A study on an altitudinal gradient investigating the potential effects of climate change on fynbos and the Fynbos-Succulent Karoo boundary
Thesis (MSc (Botany and Zoology))--University of Stellenbosch, 2006.
Global circulation models predict that the Cape Floristic Region (CFR), a biodiversity hotspot, in the near future will be subjected to rising temperatures and widespread droughts as a result of rising atmospheric CO2 causing global climate change. It is predicted that climate change will lead to a southward shift of the Succulent Karoo, a neighbouring more drought tolerant biome, and a possible invasion of Fynbos, the main vegetation type of the CFR, by succulent species. In this research project, the effects of climate change on Fynbos, and the likelihood of Succulent Karoo invading Fynbos are assessed by means of various monitoring and experimental studies on an altitudinal gradient spanning a natural transition between fynbos and succulent karoo vegetation. An analysis of plant species diversity and turnover on the gradient revealed high species turnover between succulent karoo and the rest of the gradient, associated with a boundary between two soil types: shale (associated with succulent karoo) and sandstone (associated with fynbos). Phenological monitoring of fynbos species across the gradient showed how growth of fynbos species is affected negatively by high temperatures, and that low but regular rainfall is required to sustain growth during the dry Mediterranean summer. Retrospective growth analysis of Proteaceae species pairs with contrasting range sizes revealed that small geographic ranges do not signify low tolerance of climate variation, but rather that faster growing species are more sensitive to interannual climate variation than slow growing species. Exposing fynbos species to experimental drought confirmed that faster growing species will be more severely affected by climate change than slow growing species with conservative water use strategies. This experiment also confirmed the importance of rainfall reliability for growth in fynbos species when a naturally occurring prolonged dry period affected some species more severely than the drought treatment of an average reduction in rainfall. A reciprocal transplant experiment exposed fynbos seedlings to both warmer and drier conditions when they were planted outside of their natural ranges in the succulent karoo. Soil type as a barrier to invasion of fynbos by succulent karoo was also tested. Soil type was found to be not limiting to succulent karoo species and competition and disturbance was revealed to be more important in determining the fynbos-succulent karoo boundary than climate. It was concluded that productivity in fynbos will be adversely affected by rising temperatures and that differing responses to climate change between slow and fast growing species will lead to shifts in dominance among species, and consequently altered community structures and vegetation dynamics. Fires are likely to facilitate invasions of marginal habitats by succulent karoo because of sensitivity of fynbos regeneration stages to high temperatures and drought.