Boise State University

Partnership with Africa wildlife park provides new avenues for research

Boise State raptor biologists Greg Kaltenecker and Marc Bechard examine a vulture captured in Gorongosa National Park and held by Diolinda Mundoza, a student from Mozambique who is working at Boise State’s Intermountain Bird Observatory at Lucky Peak this season.
Boise State raptor biologists Greg Kaltenecker and Marc Bechard examine a vulture captured in Gorongosa National Park and held by Diolinda Mundoza, a student from Mozambique who is working at Boise State’s Intermountain Bird Observatory at Lucky Peak this season. Boise State University

Idaho’s unparalleled wilderness areas offer recreation, relaxation and plenty of research prospects. But answers to scientific inquiries that affect the Gem State are not always found here at home. For a growing number of Boise State faculty and student researchers, those questions are being explored 10,000 miles away in Mozambique, Africa.

A unique partnership with Gorongosa National Park and its major benefactor, Idaho philanthropist Greg Carr, has opened up opportunities for academic exchange that promote research, learning, training and service. It also has provided new avenues for global exchange, with students from Idaho doing research in the park, and Mozambican students coming to Idaho.

The latter exchange began with Dominique Gonçalves, who came to Boise State as part of the research team at the Intermountain Bird Observatory at Lucky Peak in fall 2015. She then put her newfound ornithology skills to work at Gorongosa National Park, in a country where opportunities for female scientists are scarce. A second student from Mozambique, Diolinda Mundoza, is working at Lucky Peak this season.

The partnership reflects the university’s growing reputation in the field of ecological research, particularly in our new Ph.D. program in ecology, evolution and behavior. The park provides many avenues for research aimed at preserving and conserving biodiversity and includes relationships with world-class academic and scientific institutions such as Harvard, Oxford and Princeton.

In addition to studies focusing on animals and plants, Gorongosa offers opportunities for cultural research in the social sciences. Areas of collaboration could include wildlife, environmental, economic development, public policy, education, water, weather, geosciences, human and natural systems interfaces, anthropology, archaeology and more.

Public Policy doctoral student Krista Lyons is heading to Gorongosa this month to work with Carr on a project related to interactions between elephants and local farmers. Lyons is working to identify ways to reduce these often lethal encounters and provide cost and benefit analyses that could lead to policy recommendations. This could include teaching more efficient farming techniques and managing the borders to deal with a culture of local poaching.

Megan Maksimowiczs, a graduate student in Boise State’s hydrological sciences program, spent time in the park this past summer working on a computer model of how water and water systems move. During 12 years of civil war, the park was the site of severe poaching and land cover change. Maksimowiczs is evaluating the area’s recovery and how landscape change affected the area’s water cycle.

Tara Easter, a graduate student in biology, accompanied human-environment systems assistant professor Neil Carter to the park in July. Their work was part of the Gorongosa Lion Project, aimed at restoring large mammals to the park post-civil war. Field cameras set during that trip are already providing images of leopards for the first time just outside park boundaries.

Many other faculty have visited this unique natural laboratory to address ecological concerns.

Biologist Jesse Barber is building on research about how long-tailed luna moths spin their long hindtails as they fly, confusing the sonar cries bats use to image prey and other objects. He is identifying local moth species in Africa and their unique anti-bat defense strategies.

Geologist Matt Kohn traveled to Gorongosa to check out the park’s unique geologic features. Isotope composition in cave deposits could offer insight into ancient climates and help scientists learn more about Earth’s modern-day challenges.

The Intermountain Bird Observatory’s Greg Kaltenecker is working with colleague Marc Bechard on a project aimed at understanding the decrease in vulture populations – a vexing problem seen in many areas around the world. Last spring a team headed by Kaltenecker and Bechard trapped and attached GPS transmitters to seven vultures within the park in order to study and track the birds. They hope to find out why populations have decreased and where the birds go when they leave the park.

Some faculty also are in discussions with Zoo Boise about supporting new displays with relevant research conducted at the park.

And University of Idaho assistant professor Ryan Long is involved understanding the role of uniformly distributed termite mounds in supporting populations of large herbivores. With his student Paolo Branco, he also is looking for ways to mitigate the behavior of crop-raiding elephants.

This is the beginning of what we hope will be a long-term partnership fostering unique inquiry and discovery. The answers uncovered in this far corner of the world can help us address similar issues here in Idaho – issues surrounding large carnivores, climate change, human-environmental interaction and more. We can’t wait to see what the park has to offer in the future.

Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. He writes monthly about scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.