Summer Centered: Charlie Mamlin '23 Pursues Ecological Research in Kenya
The environmental studies major spent the summer in Kenya conducting three research projects at the Mpala Research Centre.
For Charlie Mamlin '23, this summer has been about exploration. Whether it was the Ewaso ecosystem in Laikipia County, Kenya, where the Mpala Research Centre is located, or any of the three ecological research projects he worked on while there, the environmental studies major and data science minor has found no shortage of exciting new things to discover. His six-week trip to Kenya and time at Mpala was sponsored by the Koshland Integrated Natural Science Center.
Upon arriving in Kenya at the end of May, Mamlin traveled to the Mpala Research Centre, located in the Ewaso ecosystem, one of Kenya’s most biodiverse environments. Across the Centre’s 50,000 acre space, hundreds of researchers conduct hundreds of projects designed to learn about savanna ecology and wildlife conservation.
“Although each of these projects is obviously different, they each examine an aspect of biodiversity and wildlife conservation, our understanding of ecosystem function, improving relationships within human-occupied ecosystems, and ensuring that sustainable practices and economic advancement are synonymous with wildlife conservation,” Mamlin said.
Mamlin’s first project involved Vulturine Guineafowl (VGF). As the only known avian species to live in a multilevel, hierarchical society, VGF offered a unique opportunity for Mamlin to learn about animal evolution and societies.
“When I worked on the VGF project, my day usually started at 6:30 a.m., when I would go out and survey the groups of guineafowl (who are all individually marked with color bands) in order to assess dispersal and predation events (if they occurred),” he said. “I would also spend some mornings going out and collecting insects from ‘pitfall’ traps in order to assess food abundance and diversity in locations where the guineafowl forage.” From there, he would record the birds and link the footage he captured to accelerometer data collected from the birds’ GPS tags. The video helps train an AI model designed to track the guineafowl through the accelerometer data.
Mamlin’s second project was a survey of the herbaceous plant species housed in Mpala’s ForestGEO plot. ForestGEO is a Smithsonian-founded group of more than 74 forests, and it was Mamlin’s job to contribute to their archives.
“There are hundreds of species present in the area, so some days we wouldn't have to move more than a few meters to document and photograph 15-20 species. We would then spend the afternoons preserving and identifying the samples, while also preparing some species for genetic analysis,” he said. Mamlin believes that he aided in the discovery of multiple species of plants that had never been documented before. In addition to contributing to the National Museums of Kenya, his work will eventually be added to a guide for the Centre’s herbaceous species.
Mamlin refers to his final project of the summer— an analysis of the photosynthetic productivity of whistling-thorn acacia trees—as “Ants and Acacias.”
“There is a coevolution and mutualism between different ant species and acacia trees, where the ants live inside of the domatia (swollen thorns) of the trees,” he explained. “I aided in assessing the metrics of photosynthesis such as water loss, conductance, and CO2 levels among varying conditions (differences of species, shade levels, invasive species introduction, etc.).”
Mamlin observed not only the photosynthetic efficiency of these trees, but also how they store carbon and their primary intake points. Additionally, he studied the trees’ response to an invasion of big-headed ants, a species that disrupts the symbiotic relationship between native ant species and the acacia trees he was studying.
While not researching, Mamlin took drives with friends to observe the fascinating wildlife of the region. At night, he observed aardvarks, bat-eared foxes, aardwolves, genets, hippos, marsh owls, and striped hyenas. During the day, he saw elephants, the endangered Grevy’s zebra, leopards, lions, buffalo, and giraffes. He was also able to visit and go hiking in nearby conservation sites, giving him experiences with friends that he will remember for a lifetime.
This summer was not Mamlin’s first time in Kenya; his grandparents lived in the country’s western region. Visiting the country to see them, he witnessed the country’s stunning biodiversity at a young age, an experience that influenced his passion for the environment and ecology.
“Besides Mpala being a global leader in ecological research, what was even more exciting to me was the opportunity to connect my awe of the biodiversity in this country that I experienced as a kid to my passion for ecology and conservation that has now been supported through the curriculum at Haverford,” he said.
Back on campus, Mamlin’s passion for the environment and ecology extends beyond that curriculum. As the head of the Haverbees club and a member of the Committee for Environmental Sustainability, his extracurricular commitments echo the themes of conservation and sustainability that defined his experience at Mpala.
“I now hope that I can bring back everything I've learned at Mpala and apply it to both my senior capstone and thesis, as well as the organizations that I am a part of that can benefit from new perspectives on sustainability,” he said.
Mamlin feels lucky to have found a wide array of role models in Mpala’s diverse cohort of researchers. He noted that two mentors in particular, Dino Martins and Patrick Milligan, were especially helpful to his personal scientific journey.
“They have both taught me an enormous amount about how to conduct scientific research effectively; that is, in a way that accounts for the effects (environmental, social, economic, etc.) of the research on the lives of both people and wildlife, and how to make decisions about benefiting both,” Mamlin said.
For Mamlin, connecting with fellow scientists from all over the world was the most impactful part of his summer experience. At Mpala, he met student-researchers from Japan, South Africa, Tanzania, Denmark, Switzerland, and Luxembourg.
Mamlin was proud to be one of them. He concluded, “Learning about so many new perspectives on both science and society is what will ultimately lead to me being a better scientist, researcher, and person.”
Full details and photographs of wildlife from Mamlin’s trip to Kenya can be found on his blog.
“Summer Centered” is a series exploring our students’ campus-supported summer work.