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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

Letter to students from Prof Jonathan Jansen about student protest action at the UFS
2015-10-21

Dear Students

Student protest action at the University of the Free State

I wish to make clear that the senior leadership of the University of the Free State understands and supports the demands from students and their leaders that higher education be accessible to all students, especially the poor. For the past six years we have done everything in our power to meet that commitment to students who are academically talented, but simply cannot afford to pay; that is why our tuition fees remain among the lowest in the country. Our efforts to raise private funding have enabled thousands more students to study at the UFS than would have been possible on the government subsidy only. Whether it is the Staff Fund contributions (yes, our staff empty their pockets to support student fees) or the No Student Hungry (NSH) bursary programme (yes, we raise funds for food bursaries), we will continue our drive to fund students who cannot afford higher education. Let me repeat, no student with a solid academic record will be denied access to studies simply because they cannot pay.

Now, to the matter at hand. There is a national demand from students for a 0% fee increment for 2016. The Minister’s response, after consultation with stakeholders, was that universities should cap their 2016 fee increases at 6%. Despite this initiative from government, the protests continue on virtually all campuses across South Africa for the ‘no fee’ increase.

Our response, as the UFS leadership, is to continue engaging the SRC as the chosen leadership of our students in trying to negotiate a settlement on the matter. We have worked around the clock to be available to student leaders to find some resolution on 2016 fees. While we understand the demands of students, as university leaders, we can only work with the government subsidy we receive. Any agreement reached, cannot and must not place the university at academic and financial risk in its ability to deliver public higher education to the country - if that happens, everybody loses. Still, no matter what happens in terms of the response from government, the leadership door at the UFS remains open to finding a mutually acceptable solution to all parties in these deliberations.

Students, we are deeply concerned by the violence, intimidation and threats from the small group of protesting students. These dangerous and demeaning behaviours, like disrupting classes and verbally abusing students and staff, undermine the legitimate quest of students for relief concerning tuition fees. Such behaviour is completely unacceptable and the university will take action where required. We must also remember that we have an obligation to all 30 000 students whose right to learn without fear of violence and intimidation must be respected.

In conclusion, over the past few years we have worked hard to build a culture of mutual respect and embrace as we worked through some very difficult challenges on campus. You would have noticed that the university leadership responded quickly and sympathetically to reason and respect in difficult situations of rage and demonstration. A minority of students, with some outsiders, have come onto the campus to break down that culture in which, while we might disagree, we continue to work on the basis of mutual respect. I urge all students that, as we engage of this important problem of enabling greater access to higher education, we continue to remain true to the core values of our Human Project.

Best Regards

Prof Jonathan Jansen
Vice-Chancellor and Rector
University of the Free State


Letter to students from Prof Jonathan Jansen about student protest actions at the UFS (Pdf format)

 

 

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