Study looks at giraffe populations

by Emily Sun | 11/9/18 2:40am

As a child, Michael Brown, a Dartmouth graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, dreamed of becoming an animal.

“I realized pretty early on that that’s not really a possibility,” Brown said. “But the next best thing was to study them. There’s never been anything else I wanted to do.”

Over the course of the past four years, Brown has been researching population dynamics of giraffes in Uganda’s Murchison National Park by studying factors like available diets, plant communities and giraffe movement to food. He does this partially by using GPS and satellite imagery to track the habitats where giraffes currently are in order to find out what resources giraffes need to thrive.

“I can pull this up on my computer in Hanover and see exactly where these giraffes are, which is remarkable,” Brown said.

Brown’s project also performs individual-based photographic surveys to photograph the giraffe as each has unique spot patterns. These photos helped provide “some of the first accurate population estimates, where [the giraffes] go, who they associate with, effects of survival, things like that,” he said. This information is also given to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority as a part of the project’s outreach efforts, which Brown hopes to help develop a national conservation strategy for giraffes.

“[Brown has] been really interested all along in conservation and using science to try to inform conservation,” biology professor Celia Chen ’78 GR’94, said. “That’s why he has questions related to spatial ecology and where animals move.”

The specific type of giraffe in Murchison National Park that Brown researches are the Rothschild’s or Nubian giraffes. Uganda holds some of the largest populations of this endangered species of giraffes, Brown noted.

“Over the last five, six decades, Uganda has undergone a period of dramatic civil change, and that’s had what we think are some incredible cascading effects on the ecology of the system,” he said.

Giraffe populations have declined slightly in the African continent, but this is not the case over the last two decades in Uganda, Brown added.

“We’ve seen giraffe populations go from big to small and now they’re rebounding again in a rather remarkable way,” Brown said. “That sort of sets a foundation for our research, looking at why the population is growing the way it is and what some of the factors are in the ecology and the system that lead to those changes.

Brown originally started by studying zebras in Kenya for around four years prior to his time at Dartmouth. After environmental sciences professor Doug Bolger and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation teamed up to offer Brown a position to research a then unstudied population of giraffes, Brown decided to switch his subject of study.

“Working in those places is not easy at all,” Chen said. “You have to be incredibly resourceful and flexible all the time. You have to solve problems that come up in a moment’s notice. You have very few resources around you.”

It was an opportunity to use the skills he had learned with the zebra studies to make some meaningful impacts in giraffe conservation, Brown said.

Kang-Chun Cheng ’17 found herself helping Brown with data analysis on his project, which she said was “pretty mundane work” but “a really good experience” that taught her more than she had originally anticipated.

“[Brown] has basically taken photos of every single giraffe in Uganda, which is really cool,” Cheng said. “The idea is that we use pattern recognition software that he developed with another Dartmouth professor to use photographs of the giraffes to visually match incoming databases with existing individuals that they knew of.”

Brown originally did most of the work by himself, which shows how passionate he is about his area of research, according to Cheng. “He’s an ecologist who really wants to use his science to benefit wildlife and conservation,” Chen said. “That’s kind of how I think of him and who he is. He’s an outdoor person and he’s very comfortable living in remote places because he spent a lot of time even prior to coming to Dartmouth working in Africa. That’s pretty special.”

Brown noted that his motivation behind his study is to understand the meanings of complicated ecosystems in order to work with locals to translate them into conservation strategies that implement action.

“There’s lots of really cool animals out there and lots of really cool ecosystems to work in,” Brown said. “As we progress to make plans for life beyond Dartmouth, who knows? I’m excited for the possibilities.”

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