Dr. Ryan Sensenig, associate professor of biological & environmental sciences and environmental science program director at Goshen College, received his his doctorate from the University of California Davis in 2007 for his work in grazing-fire interactions in east African savannas.
However, Sensenig did not finish his work in Kenya once he finished his dissertation. Teaming up with several other scientists out of UC Davis, University of Utah and Karatina University out of Kenya, Sensenig and his colleagues have engaged undergraduates from both Goshen and Kenya in an opportunity to aid in field ecology research.
Shortly after the May Term period, Sensenig and a handful of students travel to Kenya to assist in the long-term data collection. Students are chosen by the biology department of the college. Consideration is given to those who have shown interest in field ecology as as a future career, as well as those who have demonstrated performance in their environmental science studies.
The study consists of analyzing the combined effects of fire, grazing and browsing on African savanna ecosystems. These systems are dominated by a single species of Acacia tree, Acacia drepanolobium. These Acacia trees are inhabited by a species of mutualistic ants, which in turn defend the tree from elephant foraging.
Sensenig’s research is beginning to reveal that fire, an essential element to savanna ecosystems, reduces the densities of these ants. This leaves the trees vulnerable to elephants. Ant densities, tree growth and mortality, and quantifying elephant browsing pressure are all measurements taken in both burned and unburned sites in which students help.
All of these components come together to determine the composition of the landscape.
These management implications are important, because the land is also used by local ranches to raise cattle.
“Our findings suggest that the system evolved under fire pressure (from humans lighting the landscape for thousands of years), and therefore fire should be part of the management plan in order to maximize diversity,” said Sensenig.
BIOL 375, Conservation & Research Methods in Kenyan Savannas, will be available to to students during May Term of 2017.
The last offering was the summer of 2013. This differs slightly from the sole research opportunity because it also offers credit.
The Mpala Research Centere, based out of Laikipia County in Kenya, is where the research takes place.
Students assist Sensenig and his colleagues, collecting data for their continuing study and gaining valuable observation and data collection skills.
At the end of the May Term, students present their analyzed data in group projects and create final posters to summarize their specific learnings.
“Getting to collaborate with several Kenyan college students was a neat and necessary component,” said Morgan Short, a student in the 2013 May Term. “They helped us see the social and ecological actions through a local lens.”
Students also appreciated the opportunity to experience the environment, being able to witness wildlife that may otherwise only be available to see in zoos.
Short said that one of her most memorable moments involved the local wildlife.
“We were standing along these cliffs and suddenly came a large colony of baboons making their way home for the night,” she said.
“It was like a movie as the pack appeared from the surrounding brush, walking directly towards us.”