Graduate research in African Savanna

Photo courtesy of Andrew Kulmatiski

When Andrew Kulmatiski first arrived in Kruger Nation Park, South Africa five years ago, he was reluctant to leave the safety of his vehicle. After a few days of sticking close to his game guard, however, Kulmatiski became engrossed in his research, forgetting that lions, wild hogs and rhinos could be just a few yards away through the bushes.

Now in Winthrop, Washington, UAA Department of Biological Sciences Assistant Professor Andrew Kulmatiski is continuing his research on plant-soil feedbacks (PSFs). The professor’s graduate student, Michael Mazzacavallo, is conducting the research in Kruger.

PSF is a term used to describe how trees and grasses share soil resources. Kulmatiski’s research uses field, laboratory and theoretical approaches to measure PSFs, typically in invaded plant systems. He has been working in Washington since 2000, a region of the U.S. that has been heavily invaded by non-native plants.

“These invasions decrease crop, range and land value. Management of these species costs hundreds of millions of dollars annually,” Kulmatiski said.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Kulmatiski

Invasive species—whether plants, insects, animals, pathogens or parasites—are estimated to cost the U.S. economy over $100 billion per year, according to the National Invasive Species Council.

First traveling to South Africa in March 2005, Kulmatiski met with fellow researchers and a representative of the Mellon Foundation, which is funding the fieldwork at Kruger, to establish a field site and begin initial experiments. The professor has traveled back to the site one to two times over the past four years to guide his students. Mazzacavallo is managing the research previously designed five years prior.

The Master’s student, who plans to use the research for his thesis, is injecting deuterium oxide or diluted water into the soil to see where different plants are accessing soil water. This is done in an attempt to understand how the trees and grasses share resources and how climate change is likely to change the abundance of these plant species and hence the abundance of browsers (giraffe) and grazers (white rhino), stated Kulmatiski.

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“Michael is taking some very precise measurements of soil water around (the area) to understand the extent and rate of water movement from our injection points,” Kulmatiski said.

The site in Washington and the site in South Africa share one crucial similarity: both are semi-arid regions.

Kruger is in an area called Lowveld, which is Savanna—rolling grassland scattered with shrubs and isolated trees. The area surrounding the Kruger is devoid of wildlife because the park is completely fenced off. Animals that stray off the park are quickly harvested by locales. Just outside the park is a mountain range called the Drakensburgs, home to the Highveld. This area is home to the largest area of afforestation in the world. It was once filled with a diverse native flora of grasslands and short forests but is now millions of hectares of avocado, banana, mango, pine and eucalyptus.

The graduate students who are lucky enough to travel to South Africa to conduct research are gaining unique experience in a foreign country as well as problem solving skills. Crucial factors need to be contemplated when determining how to get things done in the remote location of Kruger.

“What do you do when I rhino knocks down your meteorological station and hyenas chew through the cables? How do you make a self-activating, self-supporting system that holds then dispenses (water after) precipitation events? How do you record and manage tens of thousands of data points?” Kulmatiski said.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Kulmatiski

Mazzacavallo was hired as a field manager last year through an ad on the Society for Conservation Biology website. He is now an expert on Kruger research methods and has the know-how to get things done, stated Kulmatiski.

With an enormous amount of work to be done before departing on his international trip, Mazzacavallo never took the time to stop and think about the idea of traveling half way around the world.

“It didn’t actually hit me that I was going to South Africa until the plane took off,” Mazzacavallo said.

The South African spirit is much different than America’s. Things tend to move much slower in the country, according to Kulmatiski and Mazzacavallo.

“You kind of have to let things take their natural course,” Mazzacavallo said. “If you try and rush something or someone it will only cause more problems.”

It is an easy-going culture that doesn’t respond well to curtness. For example, Kulmatiski and other researchers will sometimes have to drive an hour to get research supplies. If the credit card machine happens to be down, the storeowner will tell them to ‘come back later,’ which indicates a waiting period of anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

Both researchers spoke of how exciting it was to work in a national park filled with animals. Everyday, Mazzacavallo drives through prides of lions, spots elephants and falls asleep to the sound of hyenas whooping.

“More than any particular memory, there is a general feeling that accompanies being in a sub-tropical savanna surrounded by some of the most amazing animals in the world—it’s hard to beat.”