Birds, frogs, bamboo and more: Focusing on the gorillas’ ecosystem

Gorillas live in complex habitats that include many other important species, and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund has been actively monitoring and studying this biodiversity for more than 15 years. Understanding more about important animals and plants in these forests is crucial to the survival of gorillas and for effective conservation overall. One key to the success of our biodiversity program has been the leadership of Deogratias Tuyisingize, who came to the Fossey Fund in 2004 as a biology student from the National University of Rwanda. In 2006, Tuyisingize was hired as a research assistant for the Fossey Fund’s biodiversity program at our Karisoke Research Center, later earned a master’s degree in conservation biology, and then was appointed to guide our biodiversity efforts. He is now pursuing a Ph.D., program, focusing his research on the endangered golden monkey, which has become an important part of the Fossey Fund’s biodiversity work. Expanding our biodiversity science To further expand the Fossey Fund’s biodiversity work, a full-time researcher has just been added to this program as well. Dr. Mia Amber Derhé will oversee the Fossey Fund’s daily biodiversity projects, including analyzing data collected on the plants and animals in Volcanoes National Park, developing research protocols and questions, mentoring science staff and local university students, establishing collaborations and partnerships with other organizations, and helping to publish the work of our biodiversity program in scientific journals. Dr. Derhé is a specialist in the conservation of biodiversity and functioning of forest ecosystems. She is especially interested in how human land use affects ecosystems and in how communities and ecological functions respond to and interact with restoration and land-use planning efforts. She earned her Ph.D. studying reforestation approaches in Australia, and holds a master’s degree in applied ecology as well as a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of East Anglia. She has conducted research with other environmental groups, including BirdLife International and Flora & Fauna International.
Dr. Mia Derhé
Why study biodiversity? “Growing up, Dian Fossey was one of my conservation heroes, with her strong will and unwavering dedication to the protection of gorillas, says Dr. Derhé. “So I was initially drawn to Volcanoes National Park for the same reasons that I think many conservationists are drawn to the park —  it is a haven for the critically endangered mountain gorilla, and was also the base for Dian Fossey’s pivotal work on gorilla research and conservation. “But for an ecologist, the park has much more to offer, including exceptional biodiversity and a great range of fauna and flora, a lot of which is unique to the park and the region,” she says. “I love walking up the slopes in the park and seeing how the habitat changes around you, and with it, the birds, insects, mammals and amphibians change too. Even the two primate species in the park — the mountain gorilla and the golden monkey — are restricted to certain habitats at certain elevations, due to the food resources they rely on. “The biodiversity program that we currently run has yielded some amazing data and helped us to understand so much more about the park, such as what times of the year the bamboo produce shoots that the golden monkeys and gorillas can feed on, and how this varies by elevation. We also have really great information on amphibians and birds, which enables us to detect any declines or changes in distribution. But there is still so much more to learn.” And all of this is really important to the future of the gorillas. In one way or another, every element of biodiversity in the ecosystem is connected to gorillas, Dr. Derhé explains, whether it’s the plants they eat, the health of the soil, the insects that pollinate the plants, the other animals that help disperse seeds, competition for food from other animals, or large mammals like buffaloes and elephants that physically change habitat. And then, of course, there’s the effect of human populations to consider. “Our aim is to take a holistic approach by looking at the park’s ecosystem as a whole and investigating key elements of biodiversity and important interactions within the ecosystem,” says Dr. Derhé, “because the more we know, the better job we can do at conservation.”