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30 October 2020 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Supplied
ARU Researchers on mountain slope
A team of international researchers discovered in March 2020 a new grass species, Festuca drakensbergensis, during extensive fieldwork in the 40 000 km2 Maloti-Drakensberg area.

In their search to learn more about the impact of humans and climate change on grasses in the Drakensberg Mountain Centre (DMC), one of the most studied mountain systems in the region, a group of scientists found a new grass species, which they named Festuca drakensbergensis (common name unknown; herein could be designated the ‘Drakensberg Alpine Fescue’).

The team who is working on the project includes Dr Vincent R. Clark, Head of the Afromontane Research Unit at the University of the Free State (UFS), Prof Steven P. Sylvester from the Nanjing Forestry University in Nanjing, Jiangsu, China, and Dr Robert J. Soreng, working in the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

 

The discovery

The species, that was discovered in March 2020, was found during extensive fieldwork and herbarium research across the 40 000 km2 Maloti-Drakensberg area. The DMC has a very high endemic plant diversity, says Dr Clark.

He goes on to say that the DMC has a Montane Sub-Centre (below 2800 m) and an alpine sub-centre (above 2800 m). “It is the only mountain system in Africa south of Mt Kilimanjaro with an alpine component,” he adds.

ProfSylvester says the species was easily recognisable during their fieldwork, being found fairly common throughout the Afro-alpine landscape. Although at that point they only knew it to be a distinct taxon, they realised that the species was new to science when they tried to identify it and compared it with other closely related Festuca taxa.

Besides this discovery, the team also reinstated two varieties of Festuca caprina and rediscovered the overlooked F. exaristata, all of them endemic to the DMC. Prof Sylvester believes that this discovery highlights the importance of these high-elevation ecosystems as harbours of unique biodiversity that require focused conservation efforts.

Although grasses are a dominant species that control the ecosystem function in the Afro-alpine grasslands, they are the least known of all plant species found in these ecosystems. Up until now there has been a lack of focused research on Afro-alpine grasses.

 “We provide a taxonomic reappraisal of the Festuca caprina complex that will aid future ecological and biogeographical research in the DMC and allow us to better understand the complexities of these ecosystems and how to conserve and manage them,” says Prof Sylvester.

 

This discovery highlights the importance of these high-elevation ecosystems as harbours of unique biodiversity that require focused conservation efforts. - Prof Steven Sylvester

 

 

Adding value

According to Dr Clark, the species contributes to the grazing and rangeland value of the Maloti-Drakensberg. “It also has functional value in terms of maintaining ecosystem integrity and associated water production landscape value in the area,” he says.

“The species seems fairly robust to pressures from grazing and burning, being found in both heavily grazed areas and semi-pristine areas, and may prove a useful species as part of a seed mix of native grasses for reseeding degraded Afro-alpine slopes and ski slopes,” mentions Prof Sylvester regarding the benefits of this indigenous species to the region.

The species is very common in Lesotho in Bokong Nature Reserve, Sehlabathebe National Park, and Sani Pass, and at Tiffendell and AfriSki ski resorts. Dr Soreng believes the species is likely to have a wider distribution range across the Maloti-Drakensberg, than what was documented before research was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Next steps

According to Prof Sylvester, this taxonomic research feeds into a large-scale ecological study looking at the response of Afro-alpine ecosystems to different grazing and burning regimes that is being run in collaboration with Dr Clark at the ARU and Dr Soreng of the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.

“While our research has uncovered interesting novelties and provided a greater understanding of the taxonomy of grasses from high elevation Maloti-Drakensberg, there is still much to be done with regards taxonomic research of cool-season grasses in southern Africa,” says Prof Sylvester.

Dr Clark supports this notion and states that there is a major need for a better holistic understanding of the alpine zone in the Maloti-Drakensberg, given immediate pressures from over-grazing, land-use transformation, invasive species, and climate change.

“This is because the Maloti-Drakensberg is the most important water tower in southern Africa, providing water for some 30 million people in three countries. As the Maloti-Drakensberg is dominated by natural grasslands, understanding grass diversity and ecological behaviour is a primary need in the face of immediate human impacts and global change,” he says.

News Archive

UFS boasts with world class research apparatus
2005-10-20

 

 

At the launch of the diffractometer were from the left Prof Steve Basson (Chairperson:  Department of Chemistry at the UFS), Prof Jannie Swarts (Unit for Physical and Macro-molecular Chemistry at the UFS Department of Chemistry), Mr Pari Antalis (from the provider of the apparatus - Bruker SA), Prof Herman van Schalkwyk (Dean:  Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the UFS), Prof André Roodt (head of the X-ray diffraction unit at the UFS Department of Chemistry) and Prof Teuns Verschoor (Vice-Rector:  Academic Operations at the UFS).

UFS boasts with world class research apparatus
The most advanced single crystal X-ray diffractometer in Africa has been installed in the Department of Chemistry at the University of the Free State (UFS).

“The diffractometer provides an indispensable technique to investigate compounds for medicinal application for example in breast, prostate and related bone cancer identification and therapy, currently synthesized in the Department of Chemistry.  It also includes the area of homogeneous catalysis where new compounds for industrial application are synthesised and characterised and whereby SASOL and even the international petrochemical industry could benefit, especially in the current climate of increased oil prices,” said Prof Andrè Roodt, head of the X-ray diffraction unit at the UFS Department of Chemistry.

The installation of the Bruker Kappa APEX II single crystal diffractometer is part of an innovative programme of the UFS management to continue its competitive research and extend it further internationally.

“The diffractometer is the first milestone of the research funding programme for the Department of Chemistry and we are proud to be the first university in Africa to boast with such advanced apparatus.  We are not standing back for any other university in the world and have already received requests for research agreements from universities such as the University of Cape Town,” said Prof Herman van Schalkwyk, Dean:  Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the UFS.

The diffractometer is capable of accurately analysing molecules in crystalline form within a few hours and obtain the precise geometry – that on a sample only the size of a grain of sugar.   It simultaneously gives the exact distance between two atoms, accurate to less than fractions of a billionth of a millimetre.

“It allows us to investigate certain processes in Bloemfontein which has been impossible in the past. We now have a technique locally by which different steps in key chemical reactions can be evaluated much more reliable, even at temperatures as low as minus 170 degrees centigrade,” said Prof Roodt.

A few years ago these analyses would have taken days or even weeks. The Department of Chemistry now has the capability to investigate chemical compounds in Bloemfontein which previously had to be shipped to other, less sophisticate sites in the RSA or overseas (for example Sweden, Russia and Canada) at significant extra costs.

Media release
Issued by:Lacea Loader
Media Representative
Tel:   (051) 401-2584
Cell:  083 645 2454
E-mail:  loaderl.stg@mail.uovs.ac.za
19 October 2005   

 

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