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Field Trips

 Gobabeb 2012: Namib Desert Field Expedition


Sightings of Ludwig’s Bustard (Neotisludwigii) and Welwichia mirabiliswere not the main aims of the 2012 Namib Desert Field Expedition but formed an exciting addition to studies on desert hypolithic communities, soil microbial diversity and the role of water bioavailability, and “catching fog”. Members of UWC’s Institute for Microbial Biotechnology &Metagenomics led by Prof. Don Cowan met up with NASA scientists from Ames, California lead by Chris McKay at Namibia’s Walvis Bay International Airport on Sunday 22nd April for a week of scientific investigation at the internationally renown ‘Gobabeb Training and Research Centre’ (, under the auspices of UWC IMBM, the NASA ‘Spaceward Bound’ program and the Royal Society of South Africa (RSSAf).Gobabebhas a unique situation on the banks of the [ephemeral] KuisebRiver that forms the boundary between the northern gravel desert and the red dune deserts to the south. The site also forms the transition between the coastal fog-zone and the inland rainfall areas where the summer and winter rainfall areas merge.

For the NASA scientists the Namib Desert provides a terrestrial model for the Mars regolith and with the next Mars probe due to land in August 2012, there is heightened interest. For the IMBM scientists the interest is phylogenetics and there is an interesting comparison to be made with [cyanobacteria] hypolithcommunities and soil microbial diversity in another IMBM study area, the Dry Valleys of Antarctica – a dry, cold desert. Much effort, by both teams, was put into understanding water bioavailability in this arid environment. This involved Margarita Marinova and University of Edinburgh postgraduate student Sophie Nixon rising early to go ‘fog-catching’ in order to obtain enough water to determine isotope signatures. The IMBM approach involved longer-term studies. A principal goal of the expedition was to recover microclimate data (temperature and soil humidity) from iButton sensors that had been placed a year earlier at 0 – 20 cm depth at intervals of about 20 km along 2 east-west trans-Namib desert transects and to reposition the iButtons for a further 12 months of data recording.

A 2nd aim of the expedition was to establish an IMBM monitoring site which Master’s student Alacia Armstrong stationed at Gobabeb will sample regularly over a 12 month period. The study is designed to investigate the role of seasonal carbon (and nitrogen) input on the soil microbial population dynamics. Any rainfall leads to an explosion in vegetation, which presumably results in a shift in the soil microbial population. Alacia’s analysis will reveal the extent to which this happens. Other areas of investigation involved salt springs and seeps in the middle of the desert and a new study in collaboration with University of Cape Town virologist Prof. Ed Rybicki on bacteriophage diversity.

In between some serious science there was time for excursions and relaxation: bird watching, visit to the Welwitchia’s (a plant of ancient lineage only found in the Namib Desert), quad biking in the desert, excursions to Swakopmund and Mirabib, an ‘inselberg’ which featured in the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s cult film “2001: A Space Odyssey”. No field trip is complete without food and for this we have to thank chef Hendrick for very substantial meals, picnics and braai’s.

Following on from the field expedition the Royal Society of South Africa held a 2-day Special Colloquiumto celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gobabeb Research and Training Centre, and to help Gobabeb plan its future desert research. The Special Colloquium was presided over by Dr. Mary Seely, who with more than 50 year’s experience (32 years as Director and now as ad interim Director) has grown to epitomize Gobabeb. About 40 scientists and social scientists from a wide spectrum of disciplines listened to lectures on Gobabeb related issues, including giraffe and rhino conservation, desert microbiology, meteorology and climate change, mineral mining and ecological restoration. An afternoon of round table discussions was designed to define the future direction of Gobabeb as a unique research and training center.


Participants UWC IMBM  

  • Don Cowan
  • Marla Tuffin
  • Lonnie van Zyl
  • Jean-Baptiste Ramond
  • Angel Valverde
  • Thulani Makhalanyane
  • Melissa du Plessis
  • Alacia Armstrong
  • Heide Goodman
  • Ed Rybicki (University of Cape Town)
  • Martin Kemler (FABI, University of Pretoria)
  • Brian Jones (DuPont, visitor)

Participants NASA

  • Chris McKay

  • Wanda Davis

  • Margarita Marinova

  • Rosalba Bonaccorsi

  • Mike Wing (Sir Francis Drake High School)

  • Sophie Nixon (University of Edinburgh)

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