Biology Assistant Professor Briana Abrahms was recently featured in a University of Washington Magazine article on her research and her efforts to seek ways for humans and wildlife to coexist as the climate changes.
Briana Abrahms and her team are awakened by their alarms at 3:30 a.m. Leaving the relative warmth of their tents, they quickly load up their rugged Land Rover with the gear they’ll need for the day: clothes for the freezing morning and warm afternoon, food and water, GPS devices, VHF (very high frequency) radio antennas and scientific notebooks. The three scientists—UW Assistant Professor of Biology Abrahms, postdoctoral researcher Kasim Rafiq and doctoral student Leigh West—pile into their vehicle. It chugs to life and they’re off, driving in the dark through the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana.
They encounter no pavement, towns or people as they bump along for hours, branches of mopane trees slapping their 1990s-era vehicle. If it breaks down— a frequent occurrence—they’ll have to attempt repairs on their own or radio back to camp for help. They must reach their destination by sunrise, when the four-legged residents they’re tracking get up and start their day.
This has been the researchers’ daily routine for much of this past July (mid-winter in Botswana) while studying the behavior of endangered African wild dogs. In the mornings, they observe the dogs in their dens from a safe distance. When the pack ventures into the bush to hunt, the team follows—or tries to.
“African wild dogs are far more capable at weaving through trees and crossing the Delta’s floodwaters than we are,” says Abrahms with a smile. “So keeping up with them when they’re on the move can be quite the challenge.”
Despite the animals’ sly subterfuge, the researchers’ pursuits have been fruitful. Since 2011, in collaboration with NGO partner Botswana Predator Conservation, Abrahms has been collecting data on African wild dogs and their natural competitors, like lions and cheetahs. They’ve outfitted dozens of adult dogs with collars that record position and acceleration every few minutes: “Kind of like Fitbits for animals,” says Abrahms.
As the Boersma Endowed Chair of Natural History and Conservation, Abrahms is one of many UW faculty members whose positions were made possible by philanthropy—and who routinely involve in their research UW students who are laying the foundations for their own careers. The long-term research Abrahms and team are conducting in Botswana is yielding important data to answer a key question: How are predators changing their behavior in response to climate change?
Field observations from this trip will help them connect information on position and acceleration to specific behaviors like hunting and eating, creating a sort of “Rosetta stone” that translates collar data into actions.