Out of Africa

Julian Kerbis Peterhans travels to Africa annually, seeking species of small mammals.

By David McKay Wilson

Photography courtesy Julian Kerbis Peterhans

Trekking through the Itombwe Forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, zoologist Julian Kerbis Peterhans, AM’79, PhD’90, followed the local rules, paying “tolls” at every military checkpoint along the way. In this remote region, a hot spot for biodiversity, Kerbis and his five-member research team, which included local scientists, simply wanted to avoid trouble—they were on a mission to collect small, rare mammals. But after one July day, as the group sat around a campfire, a band of Mai Mai descended, brandishing AK-47s.

“It’s a love-hate thing with Africa,” says Kerbis (in shorts), who finds “the wanderlust” too hard to resist.

The militiamen placed the group under arrest, but the head of the Congolese scientific team offered himself in place of the group. The Mai Mai marched him for four hours to their village and held him overnight until payments were made. “It can be like the Wild West out there,” says Kerbis, 56, a professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago and an adjunct curator at the Field Museum.

Militia raids aside, the 2008 expedition to the Itombwe Forest was fruitful. He returned to Chicago with 500 dead specimens of small mammals. By May he and his colleagues had confirmed a new species of shrew that weighs only three grams. They continue to study two other species, documenting physical differences and comparing their genetic makeup, research to be completed within the next year. The specimens have been cataloged and stored at the Field Museum for scientists around the world to study.

Kerbis’s work recording biodiversity has been used to support conservation efforts in Africa, where montane forests are under threat from cattle grazing, mineral extraction, and clear-cutting to make room for growing populations. By documenting a region’s diversity, he helps nongovernmental organizations make the case to protect the area.

For example, his 1990–91 study detailing the mammal species in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains helped provide a baseline of mammal biodiversity. When the region was designated a national park in 1991 and a World Heritage Site three years later, Kerbis says, he and his colleagues were there to show what, exactly, was worth preserving. He has done similar work at other World Heritage Sites, such as Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and DRC’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

His interest in Africa was sparked by a 1972 research trip to Kenya while an undergraduate at Wisconsin’s Beloit College. A biology major, he spent a semester collecting raptors, then performing muscle biopsies to be used in determining levels of the banned pesticide DDT.

At Chicago, studying under anthropologists Russell Tuttle and Ronald Singer, Kerbis was a taphonomist, researching what happens to an animal between death and fossilization by examining bone accumulations unearthed or found in caves. He continued as a research associate in anthropology and evolutionary biology from 1993 to 2005, overlapping with his Field Museum appointment in 1997.

In addition to documenting current biodiversity, Kerbis has taken historical looks at the animal kingdom. For a 1990s study, he and a colleague used historical records, unpublished journals, and Field Museum specimens to detail a rampage in 1898 Kenya, where two lions reportedly ate 130 railroad workers over nine months. The research provided evidence that lions might feast on humans more than originally thought. A diorama of the lions is among the museum’s most popular exhibits.

Kerbis has also studied live predators, exploring caves inhabited by carnivores to better understand the behavior of hyenas, leopards, and lions. He didn’t mind mingling with the hyenas. “It’s not so dangerous,” he recalls. “In active hyena dens, they are shy and retiring, and they will hide in the back while you look around.”

Kerbis has made annual expeditions to Africa to find and describe animals for the past 20 years. The trips can be physically daunting—scaling steep mountainsides, hacking through the tangled forest vegetation, camping far from modern amenities. For last summer’s trip to the Itombwe region, his team trekked four days through remote wilderness with Congolese porters, who lugged their camping gear, food, and scientific paraphernalia.

“I have a love-hate thing with Africa,” says Kerbis, who returns in July to Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park, hoping again to record the region’s mammal species. “As soon as you are there, you say you will never come back. And after you get home for a month, you start raising money for the next trip. It’s the wanderlust, the restlessness, and the whole thing of discovery,” he says. “So many scientists today stay in the lab. That’s not for me. I like to work in the field.”

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