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26 July 2021 | Story Nonsindiso Qwabe | Photo Nonsindiso Qwabe
On top of the Drakensberg. The ARU and Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge research team are, from the left: Grant Martin, Dr Ralph Clark, Jan van Niekerk, Prof Aliza le Roux, Prof Peter Taylor, and Dr Sandy Steenhuisen.

All mountains around the world have native and non-native species that are expanding their ranges quite dramatically; however, little research has been conducted towards understanding the long-term redistribution of species and the effects of global change on biodiversity.

The Afromontane Research Unit (ARU) on the University of the Free State Qwaqwa Campus – as part of the Mountain Invasion Research Network – has secured a two-year EU Horizon 2020 project under the Department of Science and Innovation, which will be looking at the mechanisms underlying the success and impact of range-expanding species on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.

On Monday 19 July 2021, the ARU took a few of its researchers on a scenic helicopter ride to the summit of the Drakensberg for an alpine field-experiment site inspection of the Mont-aux-Sources peak, one of the highest sections of the Drakensberg range. This site has been identified for the project which the research unit will be leading on mountain research.

ARU Director, Dr Ralph Clark, said the project would explore the effects of global change, biological invasions (when species invade new geographic regions), as well as climate and land-use change. He said experiments were needed to explore the various possibilities and to test the extent to which species respond to experimental treatments. The project would therefore be conducting experiments for two years using open-top chambers – causing an increase in temperature of 3 or 4 degrees to what you find naturally – on plant species from lower down to the top of the mountain, to see how they function. “This will give us an idea of whether they will be able to survive in global warming scenarios. If temperatures get warmer, we might start seeing a lot of plants up here that we wouldn’t otherwise find here.”

Dr Clark said little is known about the long-term monitoring of species distribution and the effects of global change. Implementing the project in the Maloti-Drakensberg alpine area will therefore put the area in the global mountain research arena. The elevational gradient in the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains provides space to explore the key processes underlying the variation in species elevation with climate change. “One of the things we don’t know much about are alpine systems. We are hoping to establish a long-term alpine research site and try to add as many studies as we can. The more science we can bring up here, the more we can know about mountain life. What happens on mountains has a lot of impact on social dynamics.

“This project is looking to see what is driving range expansion. Every mountain has its own context. In the Swiss alpine, fires are not a big factor, but fires are one of the biggest factors on our mountains. Some of our native and non-native species are therefore fire-driven, so as fire increases, you might have them spreading faster.”

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