Princeton Senior Petticord Explores a Kenyan Ecosystem One Tortoise at a Time

Written by
By Morgan Kelly, Princeton Environmental Institute
May 14, 2019


As Princeton senior Daniel Petticord was conceptualizing his thesis on animal movement in the African savanna, he could have chosen to study elephants, zebras, giraffes, impalas or any of the iconic animals that inhabit central Kenya. He chose the ubiquitous leopard tortoise.

“I’ve always been a ‘dig around in the dirt and look for reptiles’ kind of person, so that was a good jumping-off point,” said Petticord, an ecology and evolutionary biology major receiving a certificate in environmental studies. “I really wanted to study snakes, but my adviser told me that the problem with snakes in Africa is that they’re all either really, really fast, or really, really venomous, which are two excellent reasons to not study snakes.”

Choosing the leopard tortoise, however, extended beyond Petticord’s fascination with the small and scaly. He wanted to explore how overlooked organisms like the leopard tortoise fit into global-scale dynamics such as climate change and ecosystem health. For his thesis, Petticord found that drier conditions on the African savanna brought about by climate change could promote the spread of a livestock disease and an invasive plant species, both of which are carried by the humble leopard tortoise.

“Nobody has any desire to look at a non-endangered tortoise species that can be found all over the world,” Petticord said. “My thesis can be seen as an argument that something seemingly innocuous can be impactful. Even the smallest of organisms are going to have ripple effects due to climate change that we should be considering.”

Click here to read more.