Text by Piotr Naskrecki, Gorongosa Restoration Project
The idea for the creation of the E.O. Biodiversity Laboratory at Gorongosa National Park came from the realization that biodiversity conservation on the scale required for full restoration of Gorongosa National Park cannot be based on the expertise coming only from outside of Mozambique. Instead, it must be developed and maintained at the very heart of the operation, and involve local experts and conservation stakeholders. But for this to happen the park needs a facility that allows it to train a new cadre of Mozambican scientists, conduct long-term research, and document Gorongosa’s vast biological richness.
With the initial financial support of USAID and the Carr Foundation, a new scientific institution has been created at the center of Gorongosa National Park. The Edward O. Wilson Laboratory, which comprises the first phase of the development of Gorongosa’s Science Center, was inaugurated on March 27th, 2014. E.O. Wilson (1929–2021), Douglass Griffiths – the United States Ambassador to Mozambique, Mozambican Government representatives and media were present for this widely publicized occasion.
The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory officially opened on March 27th, 2014. Pictured here are E.O. Wilson (1929–2021) (back row) and current employees of the Lab.
The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory is a modern scientific facility, one of the first of its kind in Africa. It offers long-term research and training opportunities in biodiversity documentation, ecology and conservation biology to Mozambican and visiting researchers and students, and helps guide restoration efforts of Gorongosa and other protected areas of Mozambique. It also provides scientific and economic opportunities to local populations in the Gorongosa region.
The Lab is quickly becoming a hub of renewed research and educational activity in Mozambique. The center’s main goals are the documentation of Gorongosa’s vast biological richness, management of its restoration, and training of a new cadre of local conservationists, educators, and scientists. It coordinates a wide range of exploratory and restoration projects, ranging from the baseline documentation of the park’s flora and fauna, to tracking of lion prides, to disentangling the complex tri-trophic interactions of fungi, plants, and animals. Active research programs lead by scientists and students from Princeton University, University of California–Berkeley, Harvard University, Coimbra University, and the Park’s own scientists are already underway.
The Gorongosa Biodiversity Synoptic Collection, created in collaboration with the Mozambique’s National Natural History Museum, is the central element of the Laboratory.
The Wilson Lab’s educational program began in April 2014 with the first science workshop for Mozambican students (“African entomology”), and local students are now actively involved in virtually all research projects in the park, including all-taxa biodiversity surveys and monitoring of animal populations. Beginning in 2015 the Lab will introduce a series of lecture series and workshops as well as teaching biodiversity surveys, designed to acquaint Mozambican students with the methodology of documenting biodiversity in the field.
The Laboratory Infrastructure
The heart of E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory’s infrastructure is a research area, where scientists and students conduct work that requires access to facilities such as microscopy, tissue storage for molecular work, processing of soil samples, or database access. The Laboratory is home to a permanent collection of Gorongosa’s flora and fauna, the first facility of its kind in any protected area in Africa – the Gorongosa Synoptic Biodiversity Collection. It has been developed in collaboration with Mozambique’s National Natural History Museum towards a comprehensive inventory of biological richness of the country, and it will soon partner with international bioinformatics data centers, such as the Barcode of Life Database, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), and Encyclopedia of Life (EOL). The main collection area is fully climate-controlled, and equipped with modern storage for botanical and zoological specimens; a comprehensive data management and specimen tracking system, including physical barcoding of specimens, is in place. The focus of the synoptic collection is currently on arthropods (primarily insects) and vascular plans, but it will be expanded to include other invertebrates and a subset of vertebrate taxa. There are no plans to collect large mammals or birds, but we will be collecting, non-destructively, small samples of tissue or blood for future genetic work (these will be collected, for example, during routine veterinary checkups of animals in the park.)
Alumni of the first entomology workshop held at the Laboratory in April 2014.
The value of having a synoptic specimen collection within the park is immense. First and foremost, these specimens will provide permanent record of occurrence for each species recorded from the park, immediately accessible to all researchers and students working within the Gorongosa ecosystem. This is particularly valuable for groups in which quick species identification in the field is not possible. While there is no need to preserve voucher specimens for most vertebrate species (other than a tiny sample of their DNA), the majority of invertebrate groups as well as many groups of vascular and non-vascular plants have never been systematically surveyed in Mozambique, and reliable identification tools for them are virtually non-existent. A voucher collection, which will initially consist largely of morphospecies (morphologically distinct, yet unidentified specimens), but one that will be progressively refined and authoritatively identified by visiting scientists, is bound to prove invaluable to both researchers and other personnel working in the park. In addition to physical storage of specimens and DNA barcoding of all collected taxa, every species recorded in Gorongosa is photographed to record its taxonomically informative characteristics. These visual data will be made publicly available and shared with major international biological databases, such as GBIF and EOL. Imaging of smaller specimens will include advanced image stacking techniques.
The Laboratory buildings were designed to be both long-lasting and ecologically sound.
The Laboratory buildings were designed to be both long-lasting and ecologically sound. Floors are made of light-weight steel frame clad with magnesium light steel trusses and panels. Walls are insulated and covered with magnesium oxide board. The overall thermal and acoustic properties are similar to those of conventional brick walls. Wooden roof trusses support a corrugated iron roof. All wood is plantation-grown eucalyptus with the exception of the ceiling that consists of palm wood sourced from diseased coconut plantations along the Mozambican coast. There is a passive cooling systems with floor vents and roof vents. However, considering the extremely high summer temperatures and the need to control pests in the collection room, the facility is air-conditioned. Electricity comes from the Cahora Bassa hydro-electrical scheme.
All species and specimens recorded by scientists at the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory are photographed, their DNA is preserved, and their records are entered into an integrated database system.
The Laboratory currently includes the following elements:
• Four offices and common workspace for technicians and visiting researchers
• Climate-controlled collection room with adjacent specimen-processing room
• A meeting/lecture room
• A secure storage room,
• A “cold room” with a lab grade refrigerator and -40°C freezer for tissue samples
• Drying oven for insect and herbarium specimens
• Ablutions and a kitchen
• Eight stand-alone accommodation units for visiting researchers and students
The Lab facilities are still relatively small but will grow soon, and within the next two years we plan to add several new elements to it. This will include a molecular lab for DNA extraction and amplification, intended primarily for processing of genetic material that is prone to rapid deterioration (e.g., scat and other forensic material). All species recorded from the Park will be genetically barcoded using standard (mostly mitochondrial) DNA markers, and the resulting barcodes will be included in the Barcode of Life Database. The collection facility is not intended to include an exhibit area for general visitors to the Park, but it will ultimately provide material and specimens for a public educational display associated with the planned Park’s Visitor Center.