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List of current and past research

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Range expansions, survival and persistence of both plants and animals, particularly in the face of climate change, are often dependent on plant-animal interactions (e.g. pollination and dispersal). Understanding how elevation, climate warming, and dispersal strategies drive both plant (native and invasive species) and pollinator responses is key to biodiversity management and climate-change mitigation strategies. Recent studies in the Maloti-Drakensberg have revealed unique pollination systems (e.g. lizard pollination of Guthriea capensis; Cozien et al. 2019), and vertical dispersal strategies in highly invasive Rosaceae species (Adams 2020, 2021; Moloi 2022). The internationally collaborative RangeX project is utilising camera traps to assess the impact of plant-pollinator interactions on the range expansion of plant species across elevations and under simulated warming treatments.

Adams, L.D., 2020. Reproductive ecology of Pyracantha angustifolia in afromontane grasslands of the eastern Free State (Master’s Dissertation, University of the Free State).

Adams, L.D., Martin, G.D., Downs, C.T., Clark, V.R., Thabethe, V., Raji, I.A., and Steenhuisen, S.L., 2021. Seed dispersal by frugivores and germination of the invasive alien shrub Pyracantha angustifolia (Franch.) C.K. Schneid. in the Free State Province, South Africa. Biological Invasions, 24, p. 2809-2819.

Cozien, R., Van der Niet, T., Johnson, S.D., and Steenhuisen, S. 2019. Saurian surprise: lizards pollinate South Africa’s enigmatic ‘hidden flower’. Ecology. 100(6): e02670.

Moloi, K.T., 2022. Reproductive ecology of an invasive Cotoneaster species in Afromontane grasslands of the eastern Free State, South Africa (Master’s Dissertation, University of the Free State).

Contact the Principal Investigator/Lead Researcher

Prof Sandy-Lynn Steenhuisen
Subject Head and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Plant Sciences
T: +27 58 718 5330

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The research interrogates processes of spatial production in the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation and Development Area (MDTFCA). What are the spatial conflicts that arise through the social production of the MDTFCA space? How and according to which strategy has the Maloti-Drakensberg Park space been produced? How is the space of the Maloti-Drakensberg Park represented in policy documents and legislation, and how is it produced through broader discursive frames, institutions, or networks? How are social and social-ecological relations restructured by conservation governance and management in the MDTFCA? Who gains what, and at the expense of whom? What are the implications for social justice?

The Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation and Development Area (MDTFCA) contains a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and spans areas in both South Africa and Lesotho. The socio-political, economic, cultural, and ecological dynamics of the area are immensely complex and historically laden. The MDTFCA area is home to almost two million people. Most of them live in marginal areas where they were historically confined under colonialism and apartheid. Conflict between economic and human development – and the maintenance of ecological integrity – is common. Challenges related to cross-border crime, such as stock theft, land degradation and unsustainable land use, cultural and heritage management, and transboundary cooperation in natural resource governance, is significant. With inspiration from Henri Lefebvre’s theory on the production of space (Lefebvre 1992), the paper empirically examines dialectical processes of the production of conservation space. Top-down processes of spatial production in the MDTFCA and bottom-up processes of spatial appropriation were looked at, which often lead to spatial conflict.

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The study adopted a constructivist case-study methodology, with qualitative data construction and analysis. A desktop review was conducted, focusing on literature related to the governance of transfrontier conservation areas, as well as legislative and policy documents related to regional development in the MDTFCA. In-depth interviews with representatives from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and SANParks on the factors driving the political economy of the MDTFCA were also conducted. Snowball sampling was used to select the participants, using a non-probability sampling method. The analysis was done through Lefebvre’s spatial triad, focusing on dialectical interrelationships between representations of space (or conceived space), spatial practice, and representational (or lived) space.

Fraser, Nancy. 2010. Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World. Cambridge University Press.

Contact the Principal Investigator/Lead Researcher

Dr Melissa Hansen
Lecturer in the Department of Geography
T: +27 58 718 5473

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The Drakensberg escarpment consists of a series of flood basalt, reaching up to a height of 3 482 m.a.s.l., roughly 1 000 m above the underlying Karoo Supergroup sandstones. This landscape is part of an impressive passive margin that formed during the breakup of Gondwana between 180 and 130 Mya. After the formation of the Drakensberg basalts, a series of uplift events and subsequent erosion led to the birth of the 1 000 m rise of the escarpment in KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho. However, its evolution, the uplift itself, and the timing of this uplift after the formation of the basalts is still being argued, making it a unique continental passive margin that has not been studied and understood extensively.

Over the early and middle 20th century, various theories of landscape evolution, specifically for escarpment retreat, uplift and hillslope development, were proposed by prominent geomorphologists such as  Krenkel (1922), Penck (1924), Davis (1930), and King (1944). Two main arguments regarding the formation and evolution thereof have emerged. King argued that the escarpment, formed from pre-existing surfaces, eroded to what is called ‘African erosional surfaces’. Alternatively, Krenkel suggested that the African topography is formed and maintained by active swells beneath the African Plate. Although their ideas have been proven wrong in some respects, many concepts still maintain credit and core themes are still present and directing modern literature.

A departure point for their ideas in landscape evolution was obtained through the development of accurate dating methods, establishing erosion rates and exposure ages through techniques such as cosmogenic nuclide dating and luminescence dating. Consequently, new theories and models on the development of the great escarpment have been developed. It is currently accepted that the escarpment has a denudation rate of roughly 6 m Ma-1, defined by Fleming (1999), which is extremely low compared to other basalt passive margins. In contrast, Chen et al. (2020) defined a chemical weathering rate for the Lesotho Highlands that is consistent with the global rate of basalt weathering. This gives credence to the question of what mechanism(s) drive landscape evolution post-formation of the escarpment and argues that a finer scale of denudation rate is needed for the Drakensberg escarpment.

The aim is to review studies done on the evolution of the Drakensberg Escarpment, including dating techniques used to identify denudation rates in order to provide a comprehensive basis for the development of contemporary cosmogenic nuclide research in the area.

Contact the Principal Investigator/Lead Researcher

Dr Liezel Rudolph
Lecturer in the Department of Geography
Department of Zoology and Entomology (UFS)
T: +27 51 401 7104 

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Recently, soil organic carbon (SOC) studies have proved to be vital in the fight against climate change, with a vast amount of knowledge resulting from scientific papers. However, in South Africa most studies focus on regional or national scale models, thus leaving out small local or catchment scale quantification and mapping.

Small site-specific studies still need to be represented, especially when rehabilitation or conservation is the aim, because the regional and national scale maps do not function well in identifying SOC distributions at fine resolution (≤ 10 m). Therefore, the aim of this study was to quantify and map the soil organic carbon stocks (SOCs) of an alpine region in the Maloti-Drakensberg to see to what extent a model can extrapolate.

To evaluate the hypothesis of the use of remotely sensed data coupled with field observations producing more detailed SOCs maps for the northern Maloti-Drakensberg than currently available, and easily extrapolating to the nearby catchments.

The two main digital soil mapping (DSM) approaches selected were machine learning and expert knowledge. The models selected included SoLIM sample-based (SB) and rule-based (RB), random forest (RF), regression Kriging with cubist (RK-CB), LASSO, and universal Kriging (UK). All these models were calibrated only in the Tugela catchment, and afterwards, the models were extrapolated without re-calibration into nearby catchments to assess if they can extrapolate.

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All the maps produced better results at reflecting the variability of SOCs than the regional scales map, and did so with finer resolution at 10 m. From these results, it was evident that site-specific studies are required when mapping areas not covered by die soil database, especially when discussing rehabilitation of alpine wetlands.

Contact the Principal Investigator/Lead Researcher

Prof Johan van Tol
Associate Professor in the Department of Soil, Crop, and Climate Sciences
T: +27 51 401 2386

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Global Mountain Safeguard Research (GLOMOS) has been researching the integration of social sciences and humanities concepts and methods in long-term monitoring in mountains. After conducting a literature review on the topic, GLOMOS carried out 11 expert interviews with managers of mountain LT(S)ER sites to understand the practical and theoretical barriers and opportunities for such disciplinary integration. The results of this research can be used to inform the design of the socioeconomic aspect of the MaS-LTSER, as well as guide the related inter- and transdisciplinary research processes.

Contact the Principal Investigator/Lead Researcher

Jessica Delves
Researcher: Centre for Global Mountain Safeguard Research
T: +39 047 105 5187

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RangeX seeks to better understand the processes and impacts of plants that are expanding their ranges following climate warming, and to use this knowledge to inform the development of policy regarding range-expanding plant species. We focus on mountain ecosystems as an ideal model system to address our research questions. Mountains are themselves of crucial conservation value, as hotspots of biodiversity, refugia for biota threatened by climate warming, and as key global sources of water, food, and livelihoods, but are experiencing above-average rates of warming and increasing pressure from invasive species and development, making mountains priority areas for sustainability research.

As both native and exotic species shift their distributions in response to climate change and through biological invasions, many are expanding their ranges across elevational gradients. This expansion results in the reassembly of ecological communities, mediating the effects of climate warming on biodiversity and key ecosystem functions.

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RangeX is a multidisciplinary, replicated field and laboratory experiment conducted in climatically and socio-ecologically contrasting regions (Switzerland, Norway, China, South Africa) that seeks to better understand these range shifts in mountain systems.

By investigating novel biotic interactions both above and below ground across multiple elevations, we aim to

  1. disentangle the drivers of range expansions;
  2. uncover the ecological consequences of range-expanding species;
  3. predict the extent and impact of future range expansions; and
  4. develop policy recommendations related to range-expanding species in montane environments.

Access the RangeX website for more reading about the topic.

Contact the Principal Investigator/Lead Researcher

Prof V Ralph Clark Pri Sci Nat
Director: Afromontane Research Unit, UFS
T: +27 58 718 5407

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The Qwaqwa component of the Maloti-Drakensberg is one of the least well-studied in the Maloti-Drakensberg system, despite being very close to the UFS Qwaqwa Campus. The ARU seeks to build on valuable historical work done many years ago by Prof Rodney Moffett and others, as well as terrain exploration by the Mountain Club of South Africa, to understand and profile this spectacular section of the Maloti-Drakensberg more visibly. 

One of the key projects is the flora of the Qwaqwa Malotis, targeting the ARU Alpine lease area and the Namahadi cutback as focal points for an intensive botanical survey between 2023 and 2025. Additional sampling will be undertaken westwards towards Monontsha in the Kgotjwane catchment. The main aims are to determine the botanical diversity of the Qwaqwa Malotis; to determine whether there are endemic species and species of conservation significance; and to determine the floristic and biogeographical contribution of the Qwaqwa Malotis to the greater Maloti-Drakensberg.

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Contact the Principal Investigator/Lead Researcher

Prof V Ralph Clark Pri Sci Nat
Director: Afromontane Research Unit, UFS
T: +27 58 718 5407

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Between October 2021 and March 2023, plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates were surveyed during five expeditions to the Witsieshoek Community Conservation Area. Building on this foundation, our team from the UFS (Afromontane Research Unit, Zoology and Entomology, Plant Sciences, Geography, and Agriculture departments) and partners from other institutions in Southern Africa (UNESWA, ARC, UKZN, Univen, Rhodes University, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Albany Museum, National Museum Bloemfontein) have established a multi-taxon and multidisciplinary biodiversity and ecosystem health (soils, rangeland quality, ecosystem services) monitoring programme in the Qwaqwa Malotis.

We plan to co-develop a conservation plan (including rewilding options) for the CCA with all stakeholders, including the managers of the Witsieshoek Lodge – a successful tourist venture (Transfrontier Parks Destinations), the Batlokoa Royal Council that owns the land, and the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area (MD-TFCA).

Research is being conducted over an elevational gradient from 1 800 m to 3 100 m, centred in the Witsieshoek CCA, using adjacent protected areas (Royal Natal National Park and Golden Gate Highlands National Park) as benchmarks representing relatively intact ecosystems. Witsieshoek CCA has enormous strategic importance – spanning the borders of Lesotho, the Free State, and KwaZulu-Natal – being a buffer zone to the Drakensberg UNESCO World Heritage Site, part of the Northern Drakensberg EFTEON landscape (SAEON, 2020), as well as part of the MD-TFCA.

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The ARU at the UFS has established an Alpine research station at the old Namahadi border post with Lesotho, which greatly facilitates research in this unique and unexplored habitat. Early results suggest that new species of plants and animals remain to be discovered in this montane-alpine environment, so far including a new horseshoe bat species and two new grasshopper species.

Contact the Principal Investigator/Lead Researcher

Prof Peter Taylor
ARU Professor-in-Residence
Department of Zoology and Entomology
T: +44 113 343 7169



Contact us

Sithando Jwara

Administrator: Afromontane Research Unit
Private Bag X13, Phuthaditjhaba, 9866, Republic of South Africa
T: +27 58 718 5271
C: +27 73 512 7671