Intellectual Merit: Species do not all function equally in their native habitats: some species have profound effects on ecological communities and their elimination could cause a collapse of the community and a sharp reduction of local and regional biological diversity. Understanding the importance of species' interactions and their impact on communities is thus a central goal of ecologists and conservation biologists, and is the central aim of this work. The overarching goal is to examine the interactions between termites and large vertebrates in supporting the biological diversity of East African savannas, and to understand how these groups affect the distribution, diversity and abundance of other species. Such an understanding is of paramount importance as these habitats are lost, fragmented, and modified through agricultural use. Termites have been identified as key species, crucial to the functioning of entire ecosystems. In East Africa, termite mounds are a common feature of the landscape. Through their mound building activities, termites enhance soil nutrients and thus may be affect the diversity of the plants and insects that live in close proximity to these mounds. Vertebrates have also been implicated as playing a large role in the ecology of savanna habitats. However, the interactions between termites and herbivores and their effects on communities have rarely been examined. This work will provide novel data on the interactions between termites and vertebrates in providing habitat and resources that structure plant and animal communities across much of East Africa. These data are critical to understanding the forces that generate and maintain habitat heterogeneity and species diversity and to managing savanna ecosystems.
Broader Impacts: The project will support one full-time Post-doctoral Researcher, one part-time Post-doctoral Researcher, two graduate students (one in Kenya, one in the U.S.), three full-time technicians (two in Kenya, one in the US), and two part-time field assistants each year. The project will also be used for teaching at least 20 students per year through UC Santa Barbara's Kenya Wildlands Program. Yearly meetings will be held with the Laikipia Wildlife Forum, which includes scientists, local ranch managers and traditional Maasai pastoralists, to discuss the results of the project. The results will be disseminated to scientists in Kenya at the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology, the National Museums of Kenya and the University of Nairobi. The project represents a significant contribution to human resource development, bridge-building among scientific institutions and among the scientific and lay communities of East Africa, and education in a geographical region where such opportunities are rare.