Along with field observations, the McNaughtons' daily Serengeti routine is one of grueling work. A Tanzanian field crew assists them, and they work closely with University of Dar es Salaam ecologist Feetham Banyikwa, a longtime collaborator for whom McNaughton originally served as a doctoral advisor. They head off to field sites almost daily; some are within minutes of the Serengeti Wildlife Research Institute where they stay, while others may be hours away. Throughout the park, they have fenced plots where they collect soil-core and plant samples. They also spend plenty of time setting up new fenced areas and repairing old ones. "There's something about an elephant that doesn't like a fence," Sam McNaughton says. "One will walk five miles to knock a fence down; I'm convinced of it."|
Back at the institute, they have a field lab that Margaret McNaughton has streamlined with disposable instruments and materials to accommodate the lack of water and electricity. Soil samples, for example, are placed in sterilized bags and turned into extracts. Ultimately, any material bound for Syracuse is packed in custom-cut boxes and rides the plane as excess baggage. "It's a cooperative enterprise that runs smoothly," Sam McNaughton says.
THE SERENGETI IN SYRACUSE
This collaborative effort is truly evident on the fifth floor of SU's Biological Research Laboratories, headquarters for Team McNaughton. It's where Sam McNaughton expands on his field research with laboratory studies and computer modeling designed to synthesize lab and field findings. And it's where Margaret McNaughton oversees the lab operation, preparing and analyzing field
samples with dazzling high-tech equipment. Atop the research center is a greenhouse stocked with Serengeti grass clones, up to 22 species in all, dating back to 1974. "We have grasses here from all over the Serengeti ecosystem," Margaret McNaughton says. "We trim them with scissors to mimic the grazing." Several stories beneath the greenhouse, in the center's basement, are growth chambers with light and temperature controls that can be set to Serengeti conditions.
Margaret McNaughton uses an ICP Spectrometer to determine the amounts of different elements found in field samples.
In the fifth-floor lab, there is a gas chromatograph that measures nitrogen and carbon levels, a continuous flow autoanalyzer for measuring ammonium, nitrate, and sulfate, and the customized Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) Spectrometer that analyzes the chemical content of soil extracts, animal wastes, and plants. Also called a spectrophotometer, it's actually a combination of two machinesa spectrometer, which identifies elements based on their known wavelengths, and a photomultiplier tube, which determines the elements' intensities. For every test tube sample, the ICP examines the amounts, in parts per million, of 21 different elements. They range from micronutrients like molybdenum, selenium, nickel, and cobalt, to elements abundant in higher quantities like aluminum, potassium, calcium, nitrogen, and sodium. Such data serve as the foundation for much of Sam McNaughton's analysis work.
So far, the ICP has run through 20,000 soil samples. However, Margaret McNaughton, who wrestles with the ICP daily, estimates she's done twice that number, since, to ensure its accuracy, she calibrates the machine nearly every time before she tests a new sample. "The instrument runs only as well as I make it run," she says. "If I'm not careful with my quality control, then I'm just going to get bad data."
Before samples are evaluated on the ICP, they are prepared in the lab. Plant tissues, for example, are washed, ground up, placed in porcelain crucibles, weighed, and put in a furnace at 500 degrees for 12 hours. The ashed material is then weighed, treated with acid to create a solvent, and filtered into test tubes with a vacuum. Students like SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry graduate Katy Hargrave '99 are instrumental in helping the McNaughtons prepare samples. Hargrave, a work-study student in the lab, methodically combed through boxes and boxes of root and plant tissue samples last spring, cleaning, weighing, and grinding them. "I'm interested in environmental education," she says, "and this adds to my perspective on lab work."