Posts tagged ‘Citizen Science’

On our first day of chimp tracking, we follow Alf (shown) and Bahati.

Tracking the Sonso Community of Chimps

Seeing chimps in the wild was the main reason that I came on this trip to Uganda. I have had a fascination with chimps since I discovered how closely our social networks are to theirs. Really, Facebook is a glorified Pant-Hoot, the vocalization chimps make to one another. Many of us humans tend to cry out into cybersphere to let our friends and family know where we are and what’s going on. Chimps do the same thing in the forest. Day and night we would hear their calls. The field guides told us that they were letting each other know how far away they were. As though the Sonso group may separate during the day, they would join together at night to make their night nests and would keep track of each other’s movements during the day.

The Budongo Conservation Field Station
After our work with the trees, we were ready to track the chimps. The Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) is surrounded by the greatest variety and concentration of primates of any forest in East Africa. The importance of the forest can’t be overstated as it is the largest remaining tropical rain forest in Africa.

It has been a research field station for the past 20 years. The chimp group that we followed consists of around 60 individuals, known as the Sonso Community, who live near the site of a former sawmill.

During the early 1990s, researchers habituated chimps by following them over the course of five years. The Sonso Community slowly began to trust humans and allow them to watch their activities. The researchers came to know these chimps as a family, naming them and watching the soap opera of their lives unfold. Foraging patterns, births, injuries, deaths, fights, political power struggles, immigration and emigration are all part of the chimp story that they’ve studied and documented over the years. Nowadays, graduate students from around the world and university students from Uganda are engaged in chimp and other scientific research at the site.

A Typical Day
We had two days of tracking chimps, where we headed out in the early morning darkness with experienced field guides to find them waking up in the forest. The field guides were primarily young men from the local community who had been trained to collect data on chimp activities.

We followed their path, watching them move through the forest, primarily eating, grooming, mating and posturing to one another, not unlike our daily activity.

On the first day, I spent my time watching Bahati, an adult female who was eating figs in a large tree with her infant, Belvin. This tree was at the end of its fruiting season and had few figs left so she was the only one feeding. They knew our field guide and so trusted the strange faces that were watching them. We sat below the towering tree with binoculars and recorded their actions every five minutes for the eight-hour shift.

Bahati pulled the figs off the tree, stuck them in her mouth and sucked the juice out of them. She seemed to pile a bunch into her mouth until it was full with fig-meat and then she would spit out the meat. They only want the juice from the figs as the meat was difficult to digest. Alf joined her later on and also consumed the figs in a similar manner, spitting out the meat on top of our heads as we stared at them through our binos.

In the early afternoon, the hottest part of the day, she created a nest out of leaves up in the top of the tree. She grabbed a bunch of figs and brought them into her nest with her infant.

During this time, we craned our necks to see what she was eating. What this ripe fruit? New leaves? What type of tree was she in? Was she grooming, defecating or taking photos? Whatever her actions, we would record them every five minutes. I came to appreciate the guides’ patience and stamina as the muscles in my neck felt like broken rubber bands by the end of the day.

I am going to stop here for now as there is much more to say about the Sonso Community, a group whose power structure was in flux with the alpha male Nick being challenged by two other chimps. I will save those details for my next posting, which will feature a bit of video from the field.

In the Budongo Forest.

The Ugandan Tree Phrenology Project

One of our roles on this Earthwatch expedition is to help with the Phrenology project, where they are studying how trees are budding, blooming and fruiting. The long term goal is to understand what is happening in the Budongo Rain Forest and to understand what is causing the changes, such as dwindling pollinators or climate change.

On our hike, a local field guide, Nelson, Pat (another volunteer from Earthwatch) and I went to designated transects and trees to collect specific data.

Using binoculars we surveyed the tree tops, which measured up to 70 stories tall, to determine what each tree was producing, if anything at all.

Although the seven-hour hike was a challenge of trekking over loose roots and massive tree trunks, the visual and aural gallery of birds, insects, flowers, foliage, songs and sounds provided a stunning backdrop nothing like anything I witnessed before, even on our most stunning days in Point Reyes, CA.

Although I didn’t envy their task of collecting data on 1 ,400 trees a month, I could imagine how rewarding it would be to work on an important project like this. I could also imagine getting addicted to the lure of the wildlife and majesty of this unique place.

Destination: Tracking Chimps in Uganda

Chimp in the Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda.

Chimp in the Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda.

Tomorrow I leave for the Budongo Forest Reserve, where 700 chimps live, one of the largest populations of chimps in Uganda. I am volunteering with an expedition organized by, called Tracking Chimps Through the Trees of Uganda.

During this volunteer research expedition, I will be investigating human, chimpanzee and monkey interactions while looking at strategies for sharing shrinking food resources between primates and local farmers.

I join scientists who have been monitoring the timing of natural events like the flowering, fruiting and leaf shedding of trees in this forest. They have been monitoring the forest for 20 years and have noticed how the trees are producing 15 percent less fruit. As an ecosystem, this effects both the behavior of the chimps who live in the forest and the subsistence farmers who live at the edge of the forest.

Impacts of Climate Change
I will be involved in monitoring the impacts of these changes and help to determine how climate change and the number of pollinating insects may have caused the decrease.  We’ll also observe changes in chimps behavior and the increased interactions between chimps and humans, where chimps are invading people’s farms. In the end, the goal is to understand these relationships to create better forest management.

I will be in the field for two weeks as a citizen scientist collecting and recording data about chimps, trees and local farmers. I plan to post images and updates to this Blog, which will update to my Facebook and Twitter accounts. So stay tuned.

Bob meticulously measuring the length of our transects.

May 27, 2013: Tsunami Debris Monitoring

When I first told friends about my Japan Tsunami Marine Debris Monitoring volunteer work, they warned me about being radiated by the items I would find. I thought about buying a Geiger counter and searched online for a while but I was confused by the multiple models and eventually passed on the idea, like I often do when I am offered too many choices.

Looking for Treasures
Ten months after starting my duty as a tsunami marine debris monitor, I head out to North Point Beach in Ano Nuevo State Reserve with much anticipation, not unlike a treasure hunter on the Bay Bridge heading early to Alameda for the flea market, hoping to find a unknown gem. The debris from the Japanese 2011 tsunami certainly won’t be treasures, but an eventual catalogue of items will be certainly mysterious and fantastic to trace back to their origins. Just over a month ago, a barnacled boat was confirmed by federal officials to be the first tsunami debris in California. Understanding how it traveled across the ocean to the US West Coast will also be remarkable for scientists. Watching what else shows up over time (and how long it takes to get here) will help us understand how big the problem is and will help us reduce possible impacts to our natural resources and coastal communities.

Bob meticulously measures our transects.

Bob meticulously measures our transects.

Surveying Transects
As for our work, each month my survey partner, Bob, and I set up four transects and catalogue debris within the 5-meter wide areas, each of them approximately 50 meters in length. On Monday, I found exactly one white bottlecap in that entire area. Bob, my debris monitoring partner, diligently measured the width of each transect after placing metal flag poles into the ground at the appropriate spots.

Waste of Time?
Bob wonders out loud whether this is a good use of his time (even though he is retired). I, on the other hand, am what he calls a pushover because I head out in the early morning hours for the 1.5-hour drive each way with no complaints. In fact, even though we have found nothing in the 10 months we’ve been going to this beach, this is usually the highlight of my week even if I’ve been out late salsa dancing the night before.

The World without Us Humans
I like to watch how the area changes with the season, especially the beauty of the beach and the critters that elusively visit. I like to create stories that remind me of the immense realm that we humans don’t inhabit.

This gallery shows what I photographed today at our beach. None of this was entered on any of the governmental documents that we will hand in. However, these images certainly prove that there is a vibrant and whirling existence that endures entirely without our involvement. That, somehow, is reassuring to me.

Photograph of sea kelp at the Great Beach in Point Reyes Beach with sea kelp

Beachwatch: Point Reyes

Our walk from North Beach to Abbott’s Lagoon on Sunday was a quiet day, with no complaints about the mix of sun, wind and beach action, though we were a bit slow on the birding. Were are the birds? was our main question. The Snowy Plovers starting to nest; some Dunlins with black bellies, which made us believe they were Black-bellied Plovers at first glance. Sanderlings in their breeding plumage and a handful of other birds. Nothing flying out at sea. No whale spouts. Few Ravens and Turkey Vultures. So quiet. Migration’s finale perhaps.

The day began at around 10am with the discovery of a freshly dead large sea lion. Clearly a male from the large sagittal crest on his head. He was a large male (96 inches in length from nose to tail), and seemingly healthy. No clear cause of death (such as gun shot wounds in his face). We called the Academy of Sciences hot line and dispatch at Point Reyes. They’ll send someone out to check on him and try to figure out how he died. Here are some shots from the day, hoping the images of a dead sea lion don’t unnerve you.