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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

Lecturer’s debut novel wins ATKV Prize for Fiction
2015-10-14

Dr Francois Smith
Photo: Johan Roux

Kamphoer made its debut on the literary scene just over a year ago, and on 11 September 2015, it was declared the best novel by the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuurvereniging (ATKV). This is not the first time Kamphoer has been recognised as literary gem. Earlier this year, the novel was shortlisted for the W A Hofmeyr Prize as well as the Huisgenoot Tempo Award.

Dr Francois Smith, the author, joined the University of the Free State (UFS) as a lecturer in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, German and French at the beginning of this year. Prior to entering the academic sphere, he dedicated about 11 years of his life to editing for a publishing house. Certainly, helping other people write and produce books thoroughly prepared him for authorship.

For three months, Smith spent eight hours a day creating his award-winning masterpiece. The secret of success lies in the ABC formula. “The ABC for writing is Apply Back to Chair. You have to go and sit down and start typing,” he says.

That is when passion meets imagination, albeit at times, one might also need inspiration. Smith applied this winning formula meticulously, and it has resulted in over 30 000 copies of Kamphoer being sold since July 2014.

He was taken aback by the novel’s warm reception. “I wrote a book, finished it, and knew that it wasn’t bad but I never for one moment imagined that it would be such a big commercial success,” he said.

About Kamphoer

The book which Smith describes as a good but not an easy read about a disturbing subject is the true story of a woman who was brutally raped during the South African War and left for dead.  After the traumatic experience, she dedicates her life to helping others deal with similar ordeals, re-encountering her rapists in the process.

About the award

Kamphoer emerged as an exceptional contribution amongst two other finalists. Kerneels Breytenbach’s Ester as well as Harry Kalmer’s ’n Duisend stories oor Johannesburg were also competing for the prestigious award.


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