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Can You Dig It?

September 6, 2013

By Joshua Daskin - 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.

Photo: 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.

Photo: 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.

Photo: 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.


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