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Jen Guyton

Jen Guyton

PhD Student, Princeton University

 

I first came to the African continent in 2008 after a lifetime split between two others. I was born to a German mother and American father, and though I grew up in California, we visited Germany almost every year. It wasn’t long into a study abroad program in Tanzania that I knew Africa would be a third home. In 2010, as soon as I finished my bachelor’s degree in Conservation and Resource Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, I found myself committed to a year in South Africa studying the behavior of meerkats in the Kalahari Desert.

 

My introduction to Gorongosa was a direct result of that decision. When my year in the Kalahari ended in 2011, I took a solo bus trip across South Africa and up to the northern reaches of Mozambique to visit a friend in the Peace Corps. During almost three straight days of sitting on a bus, unable to speak the language of the people sitting next to me, I read my guidebook cover-to-cover. There, near the section on Beira, was a half-page entry outlining Gorongosa’s story. I was captivated by its tale of regeneration, and by the enormous drive and vision of the people behind it all. I didn’t make it out to the park during that trip, but I stashed GNP’s name in a corner of my mind.

 

Eighteen months later, while working on hippopotamus ecology in Kenya, I met Rob Pringle, a new Assistant Professor at Princeton University. I heard that he was involved in a project in Mozambique, at a place called Gorongosa. The flag rose, and I dug up GNP’s incredible story to read for a second time. I came across what was for me a key piece of information: during the war, the hippo population dipped from 3,500 to 100 individuals. As a result of the research we were doing on those mammoth mammals in Kenya, I knew that their loss must have had a tremendous effect on the park’s ecosystem. I was seeking out graduate school opportunities at the time, so I contacted Rob, and eventually landed a spot in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology PhD program at Princeton University.

 

Broadly speaking, I’m interested in how community and ecosystem ecology can be applied to conservation, and I love digging up big questions that don’t yet have answers. Of course, I’m fascinated by Gorongosa’s hippos – in other parts of Africa, they’ve been noted to forge deep channels as they move to and from the grasslands where they forage each night. The channels likely have big effects on the system, redirecting water, creating habitat, and changing vegetation patterns. Those channels are evident in Lake Urema too, and I’m hoping to find out how changing hippo numbers might be shifting the ecology of this wetland system.

 

But hippos aren’t my only interest. In April 2013, I participated in GNP’s first biodiversity survey as the small mammal specialist. I had the chance to meet most of the park’s underappreciated mammalian characters, the scuttling and high-flying creatures that you don’t see until you figure out just where to look. I find bats especially interesting. From  “horseshoes” on their noses to foxy faces and tongues built for drinking nectar, they’ve found an incredible diversity of unusual ways to fill their role as the world’s only flying mammals.

 

In general, I was totally smitten with Gorongosa’s landscape and its animals – the human ones too! Gorongosa’s passionate and diverse team ticks every box in terms of what makes a successful conservation-development effort. I can’t wait to begin my thesis research and work alongside them in this beautiful and unique park.