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Explorer of the Week: Kendra Chritz

What exactly does a paleoecologist do? While nearly stepping on carpet vipers, getting caught in riots, and dashing past fresh crocodile nests might not immediately come to mind, Kendra Chritz has encountered all of these situations in the field. A fascination for the world inspires Chritz to work towards understanding what the planet looked like...

What exactly does a paleoecologist do? While nearly stepping on carpet vipers, getting caught in riots, and dashing past fresh crocodile nests might not immediately come to mind, Kendra Chritz has encountered all of these situations in the field. A fascination for the world inspires Chritz to work towards understanding what the planet looked like before modern society.

What project are you working on now?

I’m working on evaluating the effect of changing monsoon strength on ecosystems in East Africa using stable isotopes. Stable isotope ratios are relative amounts of heavy and light isotopes of certain elements, such as carbon and oxygen, and these ratios can tell us a lot about what an animal has been eating and its climate, so we get a little window on what the world used to be like. Stable isotopes in the teeth of large herbivores that lived during the last 10,000 years tell us about how changing monsoon strength affected such things as local climate and environment, and we can use this information to understand what environmental trigger might have caused people to switch from a hunter-gather lifestyle to keeping livestock, which happened about 4,500 years ago after a distinct increase in aridity in East Africa. I’m also working on some isotope ecology projects on modern ecosystems in Uganda as a rubric for understanding isotopic information from fossils.

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?

Working in the field is full of surprises, from which fossils you’ll be able to find and where you find them. And there’s nothing like walking around for hours, finding nothing, then stopping to take a break under a tree and casually glancing over and seeing that particular fossil or artifact you’ve been looking for all day (or for days). A lot of prospecting is pure luck.

Have you ever been lost? How’d you get found?

I haven’t been lost (yet), but I have been in some rather dicey situations, such as being stuck out in the desert without water for a few hours and being stopped at a flooded river until 1 a.m., when we decided to ford it with ropes. This past summer, I needed to get to the opposite side of Lake Turkana—either a four-day drive through difficult and somewhat dangerous territory (and I didn’t have a car), a short ride in a bush plane, or a long and somewhat treacherous boat ride across the lake (which is full of hippos and crocodiles). I was offered a ride in a plane but without guarantee for a return trip, and I really needed the samples, so I took the flight, not knowing how I would get back. In the end, Dr. Louise Leakey was kind enough to fly me back in her plane.

If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?

When I was in fifth grade, I read Jane Goodall’s book My Life With the Chimpanzees. I wanted to go someplace remote and live there and run around a jungle and do science. I love hearing the stories of all of the people who worked in East Africa in the 1960s and ‘70s, and when I think I have things tough, I look up to them for inspiration. It was really their pioneering work and tenacity that paved the way for young people like me, and it’s a real honor to be a part of the next generation.

If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?

Remember that mean teacher who told you that you couldn’t do science or be an adventurer because you’re a girl? She was wrong.

Photograph by Glynis Jehle
Photograph by Glynis Jehle

Where is your favorite place that you’ve traveled?

It’s cliché, but I never get tired of going to Turkana, ever. I feel the mystery of our ancestors everywhere. It’s a place that’s at the same time desolate and harsh but also inviting and enchanting. In particular, the inside of Lothagam on the west side of the lake, with its massive red canyons and ancient Miocene deposits, is serene and scary at the same time. The local people think there are ghosts in Lothagam and prefer not to go there. This past summer, I was working in a ~7,000-year-old fishing site in the center of Lothagam, while another team of archeologists excavated a site about two kilometers away. They were negotiating a price for two local Turkana men to guard it overnight and they kept upping the rate because of the ghosts. Then, one of the men pointed to a khaki-clad white figure on top of some sediments in the distance (me), and said, “There! There’s the ghost!” to which the archaeologists replied, “That’s not a ghost—that’s a geologist!”

What initially sparked your interest in paleoecology?

As an undergraduate, I did a project on the paleoecology of the giant Irish deer at the Natural History Museum in Dublin, Ireland. I was always interested in ecology, but I became fascinated by Earth history and ecosystems of the past and wanted to understand what the planet looked like before modern society.

What do you think is the most important thing we can learn from studying the environment?

It’s important for us to not forget that we are a part of the environment, that we play a role within it rather than be at odds against it. I think a lot of people aren’t really in touch with what “environment” actually is—it’s everything from national parks to the weather to the grass growing up through parking lot asphalt to the mice that hide out in your basement when the weather gets cold. The world around us isn’t an inconvenience. It’s our home.

Have you had any scary experiences in the field?

I hope my mother doesn’t read this … I’ve had a few, yes. The scariest by far was the time I almost stepped on a carpet viper, which I didn’t see basking in the sun in a dry wash. The second I heard its scales rub together in warning, my whole body went cold and came flying out of the wash with my hand on my machete so fast I didn’t remember how it happened. I’ve also been in downtown Nairobi in the middle of a crowd when a riot broke out. All I heard were bullets everywhere and I went running with my hands over my head as fast as I could. I’ve also unknowingly mapped sediments in front of an occupied hyena den, complete with broken, fresh bones and all. I’ve ridden in a boat to Central Island while waves nearly double our size threw us up into the air and we landed with a massive SMACK each time, and halfway through the ride a friend noticed a hairline crack growing in the fiberglass on the side of the boat. I’ve walked up on a hippo that was closer to shore than I thought it would be during the middle of the day, and ran back to camp past many, many fresh crocodile nests, with the belly marks from nest to lake clearly just made. All in the name of science.

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