Black Rhino Feeding Ecology:
My masters thesis investigated browse availability and resource utilisation by the eastern black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis michaeli) in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Original data collection occurred during the wet season and I have since returned to conduct a dry-season comparison, as well as focusing on a question that was raised during the first study.
The black rhino is a critically endangered species with just 5000 individuals left in the wild. Current conservation efforts rely heavily on secure, fenced reserves that prevent the free movement of animals into and out of the reserve. As a result, megaherbivore assemblages can quickly accumulate and factors such as, vegetation changes, overstocking and competition with other herbivores can significantly limit black rhino population growth.
A black rhino cow and her calf - Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
© Lara Jackson | @lara_wildlife
The black rhino is a browsing species, ingesting large quantities of forbs, low-growing shrubs, succulents and woody vegetation. Long-term studies on Lewa have revealed changes in habitat structure and vegetation cover specifically from woodland to open grassland. Woody vegetation has decreased as a result of increased wildlife populations, a component that constitutes more than 63% of black rhino diet. Thus, declining coverage could have severe implications for population viability.
My study determined the amount of browse available to black rhino across the landscape and how those resources change seasonally. It also identified important food sources for the black rhino. Findings have direct applications for changes in the way that the black rhino population is managed on the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and implications for the management of all fenced black rhino populations in Africa.
Publication is currently being worked towards.
Determining the location of our next vegetation plot after backtracking a black rhino.
Species-specific personality traits in mouse lemurs:
My undergraduate dissertation investigated the personality traits exhibited by two species of mouse lemur in northwestern Madagascar. This involved trapping the animals using Sherman Live traps and assessing their behavioural response to human handling.
By understanding the behavioural responses of wild populations to the threats of human encroachment, the psychological and physiological welfare of captive-bred populations can be improved.
With the continual decrease in suitable areas that endangered species inhabit, the welfare of captive populations in environments like zoological establishments will become more critical in the role of ex situ conservation efforts. This is because captive breeding programmes ultimately aim to reintroduce a species to their natural environment and therefore, conserve biodiversity.
I was lucky enough to work closely with leading experts in mouse lemur ecology and biology, namely Ute Radespiel, and I feel that my proficiency as a scientist developed greatly under her expertise and guidance.
A grey mouse lemur (Microcebus murinus) during the handling aspect of my study.
Ant-acacia mutualism in Belize:
During a two week field trip to the Chiquibul Forest Reserve in Belize, small research projects were conducted. My group investigated the neotropical symbiotic relationship between acacia trees and the Pseudomyrmex genus of ants. Proxy caterpillars were made from a modelling clay and distributed on 40 acacias that housed ants and 40 mimosa sp. that did not have a symbiotic relationship. The caterpillars were used to assess the extent of attack occurrence by the ants and therefore, the efficacy of the mutualism.
There was a higher mean attack occurrence on the caterpillars that were placed on the acacia trees, suggesting that the ant-acacia association was highly effective. In addition, we discovered that there was a ‘parasitic’ species of ant, invading the mutualistic relationship. This species offered a lower level of protection to the acacia than its obligate mutualist.
An untouched model caterpillar (top) and one that had been attacked and disfigured by ants (bottom).