Living with Welwitschia mirabilis

Carrying out research under extreme environmental conditions is always a challenge for both researcher and equipment. If you work in the tropical rain forests, the Antarctica or in the deserts of the world, you have always to battle with the extreme climatic condition: either it is to wet, or to hot or to cold. Doing experiences under lab condition is much nicer, while you have optimal temperature, permanent power supply and you can go home in the evening.  And how to understand the ecological processes outdoors ? Nowadays, you have nice equipment connected to solar panels and sending you the automatic collected data via GSM directly to your computer.

What a challenge it the recent past. When I started my first long-term expedition to the Namib desert 25 years ago it was at the edge from the analog time to the digital time of research. Living 24 hours per day, 7 days per week with the plant. Aim of the research trip was to measure the transpiration and photosynthesis of Welwischia mirabilis and desert succulents at different sites in the Namib and the Succulent Karoo.

Copyright by Maik Veste
Gas exchange measurements of Welwitschia mirabilis at the Brandberg, Namib. Copyright by Maik Veste

As an plant ecologists interested in climate impacts on the ecophysiology of plants, it is always fascinating to feel the temperature stress and suffer with the plant.

And the equipment ? We had already a personal computer with us in the Namib to transfer the data from the data-logger, while the notebook was still analog with a pencil. The gas exchange equipment was state-of-the-art: a minicuvette system with climate-controlled cuvette, infra-red gas analyzer, absolute CO2-gas analyzer, CO2-mixing system, data-logger. The total weight of the equipment was nearly 200 kg and installed in a mini-bus. All spare parts and tools had to be with us in the desert. There was no chance to call the company for technical support.

Copyright by Maik Veste
Photo by Maik Veste
Welwitschia (7)
Gas exchange systems (Walz system) in the mini-bus
Living outdoors in the Succulent Karoo, South Africa

Welwitschia (5)

Even that the equipment getting smaller and lighter, it is still a challenge to stay outdoor and doing research. However, the backstage stories of papers are mostly unknown and, therefore also the limitations of collecting the relevant ecological data under extreme field conditions. In our case we had to select the plants according to the equipment and the 4×4 mini-bus.

Veste, M. (2004): Welwitschia mirabilis. In: H. Walter, S.-W. Breckle: Ökologie der Erde. Bd 2. Spezielle Ökologie der Tropischen und Subtropischen Zonen, Elsevier, München (2. Aufl.), S. 474–480.

Veste, M., Herppich, W.B. (2008): Welwitschia mirabilis – Eine ökophysiologische Betrachtung. Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau 61: 620-625.

More about the used gas exchange system:

Midgley, G., Veste, M., von Willert, D.J., Davis, G.W., Steinberg, M., Powrie, L.W. (1997): Comparative field performance of three different gas exchange systems. Bothalia 27(1): 83-89.