Week 7:
The Botanical Part

Cornell Fellow in Botanical Conservation

Gullele Botanic Garden | Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

March 30, 2019

During my time here at Gullele, I’ve been super fortunate in that I’ve been able to do fieldwork, which is one of my favorite parts about biodiversity conservation as a field. There’s nothing that makes me happier than to be outside on the hunt for information (data in my case). Most of my field time thus far has involved camera trap mounting and checking (which, like I’ve said, involves so many wake up calls of getting wacked in the face with branches). This week though, the camera traps came down and I found myself busy with a new method of data collection: Intensive Modified Whittaker Plots.
Wow! Sounds… intense, right reader?

Me, attempting to measure slope with a clinometer while also stretching out my hammies (hamstrings).

These plots (IMW plots for short) are used to get a snapshot of a habitat type. The basic idea is to set up a few plots and record the present plant species and how much space they take up. Once you record the species and their estimated percent coverage (fancy talk for how much space they take up), you are left with a decent amount of information with which you can use to describe the habitat. In our case for our dear bushbuck, we’re trying to focus on describing the areas we recorded the bushbuck in so we know what kind of areas it likes best. Once we know what the bushbuck is going for, whether it be super dense foliage or the presence of lots of food species, Gullele can better protect bushbuck habitat on its property.

IMW plots can be super useful, and, once again, I’m so lucky to be surrounded by botanists! This week I got to go out into the field with my site advisor Dr. Birhanu and two amazing folks from the research department: Ergua and Sisaye. I have to admit I had the easy job; all I had to do was measure out the plots and record–the botanists, on the other hand, were hard at work identifying every species we saw. It was incredible. These folks know just about every plant out there and could tell the endemics from exotics with a glance. I was in awe of their encyclopedic-like minds. They even took the time to show me how to identify some of the species based off of scent, leaf-shape and number, and stem qualities like texture or the presence of nodes (little knob things). I’m still no botanist, but by our final plot, it did feel really nice to be able to differentiate Helichrysum schimperi from Helichrysum forskaollii and identify a few of the local herbs like Thymus schimperi (which smells so good!).

Documenting plant species with botanists Dr. Birhanu and Ergua.

Doing this kind of fieldwork, which requires a lot more organization and concentration than just putting up camera traps, made me understand how difficult clean data collection is in the real world. When it’s hot, you’ve got Juniperus procera and Erica arborea needles up your shirt, and scientific names are flying at you while you’re trying to estimate percent coverage, data collection can become super overwhelming. Nevertheless, I do think that after a while it’s possible to find a nice rhythm, and the way identification and estimation make your brain work can be super satisfying. Even as I return to the office with ink-stained data sheets and not-so-neat handwriting, I find myself grinning because I just think it’s so neat that science is able to quantify the natural world and pull meaning from it.

I record species while Ergua uses her botanist superpowers to list off all the scientific names of the plants around us.

Anyways. I’m smiling now, but next week, these data sheets will become my life as I begin write-up. At least I’ll have coffee to get me through!

Talitha McGuire '19

Talitha is a religion and biology major from Flagstaff, Arizona.