WARNING! High species diversity ahead! I recently travelled to the South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province to conduct some field work with Daniel Buttner and Alastair Potts of the Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth (Alastair is an ecologist and lecturer and Daniel is a postgraduate student in the Botany Department at NMU). The trip has involved working in some of the most remarkable plant communities, or biomes. You can think of a biome as a type of close-knit community of many different species interacting more closely with one another than with species from other biomes. For example, types of temperate forest or mangrove forest are different biomes. What is remarkable about the biomes of the Eastern Cape is that they are often found in very close proximity to one another. One small reserve that we travelled to contained about six different biomes, meaning that there were six different plant communities all operating independently but with very sharp boundaries between them! This results in an incredibly rich diversity of plants in a very small region, all doing slightly different things. The edges of the biomes (also known as biome boundaries) are controlled mostly by soil type, fire and climate.
Perhaps the most unusual of these biomes is the Thicket Biome, consisting of stunted (low growing) trees and succulents. The plants of the Thicket Biome are incredibly dense (as the name suggests), and also often spiny, so it is hard work making ones way through a patch!
WARNING! Distressing images of stressed trees ahead! The goal of the trip was to assist Daniel in quantifying water stress levels of Pappea capensis trees, to help determine how severely impacted they are by the current drought in the region. It has been very hot and dry for several months and many of the plants are showing visible signs of distress or have died (although it is currently raining as I type this!).
In addition to the obvious signs of distressed plants (and on a more positive note) I have been most impressed with the diversity of plants and growth forms in the area. It is wonderful to see an abundance of succulents and low growing trees, and even patches of fynbos most commonly associated with the Western Cape Province growing high up on sandstone-derived soils. It was also my first time experiencing a cycad forest, which (as Daniel noted) felt a bit like walking through Jurassic Park! Some areas even had cycads growing next to fynbos species.