Well, it’s official; I’m heading to Africa!
This time next week, I’ll be on my way to Tanzania for fieldwork. Despite a few months of uncertainty and a significant amount of delay (to be expected when working with African nations), I’ll leave Sunday, September 21st and won’t return until October 20th. Living in Africa for a month and working on the largest tropical lake in the world? I’ll take it! To follow is a brief overview of where I’m going and what I’ll be doing.
Where am I going?
As I just mentioned, Lake Victoria is the largest tropical lake in the world (by surface area) and it is located in East Africa, bordered by the countries of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. It is home to around 500 different species of cichlid fishes (among numerous other types of fish), most of which have come into existence within a very short period of time. Geographical data has shown that the lake was completely empty for several thousand and only refilled about 12,000-13,000 years ago (no water = no fish!). For this reason, Lake Victoria is an excellent place to study how new species comes into existence. Speciation is typically a very, very slow process, taking millions of years to form separate species. Cichlids in Lake Victoria have formed 500+ species in only a few thousands of years (a very short time frame in terms of species development) and therefore give those interested in studying it an opportunity to observe speciation in ‘real-time’. This is what my project focuses on, speciation of cichlid fishes.
I will be living and working on the southern portion of the lake, near the city of Mwanza. All work will be based out of a research station, and from my understanding, I’ll be living in a house nearby. I’ll be joining a group of researchers from Switzerland, most of whom traveled to the lake last week. In addition, there are a few locals who we will rely on to drive the boats and serve as our general guides on the lakes. All in all, it seems I will be working with a diverse group, many of which have lots of experience on the lake
What will I be doing?
Cichlids are a diverse group of fishes that are found all over the word, in South America, India, and Africa. I would venture to guess that anyone reading this has actually had close interactions with a close relative of cichlids, tilapia. Yep, the same tilapia you fix at home or order at Red Lobster is actually a close relative (in scientific terms: an ancestor) of the fish I will be studying. Cichlids of the East African Great Lakes – Lakes Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victoria – represent about 2,000 different species and have been studied extensively for a number of years. As I mentioned previously, Lake Victoria is an extremely young lake, whereas Malawi and Tanganyika are millions of years old. Additionally, Lake Victoria is relatively shallow and the water very turbid. In comparison, Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika are among the clearest lakes in the world. For this reason, the speciation processes that act in Lake Victoria are much different than those that act in Malawi and Tanganyika (and seem to act at a much faster pace).
I will be working with two very closely related species of cichlids, Pundamilia pundamilia and Pundamilia nyererei (Latin scientific names – no common names such as bluegill or bass). For simplicity, P. pundamilia is the ‘blue’ fish and P. nyererei is the ‘red’ fish. The two fish are very similar, differing mostly in the bright coloration of males. They occur at the same locations in the lake, with the blue fish in shallower depths and the red fish existing much deeper. Being that they are found at such different depths, the two fish live in very different lighting environments. Previous work has shown that the females of each species prefer the specific color of their species (red females prefer red males) and the way they perceive color differs (fish in deep water can see red much better while fish in shallow water can see blue much better). The purpose of my project will be to test how the different light environments has played a role in the formation of these two species (this is putting it very simply as there are lots of factors involved). This matters because Lake Victoria has recently undergone a dramatic change due to human activity around the lake. Increased agriculture and deforestation has caused the lake to become progressively more turbid. If vision and coloration is key to new species arising and maintaining their separation, then human activity could have detrimental effects. There is also the fact that the processes underlying speciation are of great interest but that only matters to science nerds like me.
My work will consist of not only collecting live fish to ship back to Groningen, but also taking light measurements at different depths in the lake and numerous preserved samples to be used later in molecule work. Outside of this, I’ll also be helping the rest of the members of the group with their respective projects. I’m not sure what all this involves but it will let me see much more of the lake and numerous other species of fish.
Since I am frequently asked about travel, I figure it’s worth sharing quickly. To get from Groningen to Mwanza, I have to do the following:
- 2 hour train ride from Groningen to Amsterdam Sunday afternoon (Sept. 21st)
- Leave Amsterdam at 9:00pm and land in Nairobi, Kenya at 6:10am (Sept. 22nd)
- Leave Nairobi at 8:10am and land in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania at 11:05am
- At this point, I have to collect all of my luggage and change airlines to a domestic carrier. This means rechecking in and going through security again. No worries, I have a 7-hour lay over…
- Leave Dar es Salaam at 6:50pm and land in Mwanza at 8:20pm
- Hire a driver to take me the research station at Lake Victoria
For those of you keeping track, that means a full 24 hours of travel from Groningen to Lake Victoria. Yay science!
Aside from prepping for the upcoming trip, life in Groningen is still going great! We now once again live in a college town, as school has restarted and all of the students have returned. I think we got a little spoiled with everyone being away for summer holiday and the streets being relatively empty. Biking now, with thousands of students, is quite the adventure. Weather wise, it’s already starting to get cooler here and most of the trees are beginning to drop their leaves. I’m sure by the time I return from Tanzania it will be quite cold.
Whitney is now two weeks into work and seems to really enjoy it. There was a bit of an adjustment for her, going into industry after being in academia for so long (industry is much more strict) but luckily it wasn’t too bad. She seems to really enjoy the people she works with and has already made plans with a work colleague to go clothes shopping once they get paid (I’m very thankful for this…better than me!). Being that she works with a small group of people, all of which are Dutch, she is really starting to get the hang of the language. In fact, she was able to order all of our meats for groceries in Dutch, without having to repeat anything! At this rate, I’ll have my own personal translator by the time I return.
So with that, I’ll call this post finished. If Internet is freely available at the research station, I’ll try to do another post while I’m in Tanzania. If not, I’ll take plenty of pictures and update in October.
Until next time!