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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

DNA of UCD

UC Davis professor of wildlife, fish and conservation biology Tim Caro spends his time off in Africa – in a remote corner of Tanzania near the Katavi National Park, to be exact.

Caro studies both animal behavior and what we can do to preserve species. Recently, his research has focused on answering the age-old question, “How did the zebra get his stripes?”

The British native got his degree in zoology at the University of Cambridge, UK followed by his Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews in 1979. Caro has taught at UC Davis for 20 years and says he does biology “24/7.”

Currently working in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania after a month of isolated fieldwork, Caro was gracious enough to answer a few questions for The California Aggie.

What classes do you teach? Do you have a favorite?

I teach Introduction to Conservation Biology (WFC11) and Behavioral Ecology (WFC141) and some graduate classes. My favorite course is WFC11 – actually I used to teach Conservation Biology at the upper division level but I volunteered to start a new lower division GE course because I think that young broad-minded undergraduates can make a big impact on the environment. WFC11 is an opportunity for me to teach English, engineering and enology students how to make a positive difference to the natural world – not just biologists.

What does your research focus on? Where has it taken you?

Unusually, I work in two different fields of biology, animal behavior (what animals do) and conservation (how we can keep them around). This allows me to do amazingly exciting research and even see my findings take effect. For example, after producing a report on remaining wildlife corridors in Tanzania, we have just found out that the president of that country wants a copy.

I like to do research at full throttle: trapping rodents on the slopes of pyramids in neotropical rainforest, darting cheetahs on the Serengeti Plains, racing after deer in Michigan, counting elephants from 500 feet up and walking through tsetse fly infested forests dressed in colored suits. I often find myself in unexpected situations.

What’s it like doing fieldwork in remote locations?

It is a tremendous privilege to work in the tropics where biodiversity reaches its maximum and to initiate research at sites where no biologist has worked before. Living in remote places requires anticipating difficulties in advance and being flexible. In the tropics, the key is to work hard when the opportunity arises but not to push if there is no obvious way forward. Of course fieldwork is difficult with no e-mail, lattes, running water or electricity – but that’s the fun of it.

What are some of the explanations for the markings of black and white animals you’ve drawn from your research?

Shockingly, we still don’t know the function of black and white markings in animals like giant pandas 150 years after Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace debated these issues. I am trying to carry on where they left off by conducting research on black and white skunks, zebras and giant anteaters. Everyone knows that skunks are strikingly colored to advertise their ability to spray scent but why should these species need to be so smelly in the first place – why are they so worried (in an evolutionary sense) about predators?

I have spent the last four years conducting the first experiments on coloration in wild zebras and I think I now know the answer to why they have black and white stripes. Not only will I write a boring academic book, but I will teach how one discovers these things, and will write a children’s book on the real (evolutionary) reasons that zebras have this extraordinary coloration.

What is the best way to conserve biodiversity?

The key to biodiversity is that it’s not just the big stuff. The work that I conduct in and around Katavi National Park in western Tanzania has shown that the park protects large charismatic animals like lions and buffalo but there are few of these left outside. Yet outside, where people cut trees or farm, there are plenty of frog, butterfly, tree and rodent species that are not found in the park. This indicates that society cannot write off these poorly protected areas – they still perform the important conservation service of protecting biodiversity.

 

In your experience, what’s the best way to go about setting up nature preserves?

Right now I am writing a book while on sabbatical in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania about indicator, umbrella, keystone and flagship species. These are just shorthand for how we identify where and by what means we work with society and politicians to set up reserves. There is no single way of doing this and conservation scientists are still struggling to identify sites with many species, and how to manage reserves. Political expediency is probably the key to setting up protected areas but we need the biological background to make informed decisions, as reserves are our best conservation hope until we can find a way to live with wildlife.

 

Why did you come to UC Davis?

UC Davis has so many high quality professors studying whole organism biology. For evolution and ecology, and perhaps conservation biology, it is the best university in the country. Intellectually, it is extremely exciting if you are biologist who is willing to interact with others. I make a point of trying to collaborate formally with faculty colleagues and this has forced me to become an undergraduate assistant all over again – measuring trees, setting turtle traps, learning how to do mathematical modeling and constructing interview questionnaires. UCD makes well-rounded biologists who look at the big picture.

What’s your favorite animal?

My wife (who is an evolutionary biologist in the anthropology department).

Is there anything else you’d like to tell UC Davis students?

My experience in the world’s disappearing biomes has shown me that biodiversity is declining rapidly and habitats are being fragmented at an alarming rate. You can help by not buying hardwood furniture, not buying exotic pets and lowering your expectations! Think about the environmental consequences of your actions – CO2 production in driving, environmental costs of transportation of out-of-state goods, use of A/C, flying and buying new stuff.

 

ALYSOUN BONDE can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

 

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