A team of scientists comprising the University of the Free State-based academic has discovered a grass species that can help maintain the integrity of the ecosystem and contribute to the grazing in the Maloti-Drakensberg area.
The team was in the Drakensberg Mountain Centre (DMC), one of the most studied mountain systems in the region, searching to learn more about the extent of the impact of humans and climate change on the grasses in the region when they made the discovery.
The grass species, which was discovered in March this year, is scientifically named Festuca drakensbergensi, but because the common name for it is not known yet, it is designated the ‘Drakensberg Alpine Fescue’.
The full list of the team 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.
According to Dr. Clark they found the species during the fieldwork across the 40 000 km2 Maloti-Drakensberg area. He said the DMC has “very high endemic plant diversity”, adding that it has “Montane Sub-Centre (below 2800 m) and an alpine sub-centre (above 2800 m)”, which makes it the only mountain system in Africa south of Mt Kilimanjaro with alpine component.
Professor Sylvester said during their field study they could easily recognise the species because it fairly rife in the area and throughout the Afro-alpine landscape. He said even though at that point they only knew it to be a distinct taxon, it was only when they tried to identify it and compared it with other closely related Festuca taxa that they became aware the species was new to science.
He said this breakthrough underlines the significance of “these high-elevation ecosystems”, which serve as shelters of “unique biodiversity that require focused conservation efforts”.
Said Prof Sylvester: “We provide a taxonomic reappraisal of the Festuca caprina complex that will aid future ecological and bio-geographical research in the DMC and allow us to better understand the complexities of these ecosystems and how to conserve and manage them.”
He added that even though grasses are known to be critical in controlling the ecosystem in Afro-alpine grasslands, “they are the least known of all plant species found in these ecosystems”, adding that up until now there has been a lack of focused research on Afro-alpine grasses.
Dr Clark said the species adds value to the grazing and rangeland 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 said. The species is fairly robust and can even withstand pressures from grazing and veld fires, found mainly in both heavily grazed areas and semi-pristine areas, said Dr. Clark.
Emphasising the benefits that this indigenous species have to the region, Professor Sylvester said: “They may [also] prove a useful species as part of a seed mix of native grasses for reseeding degraded Afro-alpine slopes and ski slopes.”
The species is confined mainly in Lesotho in Bokong Nature Reserve, Sehlabathebe National Park, and Sani Pass, and at Tiffendell and AfriSki ski resorts. But indications are that it is likely to distribute to wider areas across the region.
Professor Sylvester said even though the fieldwork has led to the discovery of the Afro-alpine species and expanded their knowledge on the nature and composition of grasses along the Maloti-Drakensberg, a lot of work still needs to be done.
There is a greater need for a better and broader understanding of the alpine zone, said Dr. Clark. He said this is even more necessary given the immediate pressures from over-grazing, land-use transformation, invasive species and climate change.
The Maloti-Drakensberg region is the most important water source in Southern Africa with around 30 million people from three countries relying on it water, said Dr. Clark. He added: “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.”