W2010 is a full, four-credit undergraduate class involving a rich menu of academic activities and content, but it is set up differently from most on-campus classes. There will be few formal lectures or exams; instead, you will read and discuss articles from the primary scientific literature on the animals and plants that surround you at Mpala, design and conduct your own field projects and experiments, and write research papers based on your own observations and discoveries. 

We pack the course time full with activities and experiences; there will be very little down-time. Our academic goal is to give all W2010 students the fundamental experiences required to help them become independent scientific researchers, with skills that will help them be better students, scientists (no matter what your eventual career path), and world citizens.


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The formal academic content of W2010 has four components:

• research projects

• literature discussions

• scientific talks

• natural history immersion


The primary academic goal of this course is to give you intensive and high-quality experience with hands-on research, and hence a significant portion of your field time is spent designing and implementing ecological studies in small groups of three to five classmates. These projects all aim to test an explicit ecological or behavioral hypothesis through observation or experimentation. During the course, we typically complete three or four different group projects. The initial projects are designed in part by the instructors, but soon the students become responsible for the entire process, from brainstorming a topic through completing the analysis and written report. The final projects are brainstormed and designed almost entirely by the students on their choice of topic. Some past final projects have included studies of habitat preferences by antelope species, dominance rank in impala bachelor herds, and behavioral studies of harvester ants and ant-lions.

Group projects that we use to help students become adept at the research process have included:


Ungulates of many kinds are very common at Mpala. This project compares trade-offs in the foraging and vigilance behavior of ungulates of different body sizes (e.g., zebra, giraffe, impala, gazelle, dik dik).  It is designed in part as an introduction to  methods of study design, data collection, and statistical analysis for behavioral data.


Elephants migrate through Mpala; although they are not always present, their seasonal presence transforms the local environment.  This project examines the abundance and distribution of elephant damage on acacia trees.  It is designed as an introduction to methods of study design, data collection, and statistical analysis for ecological data.


One of the most biologically famous long-term studies conducted at Mpala has explored the ecology and behavior of the four species of ants that compete for living space in whistling-thorn acacia trees. Because these trees and their ants are abundant and easily studied, they make great fodder for student research. In this project, the class breaks into small groups to brainstorm their own experiment involving some component of acacia-ant mutualism. We use this project to provide a friendly introduction to basic statistics, and a trial-run at writing a full research report.  It also helps students think about the types of questions most amenable to hypothesis-based research.


During the first 'orientation' days in the field, we suggest many possible research topics as we all encounter different organisms and systems, but we have found that students often come up with insightful questions of their own. You will be tasked with identifying possible research topics, refining the hypotheses to be tested, developing critical predictions, designing effective tests, and collecting pilot data. Once projects have been refined, your group will collect the bulk of your data and collectively write up your project in the form of a scientific paper.


In keeping with the research orientation of the course, we hold daily discussions based on a hefty reading packet of scientific papers relevant to understanding important themes in tropical biology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary biology, and conservation biology. These papers have an important role in serving as models for your own research reports. Nearly allare studies of the animals and plants that you will see all around you in Kenya, and many have been actually conducted at Mpala. We will lead the first few discussions, but as the course progresses each student will moderate the discussion a topic (usually two or three thematically related papers). This exercise helps build your skills in interpreting the primary scientific literature.


We change the topics every year, but they are likely to include 14-18 topics, such as:

Ecology and Conservation Biology

1) Ecology and biogeochemistry of African ecosystems

2) Fire and grazers in African ecosystems

3) Community ecology and grazer competition

4) Predator/prey dynamics of ungulates and carnivores

5) Cheetah conservation

6) Rhino conservation

7) Community-based conservation in Africa

8) Re-wilding and human/wildlife conflict

9) Ecology and evolution of social behavior in African starlings

Evolution and Behavior

9) Ungulate mating and social systems

10) Equid social behavior

11) Baboon social behavior

12) Elephant social behavior

13) Hyrax social behavior and metapopulation dynamics

14) Cooperative breeding in bee-eaters

15) Cooperative breeding in African starlings

16) Sexual selection in widow birds

17) Sexual selection in lions

18) Human mating systems of African cultures


We tend not to schedule many formal lectures, but we will give several informal evening talks on biological themes. We are often also able to arrange for additional campfire talks by Mpala-based researchers on their ongoing research projects. In the past, Cornell groups have heard presentations on acacia-ant mutualisms, zebra social behavior, lion conservation, and the population genetics of endangered African wildlife. The particular lectures you might hear will depend on which researchers are at the station during the field course.


We spend as much time as possible in the field, both walking and driving.  In the process, we will teach you as much as we can about the biology, geology, and ecology of African ecosystems. By the end of the course you will be able to identify all of the large animals in Laikipia, as well as most of the trees and many of the birds.


All students must take the course for a letter grade. Grades are determined by each student’s performance and participation in all of the academic activities described above, and on their general participation and engagement throughout the course.


We seek to provide an academically stimulating and intellectually rigorous experience, and ask that participants approach the class with the same level of seriousness they would bring to a 4-credit lab course on campus. Letter grades will be determined by a combination of engagement in the field aspects of the course, the written reports and final group presentation, the paper presentations, and participation in group discussions. As fieldwork is always unpredictable and projects can fail for unanticipated reasons, projects will be evaluated on the thoughtfulness of the project design, effort and perseverance with data collection, and the quality of the report, rather than on the formal results per se. A rough breakdown of the grading (subject to change slightly on the course) is:

            20%     Paper discussion topic and discussion participation
            20%     Introductory projects
            30%     Final Independent project
            30%     Interest, participation, engagement, and cooperation in field/camp

Tropical Biology