Category Archives: plants

Badru’s story nominated for a Film Festival Award!

I have been off for a while. I congratulate Andrew and Lucy for a job well done. They kept you updated with the on-going ITFC research and other activities through a continued flow of blogs.

Here is an update of what has happened during my absentia. Some of you must have already watched/heard about it. I am talking about the ‘Badru’s story’……….

Sometime last year, Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele visited Bwindi. Benj and Sara are a documentary team (bdsjs.com) that specializes in multimedia stories about people, nature and climate. During their visit, they followed Badru and his team through the rugged terrain of park, capturing every detail of the camera trap setting, tree measurement and climate station maintenance procedures.  A product of their trip was a short movie documenting the TEAM Network’s activities in Bwindi.

The approximately six-minute movie titled ‘Badru’s story’ starring ITFC and TEAM Network’s very own Badru Mugerwa can be watched in HD for free on line http://bdsjs.com/client/ci/. This is the first in a three-part series that are yet to be produced. The movie also featured Dr. Douglas Sheil (ITFC, CIFOR and Southern Cross University), Raymond Kato and Job Nahabwe (Uganda Wildlife Authority) and ITFC field assistants (Lawrence Tumuhagirwe and Avetino Nkwasibwe).

The great news is that ‘Badru’s story’ was nominated for the 40th Telluride Film Festival Award. This is very exciting to Badru, bdsjs.com, ITFC, UWA and the TEAM Network.  We hope the movie wins the award. Fingers crossed!!!

Below I present to you some of the highlights from the movie  ‘a pictorial movie trailer’. Please enjoy.

The ITFC/UWA/TEAM Network camera trapping team in Bwindi. From left to right: Avetino, Badru, Lawrence (ITFC) and Job (UWA). Standing at the back is Moses (local guide).

The ITFC/UWA/TEAM Network camera trapping team in Bwindi. From left to right: Avetino, Badru, Lawrence (ITFC) and Job (UWA). Standing at the back is Moses (local guide).

On all four:  Badru doing a 'walk test' in front of a camera trap during camera trap setting

On all four: Badru imitates a walking animal by doing a ‘walk test’ in front of a camera trap during camera trap setting.

Measuring a ‘problem tree’: Badru demonstrating how to take diameter measurements of a buttressed tree.

Measuring a ‘problem tree’: Badru demonstrating how to take diameter measurements of a buttressed tree.

Uuhm,  Bwindi’s  beautiful rugged landscape covered by the early morning mist

Bwindi’s beautiful rugged landscape covered by the early morning mist

 

How would we ever live without Bwindi? Ecosystem services along the boundary of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

 Ecosystem services along the boundary of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

Sincerely,

Badru

 

 

Bwindi’s wild bananas

It’s one of those times of year at ITFC when everyone is busy analyzing and writing up their completed research and we chose this opportunity to talk to Frederick Ssasli about his interesting study conducted on the little known wild banana species (Ensete venticosum) in Bwindi.

The objective of his study  was to investigate the ecology of the wild banana by recording the animals that visited and utilised the plant’s fruit and flowers. Most fruiting plants in Bwindi are seasonal, however these wild bananas are special as they fruit and flower all year round, possibly providing a reliable ‘fall back’ food source for animals. Little is known about wild bananas and even less in Bwindi, so Frederick expected some exciting results.

A convenient site was chosen less than a kilometre from ITFC’s premises. Ten camera traps were set up, each on a different tree, five focusing on the flowers and the rest on the fruit. The study ran from 2011 to 2012 in the months of November to April and has just come to an end. 

Now for the results, what everyone had been waiting for! The most frequent visitors to the fruit included L’hoste monkeys, baboons, squirrels and mice which were viewed feeding on the ripe bananas, or in the L’Hoeste’s case, humorously squabbling over them (as they often do). The flowers’ visitors included some nectarivorous birds in the day and lots of bats (which are yet to be identified to the species level) and mice during the night. Even more interesting was the presence of the predatory two-tailed palm civet (Nandinia binotata) which was captured on several occasions visiting the flowers and in one case with a mouse in its mouth!

Two-spotted palm civet after catching a mouse

Two-spotted palm civet after catching a mouse

Bat on banana flower

Bat on banana flower

L’Hoest’s monkey on banana fruit

This study has set the stage for further research at Bwindi to find out more about these inter-specific relationships and to test the list of hypotheses stimulated by each camera picture. There are also some interesting implications for crop raiding. Could the conservation of wild bananas help in preventing increased crop-raiding incidents by providing an alternative food source in the low fruiting season? Could the wild banana be a new keystone species (a species which has a large effect its environment and that many species rely on)?

We hope to see some interesting papers in the near future!

On a side note this is our (Lucy and Andrew’s) last blog. We hope you enjoyed them!

squirrel on wild banana

squirrel on wild banana

Frederick’s Fake Seedlings

As an extension form last week’s blog, we are going to introduce another of Frederick’s ongoing projects: the fake seedling project, a pilot project set up to begin studying what is causing damage to seedlings in the park.

Despite it being 20 years since Bwindi was gazetted as a national park, there are still many gaps in the forest. This programme aims to elucidate the reasons behind the persistence of these gaps, by using fake ‘seedlings’. These ‘seedlings’ are made from plastic drinking straws, which are anchored in the ground in a number of plots. These seedlings are checked for physical damage, and if damage has occurred, the area is examined for evidence (such as animal tracks) to attempt to establish the damage agent. This data is collected in conjunction with the phenology data as the plots overlap.

Example of a fake seedling (photo by Andrew Kirkby)

 

So far, the initial results suggest that the damage is mostly caused by herbivores trampling the seedlings (non-trophic damage), as well as by falling debris. Frederick hopes that this low-cost pilot study will attract funding, leading to a full, long-term project, studying real seedlings!

 

Andrew & Lucy

Phenology week at ITFC

This week we joined Frederick Ssali (ITFC’s research officer) and other ITFC research assistants conducting their long-term phenology monitoring project. This programme was borne from a long-term phenology project started in 2004, focusing on gorilla food trees, which itself began after a PhD student conducted phenology studies linked to gorillas in 2000. The data from gorilla-focused studies was limited, so this more general project was started in 2011, thanks to a grant from WCS for Climate Change Studies in Bwindi.

photo by Andrew Kirkby

Photo by Andrew Kirkby

Every month, a team of highly trained field assistants collect data on 52 species of selected trees from plots on three transects. The team’s skilled eyes examine fruit, flowers and leaves using binoculars. Information is collected for both the canopy and the ground, on the number of ripe, unripe and rotten fruit, as well as the number of flower buds and open flowers and the number of new, old, dead and damaged leaves. The observational ability of the field assistants is amazing!

ITFC researcher observing a tree for phenology.

Photo by Andrew Kirkby

This project aims to link plant cues for flowering, fruit and leafing to climate change and plants’ responses to climate change. It is also relevant for agriculture as it can help inform farmers about pollination issues and timing of when to plant crops. Such general forest ecology knowledge is highly important for understanding the forest ecosystem and contributes greatly to other studies in Bwindi. It can, for example, inform about when certain food items as available for particular animals.

fruits and leaves of Olinia rochetiana (photo by Andrew Kirkby)

Fowers of Allophylus abyssinica (both photos by Andrew Kirkby)

 

The first analysis of the data is ongoing and Frederick aims to publish the results this year. Although the funding is coming to an end, the hope is that the value of this project will be recognised so that ITFC receives funding to continue this on a long-term basis.

Photo by Andrew Kirkby

Photo by Andrew Kirkby

Lucy and Andrew

TEAM back from the field

Last week Badru Mugerwa, the Bwindi-TEAM site manager at ITFC, and a group of research assistants, came back from a stint of data collection for TEAM (Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network). If you have followed our blogs, you will already know about this as an international network of monitoring; operating in 17 tropical forests around the world.

Badru and team heading to the field site

TEAM has been running for four years in Bwindi and along with the climate stations and camera traps, there are six tree-monitoring plots around the park, containing a staggering 3281 trees at the last count. The recent data collection involved tree monitoring at three of these plots. While recruitment was noted, a number of losses were also apparent – a surprising number of unexplained dead stems were noted in one of the high-altitude plots, thought to be due to a fierce storm. Field work is never without interesting or unexpected events; during the tree monitoring  near Ruhija in December, the team was accompanied by a lone silverback for a day, feeding a mere 20 metres away.

Marking trees for measurements

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the global TEAM network, which was celebrated with the news that they had captured their 1 millionth camera trap image (of a jaguar in Manu National Park, Peru http://news.mongabay.com/2013/0214-hance-camera-trap-million.html). The TEAM network continues to provide high quality, standardised, long term data from tropical forest sites all around the world that is freely available to all. The data from Bwindi has so far been used in two university theses and published in 2 peer-reviewed journals (with a third article currently in review).

Recently TEAM produced a short movie about TEAM in Bwindi, check-out ‘Badru’s staory’! http://bdsjs.com/client/ci/.

 

Lucy & Andrew

Herbarium

ITFC is home to an on-site herbarium with it’s own resident botanical expert, Robert Barigyira. To learn about the herbarium we conducted a short interview with Robert, who has been working here since 1995! Robert’s love for plants developed when he was working for CARE as a Forest Technician, assisting with field collections as well as developing and maintaining indigenous tree nurseries and attending trainings with the herbarium staff at Makerere University.

Robert showing us a specimen of a wild banana, Ensete ventricosum

Robert showing us a specimen of a wild banana, Ensete ventricosum

Being the resident botanical expert, Robert’s role involves all maintenance of the herbarium and it’s specimens, obtaining more specimens to develop the herbarium, maintaining an ethnobtanical garden and providing all botanical services to ITFC as well as to visiting researchers. The herbarium, which houses over 3600 specimens from 160 different plant families, has specimens from various locations around Uganda. Although the vast majority are of plants found in Bwindi, they also have specimens collected from Mgahinga National Park, Echuya Forest Reserve, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Rwenzori National Park and Mt. Elgon National Park.

ITFC's organised herbarium

ITFC’s organised herbarium

Part of the ethno-botany garden

Part of the ethno-botany garden

The ethno-botanical garden at ITFC (see above) was developed in the early 1990’s, after the national park was gazetted. Acting as a demonstration garden to show communities that they can cultivate forest plants, it houses medicinal and edible species as well as those used for building and weaving.

While Robert’s interest extends to all plants, the Asteracea and Rubiacea families, which are the most common families in this region, are his favourite. Even with his vast botanical knowledge, he still says that ferns and grasses are the most difficult groups to identify.

He is a wealth of knowledge and is quick to assist with the identification of plants for resident and visiting researchers. For example, he often helps to identify species eaten by the gorillas and was happy to show us some unusual specimens (see picture below). Those who are in need of a plant specialist, ITFC has the man for you!

Epiphyte - Drynaria volkensii

Robert showing us the epiphyte – Drynaria volkensii

Lucy & Andrew

The impenetrable challenge of an overwhelming understorey

The following is a text I wrote for tthe British Ecological Society Bulletin — that was published last month (June 2012). I wrote it to attract interest to a challenge that requires more attention from ecologists and others.  I hope you find it of interest.

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Science journals favour tidy theory and rigorous results, but ecological science can also be advanced through highlighting unfamiliar unknowns and quirky questions. For many of us such unknowns are what makes research fun. I want to share a problem (don’t worry, it is about ecology). Maybe you can help.

Our understanding of tropical forest dynamics has advanced considerably over recent decades. We now have vast data-sets tracking hundreds of thousands of tree stems over areas of 50 hectares or more. Numerous processes have been quantified in detail. Remaining unknowns may appear to be minor gaps that will soon be filled. But, for some locations, these impressions are misleading.

For the last few years I have been based in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – a World Heritage Site in Southwest Uganda. We can see Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo from here. The site is known for supporting half the World’s remaining mountain gorillas; a major “see them before you die”-tourist-draw that brings in significant revenues to support conservation and the region’s economy. I help run a research station that focuses on the needs of local conservation practitioners (see ITFC.org). We have various day-to-day challenges ourselves – of which I may share more another time – but here I want to focus on our inadequate grasp of forest dynamics.

Living in a salad bowl: fewer than 800 mountain gorillas remain (Photograph Douglas Sheil)

What’s in a name

First, consider the name Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. That “Impenetrable” often leads to raised eyebrows, disbelieving laughter and accusations of ill-judged humour. But it is not a joke: “Impenetrable” is there in the official name. Ask why and you reveal you have not yet been here. Bwindi is rugged, steep and divided by cliffs but the key feature is the thick understorey. It is near impossible to walk through. The main element of this understorey challenge, superseding even the impressively rich flora of noxious nettles, barbed briars and spiny Acanthus, is its remarkable density. Understanding this forest by looking at the trees alone is probably harder than walking through it without tripping over the understorey.

Impenetrable forest – where are the seedlings? (Photograph Douglas Sheil)

Let me sketch out a few local features. The climate here is cool with altitudes up to 2,600m (we huddle at the fire at night). Being one degree south of the equator, seasonal variation is limited but we have two wetter and two drier seasons. Much of the forest canopy is open and there are extensive clearings – this likely reflects slow or stalled recovery from past disturbance (human activities, fires, landslides and elephants are all blamed). Small trees are scarce over large areas – suggesting limited regeneration. Many clearings are filled with persistent bracken fern Pteridium aquilinum (L.) Kuhn.reminiscent of the forests near where I grew up in Ireland. Other understorey species dominate other areas both with and without tree cover. Many of the common understorey species are synchronously monocarpic, living for a decade or more before flowering, seeding and dying en masse. . Examples include the African mountain bamboo (Yushania alpina (K. Schum.) Lin. Poaceae). Like many gregarious bamboo species elsewhere, it forms extensive stands and flowers only every few decades. Other monocarpic understorey plants include various Acanthaceae including several Mimulopsis spp.. One thicket forming species is Mimulopsis arborescens C.B. Clarke. It grows to 4 meters tall and bears multiple soft-woody stems with interlocking stilt-roots that are near impossible to walk through – this plant covers large areas of the forest. Along with another common monocarpic Mimulopsis species (M. solmsii Schweinf.) this is among the mountain gorillas’ most plentiful food plants. Both these Mimulopsis species flowered, seeded and died over the last two years.

ITFC researchers work among the woody remains and seedling carpets of the monocarpic liana Sericostachys scandens (Amaranthaceae): note the bamboo in the background (Photograph Douglas Sheil)

A liana that was abundant in Bwindi just three years ago is also monocarpic. Sericostachys scandens Gilg. & Lopr. (Amaranthaceae) used to cover almost every tree over large areas of forest. Then 3 years ago it flowered and for months its fluffy seeds were everywhere. It is now hard to spot a plant aside from seedlings. Large dead crumbling stems lie in heaps in parts of the forest.

So to recap: large areas of the forest are dominated by a dense understorey. Many of these plants are monocarpic and achieve high densities in cycles that must impact the recruitment opportunities of other plants. Trees are locally patchy and seedlings are often rare. The behaviour of the non-tree vegetation appears key in understanding the dynamics of these forests and, by implication, the animal species such as the mountain gorillas that they sustain.

These issues are not simply a matter of curiosity: major concerns have been raised about the long term management of the forest. These are practical questions. What, for example, should be done about the forest’s vulnerability to fire and to alien species (such as Lantana camara L. now spreading in the northern lower part of the forest)? Specific questions have been raised about maintaining conservation values. Recently the park authorities suggested it may be necessary to artificially maintain gorilla food species by cutting trees. We don’t have anything close to the understanding needed to address these concerns with confidence.

Fun fun fun

How can we get a handle on the key relationships within this complex patchy mountain forest vegetation? How can we, in only a few years of affordable research, grasp how outcomes are determined? If we can’t do that can we at least begin to clarify, gather and store the information that future researchers will need to better address these impenetrable problems? We have some plots with a few thousand tagged trees already. We also acknowledge valuable research elsewhere on seedling-understorey interactions, bracken control, and many other key issues. But we’ll need more, including the sustained funding to achieve it. So can we address this in easy bite-sized pieces? Ideally we would support local students and build capacity as we did it. I am hoping you may have suggestions. If you do please let me know, better still drop by and see just how impenetrable the forest here really is.

Left: Bwindi before, and right:, after last year’s understorey die-back (Photographs by Miriam van Heist)

Hope to hear your thoughts.

Douglas

97 new species for Bwindi, 33 for Uganda and 4 for science … and counting

You may remember we hosted a study of our lichens here in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park earlier this year. Recently I asked Andreas for an update. He sent an interim report developed with his colleagues in Sweden: Lena and Thor.

Let me share a short summary.

The collections have turned out to be richer, and indeed more exciting, than we had anticipated. To summarise progress : of 240 distinct species 99 have been identified and confirmed so far. Each record has to be carefully checked and confirmed. This process is continuing.

Of the 99 species identified, four are new to science. 33 additional species are reported for the first time in Uganda and one appears to be new for Africa. All but two of these 99 species (i.e. 97) are reported for the first time from Bwindi.

Andreas gives a training on lichens in ITFC Bwindi earlier in 2011

Still many new species out there? Bwindi near Ruhija

The species thought new to Africa is Coenogonium leprieurii. Andreas and co. say the four new species will be formally described within the next few months (provisional names: Acanthotrema nuda, Arthonia physcidiicola, Chiodecton sorediatum and Crypthonia coccifera). I shall be lobbying for an “ITFCensis” or two in there.

In the longer run when we have the species sorted the fuller ecological characterisation will be done (what species like what kind of environments etc) … We’ll keep you informed. That study will clarify the relationship of these species with climate and other factors.

It may be a while until lichen tourism competes with gorilla tourism — but who knows? Don’t underestimate Bwindi’s lichens.

Best wishes

Douglas

Beautiful pictures from the Rwenzori expedition

Dear friends of ITFC,

Our team has descended from setting up the GLORIA plots on the Rwenzori Mountains! We expect them back at the station later today.

WCS’ Anton Seimon, who trained the team came back a few days earlier and send us some pictures. We share them here with you, as the beauty of this place is really stunning. But some suffering was unavoidable: they had it tough, with days of snow fall, wet feet after walking through the bogs and worries about one of the porters who fell sick and had to be rescued from above 4000 m.a.s.l.

Here is a glimps of where they were and what they saw (courtesy Anton):

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Camp at Guy Yeoman, surrounded by giant groundsels (a Senecio spp)

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Time for relaxing (and warming up?). This picture does not make it look that rough!

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Vegetation? Does anyone see it? Quite a different environment for forest researchers from Bwindi!

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The team at work laying out a GLORIA plot

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The grid used in the detailed description of the high altitude vegetation plots

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All these meters of rope can get quite in the way! The greyish shrub is one of the Helichrysum ‘everlasting flowers’.

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The team surrounded by giant groundsel rozettes and old flower stems.

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And last but not least; what is left over of the glaciers on Rwenzori’s tops…

Soon more from their experience up there in the ‘abode of the little gods’,

Miriam

Lichens Part II – the saga continues

Part II of our interview with Andreas Frisch

In our last article we introduced and interviewed Andreas Frisch, a post-doc lichenologist about the  significance of lichens and his study with ITFC in Bwindi. Here are some more excerpts.

Bwindi Researchers: What are the economic benefits of lichens?

Andreas Frisch : For many years, over different parts of the world, Lichens have been a source of natural dyes for wool and fabric. These dyes were distinguished by the type of lichens used and the way the color was extracted. Lichen dyes are extracted by the boiling-water method or the fermentation method. Today, they are still used by local artisans as they demonstrate their crafts.

Today two species, Evernia prunastri and Pseudevernia furfuracea, are still collected in the Mediterranean for expensive perfumery. Lichens are also eaten by many different cultures across the world. Although some lichens are only eaten in times of famine, others are a staple food or even a delicacy. In many Nordic countries lichens are also economically very important as the principal winter food of caribou, reindeer and musk-oxen.

Lichens are further used as environmental indicators for pollution monitoring around cities and factories and to trace microclimatic site conditions.

This kind of exposure and dependence on air for survival places lichens at a high risk resulting from air pollution. (Photo taken from southern Bwindi)

Bwindi Researchers: How threatened is the existence of lichens, are there some endangered species?

Andreas Frisch: Much as they are very resilient, lichens are also very vulnerable. In Sweden, for example, 238 lichen species are red-listed, representing over 10% of the lichen species in this country. In other countries, the figure is even higher. Unfortunately, in many regions of the world the knowledge of lichens is quite poor and we just do not know which of them are threatened. This is particularly true to many tropical countries including those of Africa, where information on distribution and ecology of the species is sparse and often not reliable. I believe that many tropical lichens are critically endangered but sadly, we have not enough data to prove this — not yet anyway.

Bwindi Researchers: What are the threats to lichens?

Andreas Frisch: The most serious threat is habitat destruction, either through clearing for forestry or agriculture, or through inappropriate grazing and forest management. About 45% of red listed lichens are found in forests and another 40% on rocks and alvars. Activities such as the repeated use of fire to regenerate forest or maintain fauna habitat, may have only subtle visible effects on the vascular vegetation, but can have a dramatic and deleterious impact on the often unique habitat requirements of lichens.

Because lichens do not possess roots, their primary source of most elements is the air, and therefore elemental levels in lichens often reflect the accumulated composition of ambient air. The processes by which atmospheric deposition occurs include fog and dew, gaseous absorption, and dry deposition. The sensitivity of a lichen to air pollution is in part directly related to the energy needs of the fungal component. Upon exposure to air pollution, the photosynthetic partner may use metabolic energy for repair of cellular structures that would otherwise be used for maintenance of photosynthetic activity, therefore leaving less metabolic energy available for the fungal component. The alteration of the balance between the photosynthetic partner and fungal component can lead to the breakdown of the symbiotic association. Therefore, lichen decline may result not only from the accumulation of toxic substances, but also from altered nutrient supplies that favor one symbiont over the other.

Collecting lichens for use in dye is a destructive activity. Although at present on a small scale, the activities of wool dyers can cause depletion of lichen numbers because of the large volume of material required. Local populations can be destroyed, and elimination of rare species can occur as dyers collect indiscriminately rather than selecting particular species. In the Rhön mountains in central Germany, where I have been born, the effects of lichen collecting for dying are believed to be still recognisable by the rarity or almost absence of certain lichen species as Pertusaria corallina, which have been collected for the dying of silk during the late 19th century.

Collecting specimens for science may only be a threat when over-enthusiastic collection of selected species could place local populations or rare species at risk. The amount of material collected of any one species (particularly exsiccates sets) should to be curtailed to prevent destruction of such populations by scientific activities.

These threats are by no means unique to lichens, and also apply to other groups of organisms.

Another of those lichens in Bwindi which grow hanging out in the air

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In conclusion

Perhaps we can agree that despite their ecological and economic significance, very little is really known about lichens in tropical countries, especially in Africa.  More research is needed, especially to establish which species are at the risk of extinction and clarify how we might protect them. Perhaps you — readers — have some knowledge contribution to make. Let us hear your views and comments.

Documented by Ivan