When work becomes a safari


Our first blog post comes from Ros who is a 2nd year CENTA PhD student based in the Geography department at the University of Leicester. Ros’ research focusses on sediment transport in rivers, which means she spends a lot of time in rivers measuring the shape, size and angularity of pebbles found on river beds, and putting this data into models. Here she tells us about what she got up to on her CENTA placement in Kenya!

For my CENTA placement, I decided to leave behind all the measuring of rocks and instead turn my hand to studying life in rivers and gain some experience in recording the biological composition of rivers. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to participate in a 12 day work placement in the Naivasha basin, Kenya, where I worked alongside insect specialists (entomologists) from Italy and Canada, as well as with Allan and Stephen who are local researchers. The research focus during my placement was the River Gilgil. This is a small river, about 60km long, which drains part of the East African Rift Valley, and flows into the northern end of Lake Naivasha.

Lake Naivasha
The view of Lake Naivasha from camp

We visited lots of different sites on the River Gilgil to collect insect samples as part of a qualitative study on insect composition. Samples were taken from different habitats in the river; for example, we collected some samples from pools with very slow flowing River Gilgilwater in them, some from little water falls and some from the underside of rocks. The aim was to find out what insects are found where within the river. We collected our samples using a very fine net so that the insects wouldn’t crawl out the holes. Once we had collected our samples from the river, we took them back to the lab and had to sort and identify all the insects in the samples. To sort the samples, we first had to remove any leaves or other debris from the water. Using tweezers, we then had to pick out the insects and put them in different containers for each different species. Sometimes, you would have to use a microscope to work out what an insect was. It amazed me how quickly people could identify which species an insect was when it was only a few millimetres long. I tried my hand at identification, but generally didn’t have much luck!

Sorting samples
Stephen and Allan sorting samples
The lab at camp was somewhat more basic than the labs we have at university. When we wanted water, we had to go outside and collect rainwater from a tank!
Light trap
Collecting insect samples from one of the light traps.

One of the highlights of the placement for me was an overnight sampling trip to one of the sites on the Gilgil. We arrived at the river late afternoon to set up light traps and nets which would catch flying insects throughout the night. The insects we were sampling from the river were largely larvae and nymphs, which grow into land-based flying insects. By sampling overnight with light traps and nets, we were able to collect samples of the adult stages of the insects. We used special LEDs which are said to be most successful at attracting insects. Although we set up a tent, we didn’t spend much time in there as we had to regularly collect samples from the light traps. We also had to keep watch on the equipment in case any inquisitive locals came down to the river. As we were in the middle of nowhere, there was absolutely no light pollution. There was also not a cloud in the sky so the night sky was fantastic! We were all a bit delirious by the time morning came, but the sleep deprivation was definitely worth it.

Research team
Allan, Stephen and I after our overnight sampling trip. We were at over 2000 metres above sea level (Ben Nevis, the highest point in the UK, is only 1345 metres above sea level) so the blankets and woolly hats were definitely needed!

As well as doing lots of field and lab work, I did get a bit of a chance to explore some of the local area. Being in the Rift Valley, the scenery was absolutely spectacular. On our rest day, I decided to climb Mount Longonot volcano (yes, I know, not exactly restful). From the top, there were panoramic views expanding across the rift valley. I’ve never been up a volcano before, so it really was a “Wow!” experience when we reached the crater.

Mount Longonot collage
Mount Longonot

There was also plenty of wildlife to see during the trip. We were staying at a farm on the shores of Lake Naivasha, meaning we were living in a wildlife haven. Zebras, wildebeest and water buck could be found roaming the lake shore at sunrise and sunset, and a group of hippos in the lake could often be heard grunting from camp! There was also a lot of bird life on the lake, including the majestic Fish Eagle, kingfishers and the Southern fiscal bird. One night, I was woken up in the early hours of the morning by a commotion outside my caravan window. I looked outside to see two zebra and a hippo grazing on the grass… certainly not something you see every day in the UK! When out in the field, we were also lucky enough to see giraffes, antelopes, warthogs, baboons, impalas and much more; I hadn’t realised work would become a safari!

Wildlife collage
Water buck and wildebeest; Beetles killed by the Southern fiscal bird. This bird is also known as the butcher bird due to its habit of impaling prey on the thorns of acacia bushes; Zebra; Giraffes.

Overall, I had a fantastic time on my work placement. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and I learnt a lot during the trip. I developed skills that will be useful during the rest of my PhD and as I progress through my career. Thank you to the Kenyan researches for hosting me and to CENTA for providing the funding which allowed me to go on the placement.

Sunset over Lake Naivasha
One of the many spectacular sunsets over Lake Naivasha

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