Charting the Map of Gorongosa’s Life
By Piotr Naskrecki, Ph.D.,
Associate Director, E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory
Gorongosa National Park
The walk from my cabin to the restaurant where I was meeting a few friends for dinner should have taken about 45 seconds, a minute tops. Yet, on my first night in Gorongosa National Park it took me close to an hour to get there. To me, a biologist with a passion for all things small and multi-legged, this short walk was more like a wonderful obstacle course, with every step punctuated by the discovery of yet another incredible organism scurrying under my feet or landing on my body, attracted to the light of my headlamp in the humid, African night. By the time I made it to “Chikalango”, the famous Gorongosa restaurant, I had encountered probably close to a hundred species of various animals, ranging from a thick column of marauding driver ants to a metallically smooth blind snake to a pair of puffed-up porcupines. On this short walk I had also managed to spot ten species of katydids, one of which later turned out to be new to science. As I sat in the restaurant, forcing myself to appear calm and carry on polite conversation, all that I could think of was the chorus of voices—crickets, toads, bush babies—beckoning me from the darkness outside.
Gorongosa exceeded my expectations in every conceivable way. I had worked in Africa for most of my professional life, but nowhere had I seen a similar combination of habitats—grasslands, caves, rainforest!—and a correspondingly exceptional richness of life. And, to my surprise and delight, it turned out that nobody had ever tried to document this natural bounty in a systematic way. Sure, Gorongosa had its checklist of birds and big mammals, and its flora had been partially cataloged, but what about its butterflies, lizards, and mushrooms? What kinds of grasshoppers or scorpions lived there? Nothing, absolutely nothing was known about them. Here was a place in Africa where I could still be Livingstone, charting the mostly blank map of its biodiversity, uncovering life forms that few, if any, had ever seen before. Right there and then, I vowed to make it my goal to help track and uncover as many inhabitants of this remarkable ecosystem as physically possible. Gorongosa, well known to exert an almost magical pull on anybody who sets foot there, had me firmly in its grasp.
Our knowledge of Gorongosa’s biodiversity is growing rapidly—within the last two years researchers at the E.O. Biodiversity Wilson Laboratory have more than tripled the number of species of animals and plants known from the park. But we are still far from knowing them all.
But documenting life in all its diverse forms is not as easy as it sounds. To compile a list of birds of Gorongosa all you need is a pair of binoculars, lots of patience, and an illustrated field guide that can be purchased at every major airport in Africa. (No offense, ornithologists, but you have it easy.) Yet to make a similar list of ants or lichens of Gorongosa is far more difficult. You need both experts, who are often the only people in the world familiar with that particular group of organisms, and a base where they can conduct their research. You need specialized equipment to record minute details of the organisms’ morphology or a way to preserve their genetic makeup. There has to be a place where biological samples can be processed and safely stored. It quickly became clear that to truly understand all the living components of the park we needed a proper research lab in Gorongosa, a headquarters for both local and visiting scientists. It would also be a place where experienced researchers could share their knowledge with a new generation of Mozambican biologists and conservationists, as it is they who will ultimately carry the responsibility for Gorongosa’s future.
Last year this vision came to fruition. On March 27th 2014 the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory officially opened its doors to researchers and students united in their desire to learn everything there is to know about Gorongosa’s complex web of life. Although we are still very far from knowing all species that make the national park their home, our understanding of its biodiversity is growing rapidly. Within the last two years, based on the results of two large-scale biological surveys and the ongoing documentation of the park’s flora and fauna, the number of recorded species has increased from about a thousand to nearly 3,500. Many of these species have not been recorded from Mozambique before and some are entirely new to science. Certain habitats in the park, such as the relict rainforest of Mt. Gorongosa or deep limestone caves of the Cheringoma Plateau, are particularly rich in new and endemic organisms. The Wilson Laboratory will continue to explore these and other areas of Gorongosa until the still nearly vertical accumulation curve of the park’s species richness begins to level off. This is not going to happen anytime very soon—by the most conservative estimates Gorongosa harbors at least 35,000 species of multicellular organisms, although in reality this number may be twice or even three times as large. And to achieve this ambitious goal—documenting as many species as possible—the Laboratory needs help.
Great Egret (Ardea alba), one of 394 species of birds confirmed from Gorongosa National Park. Photograph by Piotr Naskrecki.
Mozambique has suffered tremendous losses during the civil war and its aftermath, none more tragic than the loss of the country’s intellectual potential, caused by the destruction of many of its schools. But the future of Mozambique and its natural heritage depends on the ability of Mozambicans themselves to manage and protect it, and not outsiders like myself, however well intended they may be. For this reason the Wilson Lab has developed a wide ranging training program to augment the existing science education in Mozambique, with the explicit goal to help create a new cadre of conservationists, researchers, and science educators. We are developing partnerships with major universities in the country to expand their curricula in biology and conservation, and our program of biodiversity documentation is coordinated with the National Natural History Museum in the capital Maputo.
But the mission of the Laboratory extends far beyond a mere inventory of animals and plants living in the park. A comprehensive database of species is only the first step in understanding how this massive ecosystem functions, and disentangling the multitude of co-dependencies among its members is key to its effective restoration. Several projects currently conducted at the Wilson Laboratory are already attempting to shed light on interactions among seemingly unrelated groups of organisms. For example, Dr. Sergio Timoteo and his colleagues from Coimbra University in Portugal are painstakingly unraveling the secrets of the invisible but critically important relationships among plants, their fungal symbionts, and birds. The mystery of how termites affect the behavior and body size of antelopes is the subject of a project by Dr. Ryan Long of the University of Idaho. A group of researchers and graduate students from Princeton University are hoping to explain the dramatic change in the plant composition of the Gorongosa floodplains and the sudden increase in the population of the waterbuck. Closer to my own interests, I will be trying to understand how the loss of large, herbivorous mammals during the civil war might have triggered the incredible abundance of grasshoppers and praying mantids that I have witnessed in Gorongosa.
Invertebrate animals, such as this Rain locust (Lobosceliana sp.), represent the majority of life in Gorongosa, but we still know remarkably little about them. Photograph by Piotr Naskrecki.
The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory is rapidly becoming a hub of renewed scientific activity in Mozambique. Its research is feeding directly into conservation strategies in the national park, while its educational program helps create a new generation of Mozambican conservationists. And the database of biodiversity of Gorongosa that we are compiling will give me enough understanding of the park’s animal life that soon I should be able to cover the 100 yard distance between my cabin and “Chikalango” with a minimum amount of distraction, in a brisk 30 to 45 minutes.
With special thanks to: