“Warning!” reads the course description, “Mega-mammals, crocodiles, snakes, thorns, baboons, etc. may be abundant at many of the sites. Please be very careful!” The course, Field Biology and Ecology, provides one of the latest study abroad opportunities offered at Auburn University. Last summer during the inaugural course, 10 Auburn students ventured to Swaziland and South Africa for a once-in-a-lifetime, hands-on, research experience, guided by Biological Sciences professors Troy Best and Michael Wooten.
“We go to teach students about field biology and what it’s like. We teach them about animals, and it’s basically an academic exercise to experience animals in their natural settings and see what they are like, as well as learn field-research techniques such as how to collect field data and what you do with the data after it’s collected,” explained Wooten. “The trip also provides a cultural experience, because we had an opportunity to go into a village and we interacted daily with the local people. It’s life changing. As a faculty member it’s especially fun because we get to see the students grow, day by day.”
“One of the things that we do is put out little metal traps that catch rodents and other animals, alive and unharmed. When we go to check the traps and find that one of them is closed, it’s like a little Christmas present,” said Best. “We started out the trip by catching one of the neatest little mammals that you could catch - it’s called a forest shrew. It was the only one any of us had ever seen before. It was an active little shrew and we held it on our gloved hands, took measurements of it and turned it loose. We also caught a lot of other small mammals while we were there.”
In all, the students set more than 150 live-animal traps, or Sherman traps, in the nature reserves in order to gauge the abundance and distribution of small mammal populations in the region as part of a multi-institutional research project. They also hung game cameras to capture images of large mammals, and mist nets to capture bats.
“We caught some really, really cool bats. We only caught three, but each was from a different family and the most exciting was a fruit bat. We do not have those in the U.S.,” explained Hannah Gunter, a senior in wildlife sciences. “That was a big moment for me.”
While driving through the reserves, the students had an opportunity to stop and observe upward of 100 different animals species, from large mammals like giraffes, rhinoceroses, elephants, lions and zebras, to bird species such as the Ostrich, African penguin and African fish eagle.
“My parents and I decided this experience would be a test run to be sure I like the field work, and I absolutely loved it,” said Kaelyn Dobson, a junior in zoology: conservation and biodiversity. “Being immersed in the culture of the land and having the animals right outside your tent at night – it was an adventure. I had camped in a tent before, but I had never had hippos outside my tent before!”
Gunter was also impressed with the close proximity of the wild animals: “One of my favorite parts of the trip was being awakened by hippos at night. They make this bellowing sound. It’s a sound that covers your whole body and shakes you to your core. There are not a lot of animals that make that kind of bellow – and they were right outside our research camp, so you get pretty close to nature.”
Toward the end of the trip, the students traveled to South Africa and visited Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa.
“In Kruger, we heard hyenas laughing and calling through the night, and lions. There is an antelope called a ‘bush buck’ that barks like a dog. It was really cool,” said Gunter. “That’s one of the things I miss most from the trip - the sounds of the animals at night.”
Elephants welcomed the students by hitting the safari vehicles with their trunks, lions walked alongside the trucks, and a close encounter with a hyena left one student’s blood cold.
“A hyena came out of the darkness and walked up to our truck, and it was probably the creepiest thing I have ever seen,” said Jennifer Heim, a master’s student in biological sciences. “They just sort of look right through you.”
Armed guides escorted the students on a walking tour of Kruger National Park, giving them an experience that was even more unique.
“Usually you are not allowed to get out of your vehicle, so to have an opportunity to go on a walking tour was amazing,” said Donald Ward, a junior in zoology/pre-med. “The guides told us there was a possibility we could be attacked by lions. They told us when facing the possibility of being attacked by a lion, it’s important to stand there and stare it down, because if you run, they will chase. But we felt safe with the guards and in solidarity with the lions because they respect humans and do not consider us to be food. Hippos actually cause more human deaths in Africa than any other animal because they do not care what they are charging, they just keep charging, and people can’t outrun them.”
Besides learning about the fauna of Africa, the students gained other valuable lessons and insight as well. Heim said she grew in her appreciation for what we have in the U.S. after watching children as young as two and three years old walking miles to get water. Dobson said she realized she definitely wants to be a field researcher, and Ward said the animal presentations each student was required to give gave him valuable public speaking experience.
“I think it also built my social skills,” said Ward. “I learned to converse about science and think scientifically about things and consider the scientific method and the ways science works. I did not learn a lot about anatomy and physiology, which is a heavy focus for medical school, but the skills I gained from the presentations and conversing with the professors and students, it was good for me. I have not built a lot of relationships with professors, so this trip was a good starting point. I loved it. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
The study abroad program in Field Biology and Ecology is open to all Auburn University students who have a minimum of 15 hours of science credit. Plans for another trip to Africa in summer 2014 are currently underway, and details will be posted soon to the Study Abroad website.
“I had never been out of the country before and had never seen the Atlantic coast until I flew over it. I didn’t know what to think. I still don’t know what to think of the trip other than I would be back there right now if I could. I think it was worth every penny,” said John Goode, a senior in wildlife sciences. “Take the trip if you’ve got the chance.”