Beth A. Kaplin, PhD

Core Faculty and Director of Conservation Biology Concentration
Department of Environmental Studies

Program Director
Center for Tropical Ecology and Conservation

Research and Projects

My research interests fall into three main areas: plant-animal interactions and ecological processes, primate ecology and conservation and park-people interactions. I have a deep commitment to developing ways to share knowledge for conservation efforts, to build infrastructure and capacity in tropical nations so that our tropical colleagues may realize the same level of support we do in the western world.


Plant-animal interactions and ecological processes

Plant-animal interactions and ecological processes, including regeneration dynamics, seed dispersal ecology, fragmentation, and edge and matrix effects. I am interested in the interactions of species and ecological processes, especially in fragmented landscapes. My focus has been in tropical forests: primate seed dispersal processes, forest fragmentation, and restoration of degraded forest. Most of my research has been in Nyungwe National Park, although I have also worked in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda.


Primate ecology and conservation

The guenons, or forest monkeys (Cercopithecus species) are my main focus, although I am also working with chimpanzee ecology and seed dispersal. Guenon evolutionary history and conservation captures my attention – as players in seed dispersal processes they remain ever fascinating to me in my research endeavors. Cercopithecus lhoesti and Cercopithecus mitis doggetti have been my main study species, although with one of my graduate students and a Rwandan colleague we are looking at Cercopithecus hamlyni and chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes. Along with my graduate students, I have also worked with neotropical fruit-eating and seed dispersing primates.

Park-people interactions

Park-people interactions, specifically the intersection of human social systems and ecological systems and the maintenance of biological diversity, particularly in protected areas. This interest encompasses indigenous knowledge systems, protected area management structures, human use of resources/NFTPs, and human-wildlife interactions. I am especially interested in how we as scientists can link our research to local government and citizen needs for conservation (citizen science models). I have graduate students looking at human-wildlife interactions around the borders of protected areas, and buffer zones as effective tools in protected area conservation. I am developing a project to explore matrix and edge effects on protected areas.

Specific Research Topics

I have ongoing projects in the Albertine Rift ecoregion examining altitudinal gradients and forest phenological patterns, tropical forest regeneration dynamics, and primate seed dispersal. Below is a list of the main research topics I am and have been involved in. Much of this work is done in collaboration with my graduate students and colleagues in the host countries.

    • Seed dispersal ecology – the role of primates and animal behavior
    • Matrix and edge effects and the maintenance of ecological processes in tropical forest – focus on seed dispersal processes
    • Forest phenology patterns and climate change, altitudinal gradients and fruit resources
    • Capacity building for biodiversity conservation in developing countries
    • Human-Wildlife interactions
    • Science and policy in developing countries for biodiversity conservation
    • Women in Science


Current Projects

MacArthur Foundation Grant: Conservation Biology Education Project at National University of Rwanda – Capacity Building for Biodiversity Conservation

In April 2005 I was asked to write a proposal to the MacArthur Foundation on behalf of the National University of Rwanda (NUR), requesting support for a project to revise the Biology Department curriculum at NUR, infuse natural history and conservation biology into it, and develop a MSc degree program in Conservation Biology. The project was funded and began in January 2006 for a 3 year period. I was asked to serve as Technical Advisor to this project. I took a leave from my ANE faculty position and moved to Rwanda for 20 months from 2006-2007, and then served the project from ANE starting in the fall of 2007 when I resumed my full time position with the ES Dept at ANE. This work has been a culmination of many things I have been thinking about in recent years, including conservation education and capacity building for biodiversity conservation in the Albertine Rift. Since then, we have written and received two subsequent grants from MacArthur to continue this work, including funding to create a Network of educational and research institutions in the Albertine Rift working on conservation and environmental issues. We also launched the new MSc program in Biodiversity Conservation at National University of Rwanda in January 2011.

Rwanda is located in the Albertine Rift, a biodiversity hotspot known for endemism, threatened species, and high human population densities. The Rwandan Government identified nature tourism as its economic focus and adopted new laws and policies for biodiversity and environment. However, little capacity exists in the region for the study and management of biodiversity and natural resources. In 2006, the Conservation Biology Education Project was launched in the Biology Department at National University of Rwanda. The Project had three goals over three years: 1) revise the undergraduate curriculum and introduce natural history and conservation biology; 2) build capacity to teach using active teaching methods; and 3) develop a Masters program in Biodiversity Conservation. We developed activities to generate change and increase capacity to teach and sustain a conservation biology program, conduct research, and link to policy. To introduce active teaching methods and help instructors embrace new methods of teaching, we invited instructors for training sessions and created incentive programs. We found networking and involvement of stakeholders to be integral to the success of this project. The Regional Network for Conservation Educators in the Albertine Rift (RNCEAR) was also born from this initiative, and received three-years of funding to launch. Today the Biology Department at National University of Rwanda has moved from isolation and obscurity to a front seat in conservation research and policy in Rwanda.
Links to Conservation Biology Education Project reports.

Matrix and Edge Effects in Nyungwe National Park

Recent studies indicate that edge effects on forest may be reduced when the surrounding landscape matrix, or buffer zone, is similar to the adjacent forest. I, along with my graduate students, Rwandan collagues, and students from Rwanda, are exploring the role of the matrix in mediating edge effects in Nyungwe National Park, a montane tropical forest in Rwanda. Socio-economic studies suggest a matrix of tea offers economic benefits to local communities and thus represents a valuable buffer zone. However, we predict that tea also represents a high contrast, harsh matrix type which alters ecosystem processes in the forest. We are comparing pine plantation and tea plantation buffer zone matrix types, representing low and high contrast matrix types, respectively. We are sampling several indicators of ecological functioning, including dung beetle abundance and diversity, dead tree frequency, and seedling abundance and distribution. Our findings will have implications for the development and management of buffer zones around tropical forests that sustain ecological processes, and these factors can be taken into consideration along with socio-economic considerations in buffer zone management.

Primate Seed Dispersal Ecology

Along with my graduate students, I have been looking at seed dispersal ecology in Nyungwe National Park. Our focus has been on the role of primates as seed dispersers, and the unique ways that seeds are handled and dispersed by these species that enhances recruitment of forest tree species. We have focused on large-seeded primary forest tree species, which typically have a more limited suite of dispersers. We have found that seed wadging by chimpanzees, and seed pouching and spitting by Cercopithecus monkeys, play an important and apparently unique role in establishment and recruitment dynamics.