Ryan A. Long, PhD.
Post-Doctoral Research Associate, Princeton University
I grew up among the sagebrush and ponderosa pines of central Oregon, and have been fascinated by the beauty and complexity of the natural world for as long as I can remember. That fascination eventually led me to pursue a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and it was there that I got my first taste of wildlife research. That taste took the form of a study of the behavior and physiology of arctic ground squirrels in northern Alaska, and my experiences during that time provided the foundation for the next decade of my career. I also married my high-school sweetheart Kathleen while we were both pursuing our degrees at UAF. After finishing in Alaska, I went on to pursue a master’s degree in wildlife resources at the University of Idaho, and finally a Ph.D. in biology at Idaho State University. It was my graduate research that provided the opportunity to work with large herbivores, and those unique mammals have been the focus of my research ever since.
I first became aware of Gorongosa and its amazing history and potential for world-class research when, during the final year of my Ph.D. program, I sent an e-mail to Rob Pringle at Princeton inquiring about a position he had advertised for a post-doctoral researcher to work in Kenya. In his response, Rob kindly indicated that the position in Kenya likely wasn’t right for me, but wondered if I might be interested in another position he had available for working in Gorongosa. One thing led to another, and I eventually had the privilege of accepting Rob’s offer to bring my research program to his lab, and begin studying large herbivores in Gorongosa.
My research at Gorongosa is aimed at understanding the role of uniformly distributed termite mounds in supporting populations of large herbivores of various body sizes. Termite mounds in savanna ecosystems like Gorongosa frequently support unique assemblages of plants that are highly nutritious for herbivores. As a result, those mounds may serve as resource hotspots that help support herbivores throughout the stressful dry season. Energy requirements, however, differ among herbivores of different sizes, and so one of my goals is to understand the relative importance of termite mounds to large- versus small-bodied herbivores. To that end, my work in Gorongosa will involve placing GPS collars on bushbuck, nyala, and kudu, so that I can monitor their use of termite mounds and better understand the complex relationships between each of these species and Gorongosa’s unique landscape.
Like many large mammal ecologists I know, I’ve dreamed of having the opportunity to work in Africa since I was a small child. Working in Gorongosa, though, is a privilege that has exceeded my greatest expectations. Not only is Gorongosa one of the most dynamic and diverse ecosystems in the world, but the unique ways in which various species of large herbivores have recolonized the park since 1994 provide an opportunity to address both applied and basic questions at a scale that’s unobtainable anywhere else in the world. In addition, the dedication of the many people associated with the park and the restoration project are a continuous source of inspiration for people like myself, and make working at Gorongosa a genuine pleasure.