US: unfortunately, my main project (looking at the nest boxes in Nakuru) did not work- we had too few babies and too high mortality.  But, I was able to do a couple other projects. 

The first looked at learning and neurogenesis (the creation of new brain cells) across the range expansion.  We thought that birds at the range edge would be better at remembering things and be able to make more brain cells than individuals from populations that are 60+ years old.  The reasons we thought this was that in a novel environment (like that on the range edge) it would be most beneficial for individuals to be able to find and then remember novel food sources and stressors such as predators.  It might be beneficial for birds in all populations to remember, but making new brain cells is a very energetically expensive process and if they don't HAVE to, then birds might want to use these resources for other things, like making babies or resolving an illness.  We are still working on analyzing some of the data samples (this can sometimes take a very long time), but preliminary data indicates that birds at the range edge ARE better at remembering (see the figure below) and have the capacity to make many more neurons than birds from older populations!  So that is VERY interesting.



The second project looked at plasticity of an individual's stress response.   "Plasticity" is the ability of an individual to change, or adjust to best match the environment if the environment changes.  For this experiment, we brought birds into captivity and looked to see if they always respond the same to the changing environment (longer periods of captivity) or if they adjusted the way they acted and responded dependent on the time they've spent in captivity.  Although I can't say too too much, it looks like plasticity might play a role in range expansion, which is also exciting.  More on this soon though.

So, what brings me back to Kenya this year?  This year, rather than stay in one spot, I will be traveling all over Southern Kenya collecting house sparrows from 5 different cities.  This year, I'll be testing to see why some birds (those at the range edge) react very strongly to stressors, whereas others (in older populations) do not.  For this experiment, I'm actually injecting the stress hormone corticosterone into birds to see how they react.  I predict that birds at the range edge will be better at forming memories, better at neurogenesis, and have better immune responses when they have extra stress hormones.  Birds from older populations though, will likely not have the physiological network to be able to sustain higher levels of corticosterone, and will not get better at these things, but rather will be worse.  We shall see how it goes, though.

I will need to catch 24 birds from each city and keep them in captivity for 6 days (and since I have only 12 cages, I need to do this in 2 iterations).  So far, I have caught 12 birds in Nairobi and have traveled to Mombasa, where I caught 12 birds this morning.  I will start the experiments tomorrow by injecting birds with corticosterone or a control and then in the afternoon I start training them (I'm using spatial memory, so I'm covering wells with black disks and asking the birds to remember which well has their food in it).  I will do this for 4 days, and then on day 5, I will test the birds to see what they remember.

Fingers crossed the science goes well.  But there are always other problems with field work that are not science related at all.  Up until only a couple days ago, I was struggling to find someone to assist me and this year there is a presidential election in Kenya.  I have figured out the help situation, and hopefully the election goes smoothly and safely, they are just things to always keep in mind.

More soon!!!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Home

Holy Moly!  I've made it home...and a lot has happened in between (nothing scientifically important, but going to Victoria Falls (BEAUTIFUL!), seeing baby (!) cheetahs, flying back to the US, TSA refusing to allow my samples in nitrogen shippers on the plane (?!?!?!  it was my 3rd flight of the day), fighting to get my samples down to FL, and now catching up on some.......work (wish it was sleep)).

Exciting news that came in the last couple of weeks- I had a paper accepted in a journal for publication!!! (Proceedings of the Royal Society- a really good journal, I'll post the link to the paper when it's out....maybe I can send a copy to you, Ms. Carter, when it comes out?)  It's all about the research I conducted LAST year in Kenya.  Also, I received a grant (wahoo!) from the National Science Foundation (this is a government sponsored grant which is very competitive).

I am going to need a few days to recoup (organize receipts etc from the trip, as well as go to NH to see family) but then I will return for the lab work that needs to follow the field work I did for the last few months.  Keep watching, and since internet is much better, I should reliably post more often throughout my time in the lab.  Please let me know if there's any questions you have specifically about lab work or different techniques we might use to generate data.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

WOW. It's been awhile. Sorry....

It really has been...since May?!?  I'm really sorry- that's not good.

Well, it's the end of July, and I'm still in Kenya.  And things did not really go as planned this field season (which is why I think I wasn't really good at posting things, although that's not really a good excuse).  I arrived in February thinking I could get a few logistical things worked out before breeding starting in March, since that's when the rainy season starts.  And then the rainy season started....and no babies.  And then I got one nest so I was hopeful I would get more....but didn't.  And then I finally started to get more nests....but the babies all died before leaving the nest.  And now I have to leave because I can't be here forever....

What did I get?  As far as nests go, I had about 20- and sometimes moms laid more than one nest if the first failed.  The number of eggs in each nest ranged from 1 to 6.  Six eggs are A LOT...that's a big investment for a mom.  Especially since I never saw all 6 eggs hatch.  Of those 20 nests, I only saw 6 nests go to completion (where the babies hatched and left the nest).  There were a few nests that I left not knowing if they succeeded or not, but that's a lot of mortality!  Even worse, there were at least two nests where the babies died shortly (maybe a day or two) before they should have left- this means the parents put in a lot of energy laying on the eggs and feeding the babies for 2 weeks after hatching, just to have them fail.  I'm not sure if the babies were getting sick with something, or maybe not getting enough food, or why they were dying.  All of the nests had a LOT of ectoparasites (like mites or other insects) crawling all over the birds and the nesting material- but this might be normal for them.  I've never seen snakes or anything that might eat the babies, and often the bodies of the babies were left in the nest for me to find later (ew).  So all in all, I'm not sure what happened.  Nor am I sure as to what is going to happen next year as a result of this year.  So a lot will remain "to be determined" for this year.  But that's how field work goes, you can never guarantee how things will work out, if they'll work out at all.

Because things weren't looking so good on the nest front, we started doing a couple other things to make use of the time.
One of them was to look at aggression in response to a standard intrusion.  To do this, we placed a male house sparrow in a cage and placed the cage directly underneath one of the nest boxes, walked away, and waited to see what would happen.  I honestly didn't think anything would happen, the nest boxes are so close together and house sparrows all feed in a very small area, I thought they would get along.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  As soon as the observer left the area, usually the male (but sometimes the female too) house sparrow from that nest would come down to the cage and start attacking it!  And they would continue to attack at the cage for the full observation time (20 minutes) even until the observer was within a meter of the cage!!!  One time, the male continued to attack until Kioko had picked up the cage!  That means they were much more intent on attacking the male in the cage than their fear of humans!  We did this while birds were making their nests, while they had eggs in their nests, and while they had nestlings in the nest.
Another project I did was look to see how "plastic" birds are in different parts of the range expansion.  Being plastic, in ecology, means having the ability to rapidly change or adapt to your environment.  To do this, I caught birds from 3 points on the range expansion and kept them in cages for 1 week; every 2 days I would bleed them for stress hormones to see how captivity (or their environment) changed their stress response over time.  This isn't the perfect experiment since captivity can cause problems for wild animals, but these birds are pretty clever and there is no other way to ensure I'll catch them more than one time.
And then of course, there's the behavior/learning experiment.

Right now, I'm in Mombasa (the city where house sparrows were initially introduced ~60 years ago) finishing up the last two experiments- I arrived here a week ago, and caught the next day.  One good thing (one of the only from what I can tell) about Mombasa is that house sparrows are very dense here, so we were able to show up at a dumping site (my favorite) and catch all the birds we needed in an hour (no pictures because it was close to the airport and Mombasa is currently having some security problems).  On Thursday of this week, I'll finish up that experiment and catch again for the plasticity study.  And then a week later, I'm done with my 2012 field season (!!!).  I will be doing a little bit of site seeing (going to Victoria Falls and Masai Mara) before coming home though.  I'll try and post some pictures of anything exciting we see.

When I get back to the US, the lab work will start.  I plan on continuing the blog through that time so that you can get the full experience of field, to lab, to analysis, to publication of the results.  And then again into next year....more field work!

Thanks for staying patient with me.  Sorry I didn't post again sooner and sorry this post isn't as exciting with results and success as I would have hoped!