Lions in West Africa: A new assistant professor’s passion
Written by Gail Kuhnlein
Nyeema Harris credits her childhood experiences with setting her on a path to become a wildlife ecologist.
“I grew up in the city of Philadelphia, which isn’t surrounded by beautiful landscapes and even seeing deer was a treat,” said the newest assistant professor to join the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan.
Much of her exposure to wildlife came from the Philadelphia Zoo, where she had her first job. When she was about 13 years old, a safari to Africa with the zoo confirmed her passion and interest in wildlife conservation. Having a biology teacher for a mom certainly helped along the way.
“It’s really interesting to think of the transformative experiences people have that lead them on different career trajectories,” she said. “I think it’s imperative for us in the natural sciences to promote transformative experiences to ensure the next generation of ecologists, microbiologists, and other ologists reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity our nation.”
Prior to U-M, Harris worked with the World Wildlife Fund in Switzerland at the Luc Hoffmann Institute. The institute brings together conservation practitioners with academicians to co-create and implement applied research projects.
So, rather than scientists working in a vacuum generating information and then trying to disseminate it to users, the model is reversed, with users of the information at the table. In this way, “we design a research project that we know is going to be beneficial because we had consultations at the start,” Harris said. “Thinking about the process of research and the use of science definitely broadened my perspective. It changes my approach to teaching, mentoring and scholarship.
“In the 21st century, given the environmental problems we have, ecologists are uniquely placed to demonstrate our relevance to society and to contribute to global issues.”
Harris is now setting up her lab, and the team is forming quickly with new graduate and undergraduate students already on board. She’s been surprised by the interest and enthusiasm her research program has garnered. Her research blends concepts from community ecology and biogeography to study mammal species interactions – namely parasitism, competition and predation. Much of her work aims to have conservation and societal relevance.
“Saving parasites is a hard sell. It’s much easier for people to support the charismatic megafauna. But if conservation is meant to be inclusive with goals of maintaining ecosystem health and biodiversity, we should actually be expressing gratitude to parasites for their function. But, I think we are a long way from a save-the-cestode campaign.”
Harris is beginning to develop a program she calls Beyond Carver (named after George Washington Carver, a famous African-American botanist) to broaden the participation of underrepresented minorities in the sciences. Working with colleagues at U-M and other universities, initial plans are for a threefold program: 1. Ensure that we are profiling scientists of color in introductory courses to promote an environment of inclusion. 2. Build a community of scientists of color to increase their interactions and profile the work of these individuals in a video to enhance visibility. 3. Provide (more) potentially transformative experiences with K-12 students and develop ways to assess the success of these programs.
“This service piece is really important to me,” Harris said. She seeks to broaden participation and share the wonders of the natural world beyond the academic community. “Increasing our relevance happens in part through visibility and requires us to step out of our comfort zones. Scientists can be intellectuals whilst being champions and entertaining. We have to disseminate our science and the value of our science more broadly.”
Conservation is a common thread running through Harris’ multi-faceted research program. She investigates spatial patterns of biodiversity, the role of protected areas and the ecological and social implications around species loss. “We recognize that species have roles to play within different ecosystems and that they are part of multiple complex interactions. When one of those interactions is removed, either the community has to compensate or things just start to collapse.”
Regarding economics, especially in the African context, tourists flock to see large, charismatic mammals. “Imagine there were no tourists visiting the Serengeti because there were no more elephants or lions. How much revenue would Tanzania lose because of that? Therefore, the conservation of species and their ecosystem services particularly within protected areas has broad societal relevance.”
Another new direction for Harris’ research program in a transboundary protected area in West Africa has important implications for wildlife management conservation. Even as she selected a top predator – critically endangered West African lions — as her focal species, she realized that something consumes even top predators, namely parasites. She will be investigating how parasitism influences predator-prey systems and asking how parasites might influence or maintain biodiversity.
“We often vaccinate, deworm or delouse animals as part of our conservation efforts. We think we are improving fitness and survival, and sometimes perhaps we are, but we really don’t understand the intricate implications that manipulating the parasite community could have on the carnivore community from a behavioral, ecological or physiological perspective.”
“Changing fitness, behavior or movement could have massive implications because of how important they are in that system,” Harris said.
Harris will travel to West Africa in January 2016 for several months to set up shop. The shorter grass during dry season makes the study area more accessible and increases visibility. (She once accidentally walked within about 30 meters of a lion in tall grass!)
Harris collaborates with park authorities and is establishing relationships with local university partners in order to work with graduate students and project managers. This will open doors for collaborations and exchanges for U-M students as well.
Launching her research project involves setting up remote camera traps to assess the area’s biodiversity including the distribution of lions, and the abundance and diversity of prey. Essentially, photos are taken as animals or people cross the camera’s field of vision.
Harris is exploring opportunities to perform similar research much closer to home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Based on species composition and distribution, she’ll choose a focal species, like skunk, raccoon or fox, and begin field work next summer after returning from Africa. She explained, “We will be asking the same question about how parasites influence behavior and predator-prey interactions.”
Another research project Harris will pursue will involve the U-M Museum of Zoology collections with a goal of trying to understand if historic interactions detected from museum records and specimens were maintained, despite alterations to the landscape, through urbanization, agricultural expansion or climate change. She stresses that conservation efforts seek to maintain species interactions as well as the species themselves.
“The work I do requires me to be outside,” Harris said, with peals of laughter. “It’s really hard for me to move back to a bed from my beloved tent when I return from the field.” She found a nature sound app so she can fall asleep to the sounds of crickets or wolves.
Harris’ most exciting class as an undergraduate was general ecology, and as luck has it, she is teaching general ecology at U-M. She redesigned the course so that each semester bears a different theme. This year’s theme is ecology in every day, covering food, sex, music and water.
She will deploy cameras next month in Michigan’s U.P. to survey the carnivore guild, which will stay out until spring. Harris states, “These cameras have cellular capacity, allowing images to be transmitted without returning to the sites. Imagine getting disrupted by a text or email that shows a bobcat at station six. We will be able to bring real-time data into the classroom.”
“Hopefully I can be a source of inspiration and encouragement,” Harris said. “That’s part of our obligation as instructors. If I don’t want to come to class, why should they want to?”