Friday, April 26, 2013

Gabon – Just Like Panama, But With Hippos

In March I visited Gabon, a small tropical country with a rich and diverse mix of cultures.  
A paradise for biologists: known for vast expanses of tropical forests, dense mangrove swamps, rich bird life and annual visits from breeding humpback whales and nesting turtles.  Sounds just like Panama!  

Panama and Gabon do have a lot in common.

Smithsonian researchers are working to understand tropical biodiversity in both countries:
The SI lab in Gamba, Gabon.  It's not that different 
from the old lab in Gamboa, Panama
Both countries have huge expanses of mangroves:
Black mangrove forest near Gamba, Gabon

Mangroves in Panama don't have hippos lurking offshore
and hippo trails cutting through the mangroves stems.

Red mangroves near Libreville, Gabon

Upwelling and mangrove swamps support productive fisheries:

A trawler working near Libreville, Gabon.  Trawlers in Panama
look similar but are  usually slightly smaller and made of wood.
As well as some large differences….
A forest elephant.  Yes it was big and close.

Elephants!   Not something you need to worry about in Panama.

Why was a Marine Biologist watching elephants and hippos? -  Well here’s the backstory.

Permanent Forest Plots - SIGEO.  Just like Panama, Gabon is the site of a Smithsonian Global Earth Observatory (SIGEO).  These sites are part of a global network of permanent forest plots in which every tree is identified, tagged and followed through time, using standard methods.  Through this network an international team of forest scientists seek to answer questions about how tropical forest diversity is generated and maintained; how the world’s forests act to store Carbon; how human activities impact forest ecosystems.   Gabon’s site in Rabi is one of the newest plots and Panama’s site on Barro Colorado Island is the original plot.  

With a "big tree" in Gabon 2013
With a "big tree" in Panama 2007

Unfortunately, as marine biologists we didn’t have the chance to visit Rabi, but we did get to see some very big trees in the forest around the Smithsonian base in Gamba.  Just like home.

Permanent Marine Observatories – MarineGEO
The Smithsonian Institution is launching a network of sites dedicated to understanding the marine realm.  Based on the SIGEO concept, this global network will apply standardized methodologies to questions about the biodiversity of marine ecosystems (reefs, mangroves, saltmarshes, etc.) and the health and resilience of these ecosystems.  The network will expand rapidly from the initial Tennenbaum Marine Observatories run by the Smithsonian Institution in Maryland, Florida, Belize and Panama.  

My colleague, Pat Megonigal, and I visited Gabon to determine how we could extend the existing in-country collaborations to support an expansion of MarineGEO network to Africa.  

Peat and blue carbon:
Pat checking out the sediment in the mangroves.  Some of the
mangroves were associated with extensive peat deposits. 
The weirdest thing was.... there were no mosquitos!
Look rhodoliths:
These pink rocks are actually living red algae.  We found 
beds of rhodoliths  in the intertidal of Gabon,  similar to the 
extensive subtidal beds in the Bay of Panama.
A nerite snail laying eggs:

This nerite snails has laid white egg capsules just outside this
small pool just north of Libreville.  In Panama nerites 
deposit their eggs in the pools.
Beaches and sunsets:
Beach near Cap Esterias, Gabon

Sunset over Cap Esterias, Gabon 
Beach flat at Cap Esterias, Gabon

Sunset over Libreville, Gabon

Check out this Gabon blog by David Korte to learn more about natural history, Smithsonian research, and life in Gamba.

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