June 11, 2012
While teaching a field course in Baja California this summer through Miami University, a student discussion led to an interesting question, “What was your first experience as a scientist?” As someone who has been studying at graduate school for the last six years in order to “become” a scientist, it was difficult to imagine that my activities as a scientist – someone who asks and investigates questions about nature – had actually started a long time ago.
Though my earliest adventures in inquiry probably arose on weekend trips to the woods with my father where we would use sticks to poke through dung piles and determine the most recent meal of our neighborhood bear, I also had ample opportunities to study even more exotic wildlife during my six years as a volunteer at the Houston Zoo. Through high school and college, I had worked with just about every species you can imagine from alligators, maned wolves, elephants, giraffes, and of course a particular favorite of mine – tapirs (for those who don’t know, tapirs are these amazing pig-like animals with long flexible noses). As a keeper intern, I helped investigate causes of illness, determine the best strategies for training new behaviors (like how to get a porcupine into a kennel), and carefully observe the fascinating behaviors of our animals. These were skills that would serve me well as I began my own research as part of a graduate program at Princeton University, where I recently completed my PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
I generally think of my passion for wildlife conservation as being a trait I was born with – my mother even claims my first word was “dog” – but it was not until graduate school that I had the opportunity to carry out my own wildlife conservation research. For the last four years, I’ve taken on the challenge of investigating declines in one of the least charismatic but perhaps most ecologically important set of species – vultures.
In many ecosystems, vultures are the most critical scavengers, cleaning up dead animals that would otherwise be left to rot. They are also the fastest declining group of birds in the world today. Working in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, I have spent years counting, observing, and even trapping vultures to better understand their behavior, habitat use, and movement – key features which have helped to establish the reason for their declines.
I have used new technologies that actually rely on cellphone signal rather than satellites to transmit information where the birds are going. The GSM-GPS units allow the vultures to send me text messages with their location and have given us valuable information about how they use their habitat. Vultures can travel more than 200 miles in a day – that’s all the way from Austin to Houston – and can cover an area greater than Kansas in their yearly wanderings. Because of their large ranges, vultures end up outside of the parks quite often and this in part explains their declines. Sadly, ranchers use pesticides as poisons to kill lions and hyenas, which occasionally eat their cattle. As a result thousands of vultures have been poisoned, generally when they leave the safety of the protected areas.
But there is still hope for Africa’s vultures. Each year zoos around the globe are holding “International Vulture Awareness Day” on September 1st to tell people about how important these birds are – in particular you can enter a poetry contest to celebrate vultures (to enter visit http://vulturesrock.com). The hope is that by understanding the plight of the vultures, people will start to change their behaviors so that these important scavengers can be saved.