The Nouragues Ecological Research Station is located in primary moist tropical forest, typical of the Guiana Shield, a geological formation dating back to ca. 2 billion years. The substrate is a granitic shield locally degraded as for instance around the Nouragues inselberg, and a metamorphic substrate elsewhere (Caraib gneiss). Soils are clayey to sandy-clayey.
The station is located in the Nouragues creek watershed, a tributary of the Arataye River. This river itself flows into the Approuague River, which reaches the Atlantic ocean downstream from the village of Regina. The image below shows an area of 2400 ha located between the Nouragues inselberg (top of the left panel in red) and the Arataye River (bottom). Panel a) shows a digital elevation model obtained by Lidar at a 1 m2 resolution. Elevation varies between 100 m asl and 411 m asl, the height of the inselberg. Panel b) shows the canopy height also estimated by Lidar ans also at a 1-m2 resolution, as of 2012. Canopy height varies between 30 and 50 m. Panel c) shows the vegetation types present at Nouragues. These maps were produced by Maxime Réjou-Méchain.
The vegetation is typical of the primary lowland rainforest, with a few inclusions of different vegetation types: palmitto-swamp forests (Euterpe known as ’Pinot’ forest, or ’pinotière’ locally), liana forests, and bamboo forests (dominated by Guadua bamboos, and probably of human origin). On the top of the Nouragues Inselberg, the soil is washed away and the ground is granitic. Hence, only a few species surivive in this harsh environment (Clusia, Pitcairnia). Nearby the top of the inselberg, grows a ’low’ forest rich in Myrtaceae and with many endemic plants.
Climate is moist tropical, we a mean annual rainfall of 3000 mm, distributed of 280 days on average. A two-month dry season occurs in september and october (less than 100 mm rainfall per month), and a shorter dry season in March (Small March Summer). Daily mean temperature ranges between 20.3C, and 33.5C.
An inselberg and a river
The Inselberg camp, historically the oldest, is at the center of the area delinated for research. It is located at the foot of a granitic outcrop also called inselberg. Downslope, a brook flows along a small geologic fault, called ’Nouragues creek’. The fault separates a granitic area typical of the Balenfois Ridge (Petit Plateau) and a hilly area with old metamorphic substrates called ’green rocks’ (Caraib gneiss).
On the Arataye River, the Saut-Pararé Camp has been established in the late 1990s downstream from the former MNHN camp. It has recently been renovated to operate the new COPAS project, and house scientists. The COPAS project is located ca 500 m away from the camp.
Paleoecological reconstructions at the site have revealed that disturbances may have occurred over 500 years ago (charcoal dated 530 yr BP, Charles-Dominique et al. 1998). More detailed reconstructions using both charcoal dating and pollen coring suggest that the forest cover has remained intact over at least 3000 yrs (Ledru, 2001).
In the past, traces of human activity
The Nouragues Station is located in the Arataye River watershed, a tributary of the Approuague River.
This watershed has been searched for archeological remains, and these searches have revealed an abundant number of potteries and tools, peaking at ca. 1000 BP. The most recent dates of these remains are coincident with the description of indian tribes in this part of French Guiana in the 17th century. Pierre Du Val D’Abbeville’s map (1677) mentions that the indian tribe ’Nolaques’ that ’wear gold plaques at their ears’ is encountered roughly along the Approuague River. Fathers Jean Grillet and François Béchamel wrote their travel in French Guiana, in search of the imaginary lake Parmia. They appear to have sailed upstream the Comté River to a place close to the current Nouragues station, accompanied by Galibi guides. According to their narrative, thet met the Nouragues tribe in february 1674, and described them as ’courteous and affable’.
Since the disappearance of the Nouragues Indians in the 18th century, the area has remained mostly uninhabited.
The region has however been exploited from the second half of the 19th century until the 1940s near the accessible parts of the forest, mainly for rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora, Lauraceae, an important scent for the perfume industry) and balata (Manilkara bidentata, Sapotaceae, for its latex similar to that of hevea).
The Arataye River has been extensively searched for gold at the time of the Guiana gold rush, that followed the California gold rush. In 1855, the Société de l’Approuague was created, and gold was searched along rivers until the early days of the 20th century. Vestiges of this rush can still be observed near the Pararé camp. Gold mining was almost totally abandoned in French Guiana by the 1930s. More recently, new technology has made possible the mining of gold in larger river streams, and in areas more difficult to access. This, combined with the surge in gold prices, has spurred a new gold rush in French Guiana since 1999. The lower Approuague has been intensively and illegally mined from 2001 to 2004. Illegal gold mining activity has remained a serious concern in this area since then, although the police has taken serious steps for fighting this environmentally-harmful activity. Since then, the Nouragues Reserve is under close surveillance owing to its status of natural protected area
Since the 1980s, a site devoted to science and conservation
Following upon the creation of a temporary research camp of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN), on the Arataie River between 1978 and 1985, the Nouragues Station (today referred to as Inselberg Camp) was created in 1986 based upon a 2-yr scientific project funded by the French Environment Ministry, additional funds from CNRS and MNHN, and support from IRD.
Permanent constructions at the site were completed in 1989, and the station has built upon the research activities of the ecology lab of Brunoy, near Paris (MNHN/CNRS), with funds from various CNRS programs (Programme Environnement Vie et Sociétés of CNRS and Département des Sciences de la Vie of CNRS until 2002). In 1997, The Nouragues Research Station has acquired the status of Unité Propre de Service of the CNRS, until 2002.
In 1995, the Nouragues area has been created as a Natural Reserve (creation n° 95-1299 18 december 1995). With over 1000 km2 of protected pristine rainforest, the Nouragues Reserve has long remained the largest Natural Reserve in France (click here for Réserve Naturelle des Nouragues website).
Today, the research area managed by CNRS within the Nouragues Natural Reserve is a 8 x 10 km area, devoted to scientific research. By decree, this area is under sole the responsability of CNRS.
Since 2003, the Nouragues Ecological Research Station is managed operationally by the Unité de Service et de Recherche CNRS-Guyane of the Institut Ecologie and Environnement (InEE) at CNRS.