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EEB Insider: Meredith Palmer

Photo of Melissa Palmer holding a turtle

What made you decide to pursue a graduate degree at the U of M's EEB program?

I can distinctly remember sitting in the zoology lounge at my undergraduate university reading magazine articles recounting the work being done by University of Minnesota professors. The more I learned about the faculty and research being done at the U of M, the more convinced I became that this was the school for me. I have opportunities and access to data here that are available at no other university. Mostly importantly, as I doubt anyone could survive graduate school without the support of friends and mentors, I’ve found everyone in the department to be welcoming, helpful, and always ready to provide creative input for my most difficult problems.

What are you currently researching?

Although I'm still refining the exact scope of my research, my main interests lie in predator-prey interactions and how prey animals respond behaviorally to levels of predation risk that vary spatiotemporally. I'm currently working in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, studying large mammalian herbivores and carnivores via an extensive (200+), long-running grid of camera traps. What’s particularly interesting about the Serengeti ecosystem is the presence of multiple top carnivores, each one with different hunting patterns and strategies that cause them to utilize the landscape in different ways. If you’re an antelope that could get eaten by lions, hyenas, cheetahs, or leopards, how do you navigate through your landscape when being in certain areas at certain times could put you at higher risk to different predators? How do you distribute yourself in space and time to avoid being eaten while maximizing your own fitness? The subsequent effects of these herbivore behavioral decisions can cascade through the ecosystem, impacting primary productivity, nutrient cycling, and other fundamental processes.

We rely heavily on citizen scientists to help process the large quantities of information that we receive from our camera trap grid. Our cameras take millions of images annually and the animals in each capture event are identified by invaluable online volunteers. If anyone is interested in learning more, please visit our website at www.snapshotserengeti.org.

Can you tell us about your recent trip to Tanzania?

After months of playing around in my office with long-term data, trying to piece together the big picture from maps, compiled counts of animal abundance, and any remote data I could lay my hands on, to finally experience my study-system first hand was gratifying and eye-opening. The hours upon hours I spent driving between camera traps (and, on more than one occasion, into aardvark holes) gave me an important perspective on just what types of studies would be feasible, and which of my research ideas would actually be impossible to accomplish. Most of my time was spent maintaining camera traps and conducting play-back experiments within the camera trap study grid. I also learned how to track radio-collared lions for the Serengeti Lion Project, data from which will form another important component of my thesis. Being out in the bush, swatting tsetse flies and keeping a sharp lookout for hyenas or testy buffalo, camping alone beneath giant rocky kopjes or meeting up with an exciting diversity of field researchers and traveling scientists, is exactly what I envisioned doing for my Ph.D.

For those not from (or in) Minnesota, what's a Minnesota winter really like?

I believe there was a statistic thrown around on NPR last year about it being colder in Minnesota at one point than it was on the surface of Mars? I can't claim to be a personal fan of the weather - I had spent the two years prior to moving to Minnesota working on tropical islands and came here with a notion that anything under 70˚ was chilly. So if I can survive with that background, anyone else is going to be just fine!

Once you have your Ph.D., what are you going to do with your degree?

Ideally, I'd follow up my Ph.D. with one or two post-docs. While in Africa, I met with numerous people associated with the management and conservation of the parks and their wildlife, and I'd like to eventually end up in a position with a similar bent. A job where I could conduct applied research, through an R1 university or one of these organizations, would be the dream.