Boffins track alien invasion

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iol travel may 15 worster

INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS

SA is facing one of the largest problems with invasive plant species in the world, with the fynbos biome particularly vulnerable. PHOTO: SAM CLARK

Scientists from universities and institutions around SA descended into the Klipbokkop Mountain Reserve area near Worcester – where the fynbos kingdom merges with the Little Karoo – to check out the alien invasion.

They were part of the fourth annual Toyota Enviro Outreach project, a 12-day expedition in the second half of last month involving botanists, zoologists, entomologists and taxonomists from the universities of Johannesburg and Stellenbosch, the KwaZulu-Natal and East London museums and the South African National Biodiversity Institute at Kirstenbosch.

It was part of the international Barcode of Life (iBOL) project, the biggest biodiversity genomics initiative yet undertaken, to safeguard our natural wealth and reduce biodiversity loss by creating a digital identification system for life on Earth.

SA is facing one of the largest problems with invasive plant species in the world, with the fynbos biome particularly vulnerable.

The fynbos kingdom, unique to the Western Cape and a considerable pull for overseas visitors, is the smallest floral kingdom in the world, yet it is the most richly endowed with plant species.

This latest Enviro Outreach project was aimed at identifying invasive alien species and to plan the eradication, containment and management of these species before they spread, as well as to help prevent the introduction of these species into other countries.

The search area included the Klipbokkop Mountain Reserve and other montane reserves as well as coastal reserves in the Hermanus and Rooi Els/Kogel Bay areas.

The specimens collected and their DNA barcodes will be available on the Barcode of Life database and will enable rapid identification of invasive species in SA.

The head of the African Centre for DNA Barcoding and professor of botany and plant biotechnology at the University of Johannesburg, Michelle van der Bank, said: “While lots of invasive plant species were collected, including several species of acacia and hakea from Australia, other charismatic fynbos species were also found.

“It was surprising how many native species were encountered in flower, as autumn is not the main flowering season in the Cape.

“After finding half a dozen lilies and as many lily-boring weevil species, the insect and plant team had the amazing luck to find one weevil actually in association with a lily. For the first time we can at least record this association.”

More than 750 species represented by approximately 1 450 individuals were collected, including 450 species of plants, 25 species of molluscs, 32 species of fresh and seawater fish and 250 species of insects.

In Bainskloof, the snail group, which included Dr Dai Herbert of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg, found a very rare and poorly known species (ulbaghiniaisomerioides), which was last recorded in 1800.

This snail seems to be confined to the mountains between Wellington, Ceres and the Grootwinterhoek and belongs to a family of snails, the Dorcasiidae, endemic to south-western Africa. Most of the species live near the coast or in near-desert environments, but this one occurs in montane fynbos.

The fish group, which included Zambian Dr Monica Mwale, a world authority on coastal estuary fish from the Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity at the University of Johannesburg, was excited to identify and collect 10 different species of klip fish out of the known 40 or so species in tidal pools along the coastline.

A rare find was a species of sea barbel in Kogel Bay not known to frequent this area.

The core funding for this barcoding programme in SA comes from the Working for Water programme.

Dr Guy Preston, deputy director-general for environmental programmes in the Department of Environmental Affairs, said: “The ability to identify species with certainty and speed will be critical in our efforts to control invasive alien species.”

- Weekend Argus

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