Biodiversity Research in Uganda: Another Report from the Field by SUST Prof. Julian Kerbis Peterhans

Julian Kerbis Peterhans, a professor of natural science and sustainability studies in RU’s College of Professional Studies and an adjunct curator of mammals at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, is spending a year as a Fulbright Scholar at Makerere University(Kampala, Uganda, eastern Africa), one of the premier sub-Saharan academic institutions.

Julian Kerbis Peterhans in the mammals lab at the Field Museum in Chicago

He is engaged in training African students in biodiversity survey techniques, as well as documenting the biodiversity of mid-elevation forest ecoystems in Uganda. This project follows on the heels of a 5-year award from the MacArthur Foundation in the mid-1990s, when Kerbis Peterhans contributed to a program to train over 60 African students in similar techniques in Ugandan National Parks.

This post is the second in a series of field-based dispatches written by professor Kerbis Peterhans on his work, travels, and observations in Uganda.

This year I am based at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. During the 1950s-1970s this university was generally regarded as the best between South and North Africa. While it has slipped a bit since its days of glory, it is certainly the finest in Uganda. I have been working as the supervisor for two Makerere University Masters students, Betty Nalikka and Sadic Waswa, after parlaying funds from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to sponsor their research agendas.

Betty and Sadic at work in Mabira Forest

Betty is interested in the endo-parasites of bats and is extracting feces as well as the lower intestines from captured field specimens for her studies. As part of the arrangement, the CDC receives blood, liver, spleen, heart and muscle tissue for pathogen analyses. Dr. Barry O’Connor at the University of Michigan receives the ecto-parasites (ticks, fleas, lice, etc.) while I receive the skull, skins and DNA to facilitate firm species identifications. These animals are extremely difficult to identify at the species level (hence their categorization as “cryptic”). This wide range of activities guarantees that the small number of animals which are sacrificed for these studies are put to maximum use.

Both Betty and Sadic are performing their field studies in Mabira Forest, some 50 kilometers to the east of Kampala, on the road to Jinja (the source of the Albert Nile). This large and spectacular forest was almost cleared for a sugar cane plantation; parts of it were already converted in the past. For his Master’s degree, Sadic is comparing the small mammal communities of Mabira with other Ugandan forests. It is already very clear that Mabira is an isolated fragment of the Zaire basin forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (some 500 kilometers to the west) because many of the species they have found to date are only known from the Congo forests.

The Campsite at Griffin Falls

Their first campsite is at a recently constructed campground at the edge of the forest, so they are able to collect forests species as well as the small mammals associated with village huts and their gardens. Of course the CDC is especially interested in village-associated animals that may transmit disease to people as well as the fruit bats (which often raid village gardens) that are known to transmit Ebola and other hemorrhagic diseases.

Betty is surprised by a bat (J. Kerbis)

R. angolensis head (J. Kerbis)

Cassinyteris argynnis hanging (J. Kerbis)

Please note that this last gorgeous bat (Cassinycteris argynnis), one almost cat-like in appearance, is one of the rarest fruit bats in Africa and had not been known from anywhere outside of the Congo basin. Also included is a long-snouted, large-eared, stream-hopping predatory mouse called Deomys ferrugineus, also heretofore only known from the Congo basin. Although we will not know the results of the pathogen studies for many months, some of these distinctive captures demonstrate that Mabira Forest is an important outlier of a once continuous and vastly larger forest ecosystem.

Deomys ferrugineus walking on the forest floor

Fifty years of an independent Uganda is being celebrated October 9th, and there is high alert for Al Qaeda and other terrorist activity—so we keep our fingers crossed.

Over and out from Kampala, Uganda.

Julian Kerbis Peterhans
7 Oct 2012

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