Video: Satellites, Spies, and Savanna Science

Gorongosa National Park, July 1977. Cropped from a declassified Hexagon KH-9 satellite image. Image courtesy of J. Daskin and U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

Doing ecology in new and exciting places sometimes means that perfect historical data aren’t readily available for comparison with the present, and more creative efforts might be in order. As part of my PhD dissertation with the Pringle Lab at Princeton University, I’ve been using recently declassified American government satellite imagery recorded high over Mozambique in 1977 to study how war-driven mammal declines in Gorongosa National Park might have affected tree cover in the park’s savannas.

The amount of tree cover is crucial in African savannas because many local species require relatively open, but not treeless habitats. Too many trees and you’ve got a forest, too few and it’s a grassland. Many of the mammal species nearly wiped out of Gorongosa in the early 1990s would have had strong effects on tree cover; some species, like elephants, topple and consume parts of trees, but others like wildebeest and zebra eat mostly grass, reducing fuel for fires that might otherwise burn up small trees. So it wasn’t immediately clear whether tree cover would have increased or decreased following the large-mammal declines, but a change in either direction would have major implications for Gorongosa’s savanna-adapted plants, birds, bugs, and other inhabitants.

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