Collecting data cards from ultrasonic acoustic monitors and camera traps that have been deployed at an elephant carcass for a couple of weeks.

Aaron Morris

Research Q & A

What’s your hometown?

Seattle, Washington

What are you currently working on (as supported by the award)?

I am studying the indirect effects of African elephant carrion on species not typically associated with carcasses, in this case, insectivorous bats. Previous research has documented insectivorous species, such as birds, cueing in on the abundance of insects found at carcasses. It is likely that other species, in my case, bats, are also supported by the abundance of insects. We really do not know if these foraging sites are important in terms of fitness or distribution of insectivorous species. However, before we can answer those questions we need to understand whether or not and the extent to which these species are utilizing those resources.

How are you working toward that goal?

I spent two months (August and September) during 2019 in Tsavo East National Park to collect data at elephant carcass sites. Elephant carcasses are generally located by ground or aerial anti-poaching patrols, though in some cases the wildlife managers must euthanize mortally injured elephants. Either way, after there is a new carcass, I go in to deploy ultrasonic acoustic monitoring equipment and camera traps at the elephant carcass site and a paired-reference site. The ultrasonic monitoring equipment is designed to detect and record the calls of bats, which generally fall outside of the range of human hearing. The remote cameras are used to monitor the activity of animals such as lions and hyenas at the carcass sites. The acoustic data collected from the sites can then be analyzed with specialized software that can pick out bat calls and in some cases even identify the specific species of bats within the recordings.

Why are you focusing your work in that area?

Elephant carcasses are the closest terrestrial analog we have to the whale fall, decomposing whale carcasses on the seafloor that create hot spots of biological activity. We know that elephant carcasses can support a greater diversity of species and more individuals than smaller carcasses, but such a large concentration of resources is likely to have other effects on species. Given the potential for elephant carcasses to be important resources for many different species and reductions in the elephant population due to poaching and habitat loss, this work can help us understand what might be lost if elephants disappear from the landscape and/or what might be saved through conservation.

Where are you working on research/field work?

This work is being conducted in Tsavo East National Park, inside of the Tsavo Conservation Area located in Kenya. The Tsavo Conservation Area is home to Kenya’s largest population of elephants, so it is a great place to conduct this research.

What will your next steps/research be?

I am currently in the process of analyzing data collected during the 2019 field season and I will return to Kenya for another two-month field season in 2020 to collect more data. While we can generally predict when and where elephant carcasses may occur on the landscape, there is no way to know specifically when and where they will occur. This means a lot of time waiting, so I also have other research questions related to elephant carrion that examine carcass effects through time and carcass distribution patterns.

back to 2019 Graduate Award and Fellowship Recipients