Arjun B. Potter
Ph.D. Candidate, Princeton University
I have been a student of natural history for as long as I can remember; all my favorite memories invariably involve birdwatching or botanizing in the northeastern United States and on family visits to India. After studying applied ecology at Cornell University, I researched the endangered wild cattle and savannas of Java on a Fulbright scholarship to Indonesia. Following this, I worked on a cattle farm in Connecticut and got to see bovine grazing up close and with different eyes. This theme of grass and large herbivores has continued through my PhD research at Princeton University.
I first visited Gorongosa in 2015; my advisor Rob Pringle encouraged me to see the park before the start of my PhD program. That first visit left me in awe of the grandeur and diversity of Gorongosa and the efforts of so many to restore it. Since then, I have visited the park many times but have never lost the sense of how lucky I am to be able to work here.
My research broadly seeks to understand the interactions between large mammalian herbivores and their environment. A major aim is to understand how grazing lawns (areas of short, grazed grass) form on the floodplain. Since grazing lawns can support immense densities of large animals, their dynamics influence the park’s restoration. Additionally, I am trying to understand the relationship between animals’ diets and the seeds that they disperse—for this I am quantifying the plants that animals eat and the seeds that are present in their dung. Finally, I am researching the following (deceptively) simple question: “Why do large herbivores eat what they eat?” This question is bringing me back to my botanical roots as I attempt to wrestle with the tremendous variation in appearance, digestibility, thorniness, toughness, etcetera in the plant world.
Gorongosa is a very special place to be a scientist. On one level, the park offers opportunities for scientific research that are rare and unique. More fundamentally, the park shares with all a sense of camaraderie, common purpose, and excitement that come with working with the people and landscapes of Gorongosa. This ethos makes conducting research in the park particularly enjoyable and fulfilling.