Just over a year ago, Colorado College student Brooke Davis was spending long days with her fellow student-researchers on the ACM Tanzania Program, watching groups of impalas and baboons and collecting data on how the two species interact.
What she discovered was that impalas actively seek out baboons, both for food and for greater safety from predators. Her observations, backed up by data, help explain relationships between impalas and baboons that researchers have speculated about for decades.
Brooke Davis in the field in northern Tanzania.
Now, Davis’ research is getting noticed. A paper she co-authored with Colorado College biology professor Jim Ebersole, who was Visiting Faculty Director of the Tanzania Program in fall 2014, was recently published in the African Journal of Ecology. That was quickly followed by an article about her research on Smithsonian.com.
The centerpiece of the Tanzania Program is an independent practicum project, including six weeks conducting research in and around Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania. The park has abundant opportunities for ecology and biology projects, and nearby are villages where students pursue topics in anthropology, as well as premier sites for archaeological projects, such as Olduvai Gorge.
At the field camp, the students split up into groups to share vehicles for transportation to their research sites. Davis was one of six students whose projects were related to animal behavior, with group members conducting research on baboons, impalas, and baby elephants.
Students in the fall 2014 Tanzania Program animal behavior research group and their safari guides.
“It was very collaborative,” Davis said, describing how the group shared insights and helped each other with their data collection. “We had a pretty set route that we figured out where we could reliably find baboons and elephants. So we would drive that route and whichever [animals] we came across first, we would stop.”
In planning her research project, Davis had been intrigued by interactions between impalas and baboons that previous researchers had written about. In Tarangire, she saw that impalas were showing up when baboons were feeding on sausage fruit — so called for the shape and color — that grows in trees.
Impalas can’t reach the sausage fruit hanging on the branches, nor can they chew through the tough skins of the fruit that falls on the ground. Baboons, though, can do both. It certainly looked like the impalas were sticking close by the primates to take advantage of any leftovers, but was there solid quantitative evidence to support the conclusion?
That’s what Davis, with data-gathering help from the other students in her group and research guidance from Ebersole, was able to establish in her project and paper. She also found evidence that impalas stay close to baboons for another reason — security. Baboons are adept at sensing predators, such as leopards and lions, and Davis’ research indicated that impalas relax their vigilance when baboons are nearby to help keep watch.
“I ended up being really happy with what I found,” she said, “and the fact that I could get statistically significant data was really wonderful.”
Above and at left, below: Impalas and baboons under a sausage fruit tree.
Preparing the research paper, titled “Impala (Aepyceros melampus) associate with olive baboons (Papio anubis) for feeding and security in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania,” was a process that stretched over several months after the program ended.
“The reviewers [for the journal] had really good comments that helped improve the paper,” said Ebersole, recalling that they went through three drafts during the review. “Brooke did multiple revisions in Tanzania, we did multiple revisions in the spring, and then more on the way [to publication]. That’s completely standard for publishing a scholarly paper.”
According to Ebersole, Davis probably won’t be the only student from the fall 2014 Tanzania Program group to have a published research paper. He noted that six other students have been working with him on papers to submit to scholarly journals, and he knows of others who are working on papers with professors on their home campuses.
Especially for students like Davis, who have their sights set on graduate school, Ebersole said there are real benefits to having their research papers published.
“Brooke is really pleased to get a publication out of it and she already had another publication as an undergraduate,” he said. “It looks fabulous for her, because any undergraduate with a publication is going to have a much better opportunity to get into graduate school, simply because a lot of times the potential advisor is asking the question ‘Will this person be able to do research?’ If they already have a paper published, clearly the answer is yes.”
“I really try to give students the awareness and the confidence that they can do publishable work now, as undergraduates,” Ebersole added. “They don’t have to wait until graduate school, they can do it now.”
“I loved working on the project, and it helped me a lot in understanding the scientific method,” Davis said. “It also helped me solidify that I really do want to go and get a Ph.D., and it made me reaffirm that I really do love doing field research.”
Photos courtesy of Brooke Davis.
- Tanzania: Ecology & Human Origins
- Paper by Brooke Davis and Jim Ebersole in the African Journal of Ecology
- Impalas Hang Out With Baboons for Sausage Fruits and Safety on Smithsonian.com
- Topics of field practicum research projects by Tanzania Program participants in past years