RESEARCH

At the research station, various projects are currently running to study the following groups of organisms:

The studies particularly aim to record the biodiversity, capture its dynamics, as well as investigate the mechanisms that make such high diversity possible. The overriding goal of all projects is maintaining the ecosystem and its uniqueness.

Project overview

Paramedic Ants

Matabele ants (Megaponera analis)
© Erik T. Frank

West African savannahs, with their long dry seasons, led to the evolution of ingenious ways by animals to survive in this extreme habitat. Ants and termites, both important for many ecosystem functions, therefore had to find ways to minimize their costs to cope with these extreme conditions. Matabele ants (Megaponera analis) are a termite-hunting ant species present in West African savannahs that conduct organized raids against termites.

During the battle against termites a lot of the hunting ants suffer injuries. In my research we look how the nestmates help these injured individuals. The fellow hunters rescue the injured by carrying them back to the nest, thus saving them from dangerous predators. Inside the nest they then proceed to clean open wounds, thereby preventing a dangerous infection from killing the ant. Right now, we are looking at how the methods the ants use to treat injuries (like antibiotics) could potentially also be useful in our own medical treatments.

Dr. Erik T. Frank
University of Lausanne
, Department of Ecology and Evolution, Switzerland

Symbiosis between Termites & Fungi

Fruit bodies of Termitomyces
© N’Golo A. Kone

The interests of N’Golo A. KONE are on general ecology, ecosystem functioning and -dynamics as well as interspecific interactions, with a special focus on mutualistic symbioses between fungi and other organisms, such as insects and plants. He is well known for his experience in understanding the symbiosis between the so-called fungus-growing termites and fungi of the genus Termitomyces. He is working on several aspects of this mutualistic relationship with a focus on the diversity, occurrence, distribution, and the taxonomy of the symbiotic partners as well as their interaction specificity. Additionally, he is interested in the socio-economy of this fungi-cultivation by termites (i.e. the paramount role that Termitomyces plays for improvement of the livelihood of local people). He is currently extending the monograph of Termitomyces in Côte d’Ivoire. N’Golo is also interested in (i) testing the impact of seasonal bush fires on the diversity and production of ectomychorrizal fungi within Sudano-Guinean savannas and (ii) the sustainable and long lasting management of West African savanna ecosystems, by testing the impact of fire regime and its intensity on vegetation dynamics. He has long-term, international collaborations.

Dr. N’Golo Kone
Nangui Abrogoua University, Abidjan, Ivory Coast

Termites as model systems for tropical biodiversity

Mound of the dominant species Macrotermes bellicosus
© Judith Korb

The tropics are the treasure box of biodiversity. We want to understand, why there are so many more species in the tropics than in the temperate regions. In order to do this, we use termites as model systems. Termites play essential roles in tropical savannas, for instance, as main decomposers of plant material. We are working in the Comoé National Park since the mid 1990ths. Our studies comprise, for instance, (i) the identification of new species, (ii) the determination of termite diversity and the processes, which structure their communities and allow their co-existence, and (iii) a longterm monitoring of the ecosystem engineers and mound builder Macrotermes bellicosus (see photo), to study the effect of climate change on savannas. In addition, we also investigate (iv) termite mound architecture and thermoregulation, and (v) the puzzle of the extraordinary longevity of termite kings and queens.

Prof. Dr. Judith Korb
Evolutionary Biology & Ecology, University of Freiburg, Germany

Longterm monitoring of large mammals

Large mammals are important and charismatic animals of savanna ecosystems. At the same time, they often suffer strongly from illegal hunting, also in the Comoé National Park. In order to obtain information about densities of day-active large mammals, we performed standardised road counts in the south-west of the Park. After a break from 2001 onwards, we re-started the monitoring 2015. Our longterm data allow us to investigate changes in the composition of large mammals in the savanna and to test for a potential effect of the political unrest and the Ebola crisis (ban of game meat from 2013-2016).

Additionally, we studied spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) more intensively. These studies included scat-based food analyses. Our data show a drastic decline of spotted hyenas in the South-West of the park and a change in the composition of the prey spectrum between the 1990ties and the 2010ths.

Prof Dr. Judith Korb1, Dr. Volker Salewski2
1
Evolutionary Biology & Ecology, University of Freiburg, Germany
2
Michael-Otto Institut im NABU, Bergenhusen, Germany

Green Class

© Camille Lavoix

School kids are regularly invited from the village of Kakpin to the station to discover the lab, the microscopes, the river and the park. Together with their teachers, students and employees, they explore the station to gather insects and butterflies. Scientists of the station then tell them what it is and explain what a scientist does and why it is forbidden to poach and important to protect nature. During these green classes, traditional tales are also exchanged about the animals of the Comoé (a children’s book called « Tales of the Comoé » is in the making). The first two green classes were funded thanks to the Swiss Embassy in Abidjan and donations would help keep these school excursions ongoing in the future.

More info on Facebook page « Comoé : l’art de l’écologie »: https://www.facebook.com/Como%C3%A9-lart-de-l%C3%A9cologie-105341790882466/

Camille Lavoix

Artistic residency

© Camille Lavoix

For the first session in October 2019, artists were invited to stay the station and create pictures, paintings, drawings about the Comoé. Mamoudou Bolly came from Burkina Faso to paint with natural colors made of tree leaves and gave a wonderful workshop to kids at the school of Kakpin and to the station’s employees. Stephen Walters, one of the best mapmakers in the world came from London to draw an incredible map of the station, the village and the park full of biological and cultural references. A collective art exhibition took place in Abidjan with everyone involved in research, conservation, development and art to promote the artwork and research at the station. Artworks are for sale, 50% goes to the artist and 50% to the NGO friends of Comoé to give grants to students coming to the station and help the school of the village. The first edition of the artistic residency was made possible thanks to the embassies of Switzerland and France and the Swiss Cooperation of Burkina Faso.

More info: https://www.facebook.com/events/373474176868289/?active_tab=discussion
https://www.dropbox.com/s/jlhg9pib867g9c9/2.liste%20des%20oeuvres%20Como%C3%A9.xlsx?dl=0

Camille Lavoix

School library in Kakpin

© Camille Lavoix

The library of the school was rebuilt this year thanks to a grant from the Swiss Embassy in Abidjan. We brought 100 books from Switzerland but it is still a bit empty. It is important to give the villagers access to a proper education, also when thinking of the future of the station and the park, to be able to hire qualified local assistants. For the inauguration of the library, the ministry of education and head of the region sent representatives to the village of Kakpin. We are applying to a new grant with the German Embassy in Abidjan to cover the cost of a new school, and hopefully will get 10.000€. 2000€ are still needed to rebuild the bathrooms so that little girls would be able to attend school more often, without the shame of doing their business in public (a major barrier in female education in the region).

More info on Facebook page « Comoé : l’art de l’écologie »: https://www.facebook.com/Como%C3%A9-lart-de-l%C3%A9cologie-105341790882466/

Camille Lavoix

Migratory behaviour of pied Flycatchers and climate change

Human-induced global change modifies habitats on the planet. The causes underlying insufficient responses in avian migrants to global change are poorly understood. The pied flycatcher is intensively studied at the breeding grounds and has become the model for climate-change adaption in migratory birds. Birds are pressed to advance breeding arrival to meet earlier springs in Europe. Since 2017, I perform ecological research on pied flycatchers in Comoé National Park, in order to study the importance of their African wintering sites for timely arrival. As for most songbirds, this is poorly understood. This research is combined with annual-cycle tracking, DNA-based diet analyses, long-term breeding population data (by Prof C. Both). PhD student Wender will focus on the role of fine-scale habitat dynamics and flexibility in (spatial) behaviour and habitat use of individuals. With our research we aim to unravel how non-breeding conditions and wintering behaviour influence subsequent decisions and fitness, and thereby shape the adaptive capacity of flycatchers to deal with climate warming. These insights form a backbone for understanding the adaptive capacities of many other migrants.

Dr. Janne Ouwehand & Wender Bil
Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life Sciences, Conservation Ecology Group, University of Groningen, Netherlands

Antimicrobial substances of termites

Fungus comb of Odontotermes sp.
© Michael Poulsen

Fungus-farming termites have evolved a sophisticated agricultural symbiosis that pre-dates human farming by 30 million years and they appear to not suffer from specialised diseases, despite their massive colony sizes and long lifespan. In the Comoé National Park, we are working on projects to improve our understanding of how these termites maintain their fungus crops free from diseases, with the overarching goal being to determine why the termite symbiosis antimicrobials are not compromised by the evolution of antibiotic resistance. Capitalising on proximate insights, we are aiming to develop the farming termite symbiosis as a model to test concepts of general importance for understanding natural antimicrobial use. We use a range of methods in doing so, ranging from behaviour assays, microbial isolations, genomics, metagenomics and metabolomics, and do so in a comparative context by including species of fungus-growing termites that span the evolutionary history of the termite-fungus symbiosis. We believe that understanding these disease management principles is fundamental and important in evolutionary biology, and it can help inform the sustainable application of compounds with antimicrobial properties. To see more, visit https://www.socialsymbioticevolution.com/.

Prof. Dr. Michael Poulsen
University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Amphibians & reptiles

My team and I are investigating the herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) of the Comoé National Park since the early 1990s. Currently more than 100 species (33 species of frogs, 3 crocodile, 3 turtle, 19 lizard, and 45 snake species) are known to occur in the park, and several more can be expected in so far unexplored areas. Previous research first aimed at inventorying the fauna and then mostly tackled questions about the processes responsible for the formation of tadpole communities in temporary savanna waters and the ecology and biology of particular amphibian species.

Currently we are most interested on how amphibians and the ecosystem services they provide, have been affected by the decline of large mammalian herbivores, following intense poaching during times of political unrest in Ivory Coast during the early 2000s. We aim at understanding on how the decline of a seemingly ecologically unrelated group of organisms affected amphibian communities, and in particular the tadpoles and their ecological role in savanna waters of various sizes. Because we collected quantitative data in the 1990s, we are able to directly compare respective effects on current habitats and communities. Preliminary research showed that the decline of large mammals may have altered the vegetation structure of savanna ponds, the latter presumably having profound influence on tadpole composition and functions.

PD Dr. Mark-Oliver Rödel
mo.roedel@mfn.berlin
Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Germany

Vultures

Wollkopfgeier (Trigonoceps occipitalis)
© Volker Salewski

Vultures are indicators of functioning savanna ecosystems. However, functioning savannah systems have become rare in West Africa. The general loss of suitable habitats, the disappearance of nesting trees, scarcity of suitable food, the collision with power lines, and especially persecution, including accidental and deliberate poisoning, as well as trade in vultures and their body parts, has led to drastic declines and disappearance in many regions in West Africa during the last decades. Large protected areas, such as the Comoé National Park, are considered the last refuges for endangered vultures in West Africa. Of the five species of vultures that occur in the park, one species is considered to be “endangered” and three species are considered to be “critically endangered” according to the criteria of the IUCN.

In a project of the NABU International Foundation for Nature (with support from ITRAC GmbH, Regensburg), the distribution of various species of vultures in the southwest of the park have been recorded since 2017. Forty-seven discovered nests of three critically endangered species prove the park’s key role in protecting vultures in West Africa. In cooperation with the University of Nangui Abrogoua, further projects to analyze the reproductive success and the role of vultures in society and traditional medicine are planned. Furthermore, it is planned to equip vultures with GPS-tags to determine their home ranges and to determine the minimum size of a protected area to hold a viable population.

Dr. Volker Salewski
NABU (Naturschutz Bund Deutschland), Michael-Otto Institut, Bergenhusen, Germany