In a regular feature on our blog, “Gorongosa Field Notes,” we will be showcasing journal entries, short videos, photographs, and other materials from a team of scientists working at the Gorongosa National Park and the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. These scientists study the Gorongosa ecosystem—and the critical role of biodiversity—as part of the Gorongosa Restoration Project.
The biggest goal of my first field season has been to get set up in Gorongosa for more intensive studies of the seasonal pans in future trips. I mapped almost 500 pans, caught and identified insects, fish, and frogs, and yesterday, I dug a big hole.
Making a start, clearing the grass and the top-most layer of soil.
While that last bit might not sound like science, the idea was to create a pan. In the future, I might make a set of experimental pans—small depressions up to a meter deep—and this was a trial run. Starting with a clean slate and a set of identical “pans” would allow me to track just how the collection of species that inhabit a pan arrives, and what controls which ones manage to survive.
One reason Gorongosa is an ecologist’s dream is the opportunity to try these kinds of experiments. I might fertilize pans to simulate higher levels of dung deposition that likely occurred before the park’s large mammal declines. Or, I might pump water into pans that would otherwise dry up to see what the effects of pan seasonality are.
Our guard, Batista, pitches in.
The site for this first man-made pan is spot a few kilometers from Chitengo, one which had already been disturbed years ago. That way, the digging isn’t in the heart of the park. Stumps were all that remained of a few trees, and our park guard told me two big holes in the ground were evidence that someone had hidden ivory or weapons there decades ago during the civil war.
I hired two local people from Vinho, the closest village to Chitengo, and with my field assistant Flavio, we got down to work. With no shade, it was a hot day’s work digging half a meter down across a five-by-five meter area. Still, it was an enjoyable day and we all got to talking while we dug into Gorongosa’s rich soil. I learned about Nampula, where Abdul, one of our Vinho helpers comes from, and ‘m not too proud to admit that Flavio had to tell me an hour in that I was using the wrong end of the pick ax.
Putting the finishing touches on our handmade pan.
By four o’clock, we had something resembling a pan. Now, I can sit back and wait for the rainy season, to see if our pan fills with and holds water. If it works, I’ll feel comfortable investing more heavily in creating a full set of pans for future experiments.
For now, it’s time to pack up my tent and head back the States. It’s been a profitable three months here, and I know there’s much more to come.