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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 waives application fees for studies in 2016
2015-10-22

The University of the Free State (UFS) has waived application fees for all prospective undergraduate and postgraduate students - nationally and internationally - who want to study at the institution in 2016.

"Universities charge application fees that vary in amount. With 25 universities in South Africa, this fee becomes a burden for students who want to apply to more than one university. The university leadership has also realised that tens of thousands of students who qualify for university entrance stumble at the first hurdle: finding the money to apply,” says Prof Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector.

According to Prof Jansen, the UFS would like to set an example and a challenge to all public universities to scrap the application fee, so that many more young people from poor communities can realise their dream of accessing higher education. At the same time, the universities will benefit from more top talent coming into higher learning. "The more students that enrol and graduate, the stronger the financial position of universities will be; it is a win-win policy, and the university leadership has done the maths on this," he says.
 
The application fees for 2016 were R235 for South African students and R500 for international students. Prospective students, who have already applied for admission in 2016, will not be refunded. However, students who have already registered successfully for 2016 may apply to have the application fee credited to their tuition fee account after they have registered next year.
 
To support this initiative, UFS Marketing will be conducting an on-site application campaign by visiting East London, Port Elizabeth, Kimberley, Qwaqwa, Kathu, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Newcastle, Durban, Pietermaritzburg, and Ladysmith from 28 August 2015. Further details of the venues in each town will be available on the Kovsie2b Facebook page.

All prospective students currently doing their final-year undergraduate studies at either the UFS or any other university will also pay no registration fee if they want to continue with an Honours degree in 2016. The registration fee for 2016 was R950.
 
The closing date for applications for admission is 31 December 2015.

Apply for undergraduate or postgraduate studies at the UFS for 2016.

For enquiries, please call +27(0)51 401 9111.

 

 

 

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