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Spotlight Series: Biplang Yadok studies animal behavior in the Ngel Nyaki, Nigeria FDP

Biplang Godwill Yadok is an ecologist with the Te Whangai Trust, a native tree planting organization in New Zealand.  He has conducted research at the ForestGEO Ngel Nyaki plot and is affiliated with the Nigerian Montane Forest Project.  His research focuses broadly on animal behavior in forests, and specifically on the relationship between small mammals and large-seeded trees.

When did you realize you wanted to be a scientist/work in forest ecology? How did you decide to go down this career path?

Although I have been interested in observing animals and plants in nature since my childhood, I had never thought about it as a career until I started my undergraduate degree program in Zoology at the University of Jos, Nigeria. Having watched a news highlight about a nearby bird research station (A. P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute) in Jos, I applied to do a 6-month internship program there. That was how my passion changed into a career path. I completed my undergraduate degree program in 2009 and continued with a master’s degree in Conservation Biology (also at University of Jos), graduating in 2011.  Since then, I have been involved with many ecology and conservation projects in Afrotropical forests. I completed my doctoral research project in 2018 at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. My thesis was titled “Aspects of the behaviour of the African giant pouched rat (Cricetomys. sp. nov) in relation to its seed dispersal potential in a West African montane forest landscape (Ngel Ngyaki forest reserve).”

Photo caption below.
Biplang Yadok (Photo credit: Selina R.Muralitharan)

What led you down the path to your current job? What has been your biggest challenge in getting to this point in your career?

Given that I really wanted to continue in ecology/conservation following my doctoral work, I sought jobs and postdocs in that direction. Although I did not have much luck at first, I finally landed a job that addresses both social and environmental problems in New Zealand. At my place of work (Te Whangai Trust), people who have no work experience are welcomed and trained in basic plant nursery and tree planting techniques. The organisation’s success is mostly measured in terms of goal achievements, and these include: forest restoration, unemployment reduction, and community safety. The model of my current workplace is still at its infancy, but I believe that it would have applications for developing countries when it is fully understood.

I think the biggest challenge in getting to this point of my career has been lack of financial stability.  Often times I had to do odd jobs in order survive, and they took time away from research.  I believe that this is the experience of many graduate scientists around the world. However, most of the well experienced scientists I have come across have always encouraged me to persist.

When did you first get involved in the ForestGEO network?

I first got involved with the ForestGEO network during the 2019 Analytical workshop in Singapore. Before this time, I had support in my PhD research from David Kenfack, Iveren Abiem, and my supervisor, Hazel Chapman, who are all PIs in the network.

What is the most interesting or unique aspect of your site?

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Ngel Nyaki ForestGEO site is the community assemblage in the relatively high-altitude forest. Even though the woody plant and vertebrate animal diversity is not as high as those observed in lowland forests, I strongly believe that the plant-animal interactions will be mind-blowing when more fully understood. It is possible that the relatively low diversity of plants and animals may have resulted in more non-mutual interactions between plants and animals, and this may be significant in stabilizing species extinction rates.  At the moment, we are yet to scratch the surface.

What questions are you currently addressing in your research/site?

The major question I am currently addressing is the relationship between the distribution of small mammals and large-seeded trees. Most of the remaining questions I am inclined to address in research are related to animal behaviour.

Photo caption below.
This photo from an infrared camera captures an African giant pouched rat removing thread-tagged Carapa oreophila seeds from experimental plots in Ngel Nyaki forest reserve at night. 

What kind of capacity building opportunities does your site provide for students, early-career researchers, and the local community?

The Nigerian Montane Forest Project (NMFP) has accommodations for interns and researchers in Ngel Nyaki forest reserve, thus it has been a wonderful place for research training and exchange of ideas. Additionally, the current science coordinator, Emmanuel Elisha, is an indigenous Nigerian scientist who is very skilled in plant, bird, and mammal identification. There are well marked trails in the forest reserve and very knowledgeable local field assistants. The site is also used as conservation education station for primary and secondary school students in the surrounding community as well a source of employment for some members of the local community.

Photo caption below.
Biplang (extreme right) taking GPS coordinates while field assistants wait for further instructions about locating and measuring distances of marked seeds, which were moved by African giant pouched rats. From right to left, the hardworking field assistants are Ali, Ibrahim,Yusuf, Adam, and Hammadu.

What is your favorite part about your work?

My favourite part of the work I do is unravelling how the environment influences tree phenology and how tree phenology in turn affects animal behaviour. For example, in a previous study, we found that African giant pouched rats eat fewer and hoard more seeds from our experiment plots in years where most tree species in the forest had a higher crop yield. Additionally, other previous studies have already linked high fruit abundance to favourable climatic conditions. Studies like these and more may be useful for understanding how forest species are likely to cope with climate change.

What do you like to do when you’re not studying forest dynamics? 

When I am not studying forest dynamics, I enjoy bird watching, photography, a bit of soccer, reading comments on social media, and watching movies.

What’s the last good movie that you’ve watched?

The last good movie I watched is a 2016 movie which I watched this year, it is titled The Accountant. It was a great reminder of how important everyone in the world is, regardless of our observable abilities.

Related Web Pages

Biplang’s Twitter | ATBC Africa Chapter Twitter | Biplang’s LinkedIn | Nigerian Montane Forest Project Website

Selected Publications

Yadok, B., Forget, P., Gerhard, D., Aliyu, B., & Chapman, H. (2020). Seed nutrient content rather than size influences seed dispersal by scatterhoarding rodents in a West African montane forest. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 36(4), 174-181. DOI: 10.1017/S0266467420000127.

Yadok, B.G., Pech, R., & Chapman, H. (2019).  Perception of predation risk by African giant pouched rats (Cricetomys sp. nov) is higher in forest-edge microhabitats.  Behavioural Processes, 168, 103593.  DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2019.103953

Yadok, B.G., Forget, P.-M., Gerhard, D., & Chapman, H.  (2019).  Low fruit-crop years of Carapa oreophila drive increased seed removal and predation by scatterhoarding rodents in a West African forest.  Acta Oecologica, 99, 103448.  DOI: 10.1016/j.actao.2019.103448.

Yadok, B.G., Gerhard, D., Forget, P.-M., & Chapman, H. (2018).  Size doesn’t matter: Larger Carapa seeds are not dispersed farther by African rodent community.  African Journal of Ecology, 56(4): 1028-1033.  DOI: 10.1111/aje.12542