A team of researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and USGS recently spent a month conducting biological surveys in Djibouti (pronounced ‘ji-BOO-tee’), a small country in the Horn of Africa. Djibouti is surrounded by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia with coastlines that abut both the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The country is approximately 23,000 sq. km and ranges in elevation from -155m below sea level to over 2,000 m; making this a potentially interesting place to conduct biodiversity surveys.
This particular trip was the final expedition of a two-part project funded jointly by the U.S. Navy and the Global Genome Initiative (GGI) to survey the flora and fauna and provide the U.S. Navy with information that will be used to create a Natural Resource Management Plan and support the Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH).
As the Principal Investigator of this project, I had the opportunity to work with mammologists, ornithologists, herpetologists, entomologists, and botanists to complete this task. We spent our days and nights preparing, documenting, observing and photographing as much of the flora and fauna as possible during the spring of 2014 and winter of 2016 with two goals in mind. Firstly, our aim was to help the U.S. military understand the biodiversity of wildlife on Camp Lemonnier (a military base located in the center of the country), and secondly, to provide species information to the Djiboutian Ministry of the Environment.
This information will ultimately aid the Djiboutian government in conservation efforts and in designation of critical habitat for protection measures. The specimens and genetic material we gathered will also act as a reference library of potential invasive species that could be unintentionally transported, allowing for faster identification and response to introductions of non-native species.
Our work took us to the nearby shoreline of the Gulf of Aden, to an off-site airfield, and into the rugged mountains of the ecologically unique Day Forest (Forêt du Day). As a result of the two expeditions we now have genetic samples for thousands of insects—now being tested for disease vectors and being used to help describe the insect life; more than 70 species of birds—some documenting new distributional records for the country and providing new resources for world collections; more than 14 mammal species including Speke’s Pectinator and Abyssinian Genet—rare species in museum collections; about 24 species of amphibians and reptiles including Dodson’s toads, Parkers Pygmy Geckos, and a Nubian Spitting Cobra, and several species of highly adaptive plants.
During the most recent expedition to the Day Forest, we traveled for four hours to reach our destination north-east of Djibouti City. This forest is a very special place within Djibouti and only one of two high elevational (1,500 m) closed forests in the country. We stumbled across a large troop of Hamadryas baboons while searching for a glimpse of the endemic and critically endangered bird Djibouti Francolin (Pternistis ochropectus). We were fortunate to have special guests from the local university and the Djiboutian Center for Education and Research Department (CERD) join us in the Day Forest. Two students and two CERD employees eagerly participated in fieldwork activities by assisting the Smithsonian Team with observing the wildlife of the forest.
Having DNA sequence available in on-line libraries will benefit science in many ways. Potential new species or species range extensions will be identified; genetic information will be available for researchers working in the region; bird DNA sequences will be available for the identification of bird/aircraft collisions in the region; U.S. Navy will have baseline ecological information as they move forward with development of Camp Lemonnier; and information regarding potential conservation of habitat and species diversity will be available to the government of Djibouti.
Our trip was a big success, but more biological inventory work is needed in this country to document species diversity and improve knowledge for regional conservation planning. Hopefully, GGI and the Smithsonian will partner with the Djiboutian government for surveys in the future!
By Dr. Carla Dove, Birds Program Manager, Vertebrate Zoology, NMNH (edited by GGI Staff).