University researcher heads to the Sahara

A Kansas researcher plans to collect specimens over the next few years that can only thrive in lush, green areas — in the Sahara Desert.

David Blackburn, a researcher in the division of herpetology at the KU Biodiversity Institute, recently received a $709,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to support his research involving oases in the Sahara Desert.

Blackburn will research the history of Africa as told through the evolutionary history of organisms living in about 40 oases, including man-made wells, in Libya and western Egypt.Oases, which are small, green areas around a body of water in a desert, are scattered across the Sahara. Large underground pockets of water called aquifers stretch beneath the vast desert and create oases when the water seeps through large cracks and holes within the desert ground. A variety of species exist in these oases ranging from fish to frogs to snails.

“Most of my research focuses on amphibians,” Blackburn said, “so it may seem as a surprise then for an amphibian biologist to want to work in the middle of the Sahara.” Blackburn said he wants to work in the Sahara desert because the land is rich with history, including fossils. He said with this history, he can begin to understand the ancestral past of the organisms living in it.

Blackburn will start his journey in March in Ghat, Libya. He said the trip would last about five weeks. He also plans to take three more one-month trips to the Sahara during the next three years and said he hoped to bring a team of about 12 researches to assist him.

“The Sahara is about the size of the United States,” Blackburn said. “Even restricting ourselves to just two countries, it’s a lot of ground to cover in a very small amount of time.”

During each trip, hundreds of specimen samples will be collected and sent to the University during his field research. Then University students can become more involved in the research.

Jesse Grismer, a graduate student from Lawrence, said the funding included money to support both graduate and undergraduate studies in relation to Blackburn’s research. He said students would be involved in the smaller tasks of the research such as curating and identifying specimens obtained from the field work.

“David is a really great guy to work with,” Grismer said. “He thinks in a very broad-minded way, which is really cool.”

During future trips, Blackburn said he would also include an undergraduate student from KU to join him in Africa to participate in the field work. Leonard Krisktalka, director of the Biodiversity Institute, said this research showed the aptitude of the researchers at the University.

“Blackburn is one of the finest examples of the current generation of biodiversity scientist that conduct research and train students across varied disciplines in biodiversity science,” Krisktalka said.

Krisktalka said this grant also further supported the good reputation and high status of the KU Biodiversity Institute.

“If biodiversity science is going to inform the wide stewardship of the planet, then this is exactly the kind of work that needs to occur,” he said.

— Edited by Tim Dwyer

  • Updated Nov. 28, 2012 at 11:19 am