McNaughton and collaborators have uncovered dozens of other intriguing facts. "We've shown that the soils contain a free enzyme, urease, which breaks urea down into ammonium virtually instantaneously, so wherever an animal urinates, that nitrogen is available within minutes to the plants," he says. Another example: Plants there are very tolerant of having their foliage removed, which tends to conserve water in the soil and allows plants to grow over a longer period of time, McNaughton says. "It's really an incredibly efficient system." |
How McNaughton has learned all this is a testament to his love for the Serengeti. After all, traveling halfway around the world, living with little, if any, electricity for up to months at a time, and hauling drinking water 60 miles isn't exactly an invitation to Serenity Getaway. And that's not even considering dealing with broken-down Land Rovers, and keeping an eye out for everything from scorpions, snakes, and carnivorous ants to lions, cheetahs, hyenas, leopards, and automatic weapon-wielding poachers. Through the years, though, it's been a second home to Sam and Margaret McNaughton and their two children, Sean '87 and Erin '91, who accompanied them as youngsters. "When I'm there, it's the most real, intense experienceit makes me feel peaceful, and at the same time very excited and interested," McNaughton says. "But the place can blindside you. If you don't use common sense, you can get into serious, even fatal, trouble."
The McNaughtons, of course, have had their share of lessons learnedlike the time they were crawling around in tall grass identifying species and plotting them out on a map, when they nearly crossed paths with a lion. "The lion warned us that we were getting a little too close," says Margaret McNaughton, who has managed Sam's lab at the University since 1974. "We never did see it; hearing it was all we needed." Then there was the time their Land Rover bogged down in mud in a
remote area, leaving them and the children stuck overnight without food, sleeping bags, or water. Eventually, they were rescued by a group of nuns traveling across the park. "Who would expect to see a Land Rover full of nuns out there in the middle of nowhere?" Margaret McNaughton says. "That's always been a good example to me of how everyday life, even in a very serene place, can be unpredictable."
An oxpecker rests on an African buffalo. As part of their symbiotic relationship, the bird picks parasites off the buffalo.
For the McNaughtons, however, nothing compares to the Serengeti when the short-grass plains spring to life during the wet season. Grazing mammals are everywherewith dung beetles on cleanup patrol and predators on stalking detail. "All your senses are just alive," Sam McNaughton says.
Along with the inspirational scenery, perhaps the only other constant they can bank on is change itself. They have seen rhino and elephant populations decimated by poachers, and watched the African wild dog become extinct from disease. Last year, the elephant population appeared to be making a comeback, but they noticed a drastic drop in the number of buffalo they usually see. Thanks to El Nino, the Serengeti had its heaviest rainfall on record in 1998. In turn, the northern soil was totally saturated, affecting the productivity of the grasses; the short-grass plains remained a food source for much longer than normal, allowing the wildebeest to extend their stay there. One year, annual grasses will be abundant; the next, perennial grasses will flourish. "Every year is different," Margaret McNaughton says. "One thing that's always impressed me is the ability of the ecosystem to heal itself."
Their attentiveness to the surroundings and their patience have paid off as well. They spend hours in the field just observing, using a spotting scope, for instance, to track the wildebeests' movements and diets. Experimentation also led to the discovery of hot spots, nutritionally bountiful areas where animals congregate even during the driest of times. "We found the grasses have important nutrients in them, minerals like calcium, phosphorous, and sodium that are essential to females that are pregnant or lactating, and young growing animals," Sam McNaughton says.