Ecological resilience at semi-arid and temperate boundaries of the Mediterranean-type Fynbos Biome, South Africa, during the Holocene

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Mediterranean-type ecosystems are amongst the most vulnerable to global change. Threats from desertification are projected due to rapid expansion of adjacent semiarid systems. Changes in fire frequency and intensity can alter ecosystem composition and structure, and potentially facilitate transitions between alternative stable states. Given the outstanding biodiversity of the Mediterranean-type fynbos biome in the Greater Cape Floristic Region (GCFR) of South Africa, understanding of the longterm impacts of global change are particularly important. In this study, palaeoecological data are used to assess the effects of changes in climate, fire and land use on vegetation at the semi-arid and temperate margins of the fynbos biome. Previous palaeoecological studies have shown stable fynbos during the recent geologic past, which restricts interpretation of the long-term ecological processes that determine biome resilience. This study sourced sediment cores directly from presentday fynbos-succulent karoo (semi-arid) and fynbos-afrotemperate forest biome boundaries to emphasise ecological dynamics. Fossil pollen, spores and charcoal were extracted from radiocarbon dated sediment cores to provide proxies for vegetation, hydrology, large herbivore abundance and fire. Constrained hierarchical clustering (CONISS), optimal sequence splitting by least-squares, and Non-metric Multidimensional Scaling (NMDS) was applied to the fossil data to identify distinct assemblages in the record, and to further elucidate ecosystem trajectories through time. At the semi-arid boundary at Groenkloof (5,500 cal yrs BP - near present), decreased moisture and fire from 4,000-735 cal yrs BP allowed colonisation of fynbos by a possible 'no-analogue' community dominated by Asteraceae and Poaceae. From 735 cal yrs BP however, climatic amelioration allowed fynbos to re-establish. The system can therefore be viewed as resilient through a capacity for 'recovery' and persistence through turnover in internal composition of fynbos taxa. This sensitive response to climatic forcing reflects the dominant influence of physiological stress at the semiarid limits of Mediterranean-type ecosystems, as well as a Gleasonian type community composition with loose species associations. In contrast, ecosystem