University of the Free State Range X Project Launch –
19 to 22 October 2021

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Range X project seeks to understand plant species at high altitudes

CAPE TOWN – A research project focusing on the Maloti-Drakensberg range in the Free State aims to better understand the ecological drivers of range-expanding plant species at high altitudes.

It is part of efforts to mitigate the deepening effects of climate change on the environment, with its devastating consequences for communities. It is the first time that such experiments will be undertaken in the alpine context of the Maloti-Drakensberg and this week marked the official launch of the project, with a site visit to the summit of the Maloti-Drakensberg.

Here, at 3 100m above sea level, the researchers will seek to determine whether typical range-expanding species might colonise the alpine zone above 2 800m under simulated warmer conditions such as might exist in the not-too-distant future.

Titled “RangeX”, the project is being undertaken by a multi-institutional research consortium under the Mountain Invasive Research Network (Miren), with Switzerland leading the research.

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) is funding South Africa’s participation, which is being led by the Afromontane Research Unit (ARU) based at the University of the Free State’s Qwaqwa Campus.

Research leader Dr Vincent Clark said little was known about the alpine zone in the Maloti-Drakensberg.

“We could be 100 years behind Switzerland with alpine research, in terms of what we know about the ecosystem. Yet this system is critical for water security for two countries, Lesotho and South Africa,” Clark said.

With climate change and increasing human pressure, it is not known what the system will look like in several decades – whether or not ecosystems will collapse, resulting in total alpine desertification.

“We are using RangeX as a pilot to see if we can establish a 50-year research traction and really understand the system holistically and provide solution-oriented research for this whole environment, including social interventions and geopolitical discussions.”

The research plants comprise a selection of species from the lower parts of the mountain range that show expanding populations. Commonly occurring at around 2 300m, these include indigenous woody plants such as ouhout, non-native woody plants such as firethorns, and a selection of grasses, flowering bulbs and succulents.

The DSI’s director for Earth Systems Science, Leluma Matooane, said that anticipating and responding to environmental challenges and opportunities required both a process-based understanding of range expansions, and a shared understanding of the issues involved among researchers, natural resource managers and policy-makers.

“This and other knowledge, with science-based evidence, is expected to lead to improved policy and management of shifting species and biodiversity,” Matooane explained.