Biodiversity Research in Kenya: A Report from the Field by SUST Prof. Julian Kerbis Peterhans

Roosevelt University professor of natural science Julian Kerbis Peterhans diligently works on his research at in the Field Museum of Natural History’s mammals department; but during the summer months he often finds himself in the biologically rich lands of Central Africa. Last August, Peterhans returned from Kenya after six weeks of field work in three geographic areas: the Loita Forest (controlled and administered by the local Masai community), Kakamega Forest National Reserve (a federally administered parkland which was once continuous with the Congo Basin forests), and Lolldaiga Hills Ranch on the Laikipia Plateau in central Kenya.

Loita Forest camp (J. Kerbis 2015)

Loita Forest camp (J. Kerbis 2015)

Lolldaiga is a large (200 square kilometers, or approximately 12 by 6 miles) privately owned ranch with substantial commercial livestock holdings as well as incredibly large wild animal concentrations of such charismatic species as lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog, elephant, hyaena, buffalo, and zebra. In one night the following animals were seen on the carcass of an elephant: spotted hyena, lions, leopard, striped hyaena, spotted hyaena, and black-backed jackal. Peterhans and his colleagues there witnessed a sad and recurring spectacle of a family of elephants continuing to check on their deceased relative — a scene repeated day and night for about a week.

Loita forest grazing patch (J. Kerbis 2015)

Loita forest grazing patch (J. Kerbis 2015)

Working with a great team from the National Museums of Kenya, Peterhans started his research explorations in Loita Forest, a place he was intrigued by for over a decade, as it had never been surveyed and was under local Masai control rather than federal control. Upon arriving, however, he sensed a strange vibe: it was very dry (he had once been camping there during the wet season), there were no forest primates present, and there were no tree squirrels. The Loita Masai do not even have a name for tree squirrels. This suggests that the forest would have low small mammal diversity, which indeed proved to be the case. As Peterhans notes:

There were lots of specimens to be had but the number of species collected was very low. This low species diversity may be because the forest has had no connections to other forests during past climatic vicissitudes — when conditions for large areas of continuous forest may have been more favorable. Unfortunately, in terms of the conservation of biodiversity, this translates into a low priority for federal or international efforts towards the conservation of this forest. Fortunately, the local Masai are doing a decent, but not perfect, job of maintaining it.

Children of the Loita forest region (J. Kerbis 2015)

Children of the Loita forest region (J. Kerbis 2015)

Peterhans then moved on to explore the Kakamega National Forest Reserve, an extremely wet forest in western Kenya (even though this was the dry season). As anticipated, he observed several species common to the Congo Basin rainforests, some 600 miles to the west, none of which were shared with Loita Forest. This indicates that Kakamega was once part of a trans-equatorial rainforest belt stretching from Gabon (west Central Africa), thru the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, and culminating in western Kenya, East Africa.

Peterhans was then invited to Lolldaiga Hills Ranch by its Director of Research (and long-time colleague), Dr. Tom Butynski, to survey the landscape for small mammals, especially mice and shrews. Butynski is seeking the most comprehensive and authoritative information possible on the species that occur on this ranch. The Laikipia Plateau is already known to house what is, for its size (ca. 10,000 km²), the highest number of larger mammal species on the planet; and Butynski would like comparable information for the small mammal species.

Lolldaiga figtree roost (J. Kerbis 2015)

Lolldaiga figtree roost (J. Kerbis 2015)

In his short visit there, Peterhans was only able to trap about five species of rodent and nary a single shrew. However, he and Butynski did locate two very rich owl roost sites (a tree perch and a rock outcrop) where owls regurgitate the undigestible bits of their prey, including skulls, jaws, and hair. These remains are providing a treasure trove of data as they include the skulls or partial skulls of about 50 shrews, 150 rodents, two elephant shrews, two bats, a hare, a lizard, and a half dozen birds.

SUST major Lindsey Sharp i the FMNH mammalogy lab, Fall 2015 (J. Kerbis)

SUST major Lindsey Sharp in the FMNH mammalogy lab, Fall 2015 (J. Kerbis)

Currently, Roosevelt University SUST 330 (Biodiversity) student and FMNH intern Lindsey Sharp is poring over these remains and documenting the species as well as developing the means to identify them from the remaining fragments.

JKP in labJulian 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, regularly conducts field research on mammal biodiversity and wildlife conservation in central Africa. This post recounts his travels and research during the summer of 2015.

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