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Far Flung but Pivotal

Iconic African animals such as giraffes and Grévy’s zebras (above), as well as African elephants (near right), roam freely at the Mpala Research Centre, a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional field laboratory in Kenya. Princeton professors and students (far right) utilize Mpala’s expansive and dynamic ecosystems for large-scale and long-term experiments related to conservation and sustainable land-use.

The Nature of the Mpala Research Centre

By Morgan Kelly

Princeton University graduate student Tyler Coverdale and Ryan O’Connell ’17 clap as they walk around the tall bushes surrounding the sprawling experiment site. Not in applause, or for self-motivation — but to alert any buffalo, elephants or other animals that might be foraging for food or seeking shade from the intense equitorial sun.

This is the nature of the Mpala Research Centre, a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional field laboratory that sits on a 50,000-acre reserve and ranch in central Kenya. For faculty and students, Mpala provides an expansive natural and human-utilized terrain ideal for large-scale field experiments in ecology, biology, geology and other fields. It’s a place where people coexist with lush and arid landscapes, and where the iconic animals of Africa that roam freely.

Princeton recently expanded its long involvement with Mpala by assuming the role of managing partner, and will work closely with the other managing partners of the Smithsonian Institution, the Kenya Wildlife Service and the National Museums of Kenya.

Dan Rubenstein, Princeton’s Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, first came to Mpala in 1990, just after the University’s connection with it began, and is on its board of trustees. In 1989, George Small of the Class of 1943 approached the University about establishing a research center on the large ranch he inherited from his brother. Since then, numerous faculty members and students from Princeton and other institutions have come there to conduct research and learn in an environment unlike any found on the typical American college campus.

“This is Princeton — it’s got the specialness of Princeton in an international setting that allows students to blossom,” Rubenstein says.

“Mpala is a lens for seeing the world in a different way. Students grow and become much more worldly, and that is the real purpose of an international education. But it also gives students the chance to understand and learn how to do science.”

A distinguishing feature of Mpala is that researchers are provided with basic necessities such as food, laundry service and vehicle maintenance, Rubenstein explains. That is immensely valuable to researchers such as Coverdale, who studies plant-herbivore interactions and plant defenses under Robert Pringle, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. The roughly three months he has spent at Mpala each year since 2013 is his only time to conduct fieldwork and collect data, so every moment is precious.

Coverdale works at several large experimental exclosures set up by Pringle and other researchers. Built in various ecosystems, these areas restrict the access certain animals have to vegetation. The intent is to study how plants grow or adapt to the presence or absence of the animals that eat them, with implications for understanding how ecosystems would adapt to climate change or an animal’s extinction.

Research involving elephants and giraffes needs space and Mpala is remarkable for offering that, Coverdale says — one series of exclosures built in 2008 consists of 36 10,000-square meter (107,639-square foot) plots. As researchers work at the same sites year after year, a wealth of data becomes available to the young scientists and students who follow.

“To have a place where you can have large plots along the road, you can’t get that anywhere else,” adds Coverdale. “To include undergraduates in that is really unique. You could easily have a place like this and keep it exclusive to graduate students and faculty. It’s an amazing place to work as a graduate student, but as an undergraduate, it’s really unique.”

O’Connell, who works with Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Corina Tarnita and has spent two summers at Mpala, accessed 15-20 years of data for his senior thesis on vines called lianas that grow rampantly when large herbivores such as elephants are absent. “It makes getting an undergraduate project done a lot more feasible,” he says. “Princeton does a great job of making these opportunities available to undergraduates.”