Text by Piotr Naskrecki, Gorongosa Restoration Project
The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory at Gorongosa National Park will be home to a permanent synoptic collection of Gorongosa’s flora and fauna, the first facility of its kind in any protected area in Africa–the Biodiversity Collection. We will work closely with Mozambique’s national institutions towards a comprehensive inventory of biological richness of the country, and 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 Collection will be a relatively small but modern scientific facility. It will include a molecular lab for DNA storage and extraction, intended primarily for processing of genetic material that is prone to rapid deterioration (e.g., scat and other forensic material). The main collection area will be 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, will be implemented.
The Biodiversity Collection is intended to be a permanent element of the park’s infrastructure, and will consist of comprehensive sampling of Gorongosa’s multicellular life (initially to include only plants and selected groups of invertebrates, later to be expanded to other groups.) The synoptic collection will include only a few voucher specimens for each species recorded from the park. All duplicate material collected during survey activities will be ultimately deposited in the Museum of Natural History in Maputo, with additional specimens deposited in institutions conducting the surveys. 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. This will be done in collaboration with the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding, an institution interested in making Gorongosa one of its focal sites for exhaustive documentation of genetic diversity of tropical ecosystems.
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 park’s visitor center.
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 small tissue or scat samples for DNA barcoding), 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 initially may 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 will be 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 positive impact of synoptic collections within national parks has been demonstrated in Costa Rica, where entomological and botanical collections housed within La Selva Biological Station (bordering on and continuous with the Braulio Carillo National Park) have spurred and facilitated hundreds of research projects over the last 20 years, and contributed to the undisputed position of La Selva as the prime and preferred biological research site in Central America. The synoptic collections stored at La Selva are also routinely used during ecological, botanical, and zoological courses and workshops conducted by the Organization for Tropical Studies to demonstrate the biotic richness of the BCNP, and provide the ultimate identification tools for students conducting short research projects during those courses/workshops. In Mozambique, where transportation infrastructure is less developed than in Costa Rica, the availability of on-site biological reference collection is even more important. While the national collection in Maputo will receive duplicates of all species recorded from Gorongosa, researchers and students working in the park will certainly appreciate not having to commute there in order to perform routine identification of the material. The Gorongosa synoptic collection will also be the first such collection in any African national park. Its value in training local students and parataxonomists in species identification and monitoring cannot be overestimated.