First field work of 2017: Eastern Karoo

My co-supervisor Sam Jack and I spent another week sampling sites in the Eastern Karoo last week. Last time we were out was in September last year, sampling the icy cold slopes in Sutherland. The situation this time round was quite the opposite.

The eastern-most extent of the Eastern Karoo that we sampled ranged from Colesberg to Middelburg to Cradock (north to south), and comprises the most mesic (wettest) part of the environmental gradient that my MSc research investigates.

Study area - Eastern Karoo. Points labelled "A" are dolerite koppies that have been sampled.

Study area – Eastern Karoo. Points labelled “A” are dolerite koppies that have been sampled. The blue demarcated area shows the central Karoo (encloses sites 2 – 8) and eastern Karoo area (encloses sites 1, and 13 – 18) designated for shale gas exploration.

On day one, we drove all the way up to Colesberg in the Northern Cape (my first time visiting), a 9-hour drive from Cape Town. We stayed in a quaint little caravan park in a tiny bungalow, and were eaten alive by mosquitoes, despite how well-armed I was with my citronella oil burner. I feel like they almost enjoyed the smell of citronella… Alas.

Itchy bites notwithstanding, we sampled near Colesberg and then went in search of accommodation further east. We ended up in Oviston, a small town on the edge of the Gariep Dam (also my first time). What was interesting to see was how lush the vegetation in the grasslands looked compared to the western reaches of my study area, and of the country in general. The landscape was carpeted in green, with some impressive annuals showing their vibrant faces. After a stay at a farmer’s house between Steynsberg and Venterstad, and a day devoid of sampling due to rain, sampling was fairly easy sailing from then on. We missioned between Venterstad and Cradock, sampling four sites along the way, before heading towards Graaff-Reinet for another site, then to Beaufort West and eventually back home to Cape Town.

We were met with thundershowers more than once and, consequently, very muddy district roads. At this point I will mention that we were driving a bakkie with no 4WD – mud was our nemesis. I had many tiny panic attacks along the way because of this (which I suspect Sam enjoyed just a little bit). We had to postpone an entire day of sampling due to weather conditions (it is not advisable to carry aluminium rods up a koppie during a thunderstorm), which we spent catching up on species IDs, digitizing datasheets, and other work (and also a few sneaky episodes of Planet Earth).

Overall it was a very successful trip. Just one more two-week long trip and I’ll be done with my data collection. At this point I’d like to say thanks again to Sam Jack – I literally would not be able to do any of this without him. He is my mentor, my friend, my driver, my field assistant, my photographer, and my Afrikaans translator and diplomat. This degree belongs as much to you as it does to me. Thank you so, so much.

Read the official article for this blog post on the Plant Conservation Unit website here.

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The Arid Zone Ecology Forum

I was privileged to attend the Arid Zone Ecology Forum (AZEF) in Prince Albert from 3 – 6 October 2016. This year, AZEF celebrated 30 years of research at the Tierberg LTER (long-term ecological research) Nature Reserve. Among the accomplished researchers this establishment hosted are Timm Hoffman (my supervisor), William Bond, Richard Cowling, Mike Picker and Graham Kerley.

From the AZEF website:

The Tierberg Karoo Research Centre was established in 1986, with a 100ha core area in the Prince Albert Succulent Karoo. This site has been a hub of Karoo research over the past 30 years and work at Tierberg has contributed to more than 100 publications on a wide range of topics, including vegetation dynamics, grazing impacts, heuweltjies and rehabilitation. In 2014, the landowner donated the land to the NRF and SAEON has been managing it as an LTER site since then.

The success of the Tierberg LTER is owed largely to Prof Sue Milton-Dean, a botanist, and Dr Richard Dean, an ornithologist, who devoted so much of their lives to its establishment and progress. It was such an honour to meet them, and to hear about their lives and their research. Overall, the conference was such an enriching experience, and I’d like to share some of my memories of it here.

Day one: 3 October

I met up with my fellow conference-goers (Sam Venter, Kervin Prayag, and Elelwani Nenzhelele) on Monday morning. We were all set to leave by around 10AM. After roadtripping from Cape Town by car for four hours, we finally arrived in the quaint Karoo town of Prince Albert. Myself, Kervin, my supervisor Timm, and an internationally renowned arid lands ecologist, Dr Joe McAuliffe (Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, USA), all stayed in the most comfortable little guesthouse called Onse Rus (‘Our Rest’, in Afrikaans).

Dr Joe McAuliffe giving his keynote address

Dr Joe McAuliffe giving his keynote address (photograph by Gigi Laidler)

Some fond memories of the guesthouse include being greeted by two gigantic dogs (named Jackson Brown and Jabulani) and served chocolate cake and tea on our arrival, being seduced by a beautiful black cat throughout our stay, hearing the motivational ‘WOOH-wooooh’ of an owl just outside my window every night, breakfast and interesting discussion every morning with Kervs, Timm, and Joe (I honestly couldn’t have asked for better company), and the gentle smiles of all the staff at the establishment. Having such a peaceful environment to come home to and wake up to really made the entire week so enjoyable and relaxing, despite the long days and the hard work.

That evening was spent at The Showroom Theatre, where the conference was to be held, meeting and making-merry with fellow university students, interns, academics, and researchers from various institutions across South Africa and across the globe.

Day two: 4 October

Tuesday morning kicked off with a keynote address by Dr Joe McAuliffe, shedding some light on his hypotheses surrounding the origins and workings of the mysterious heuweltjie vegetation patterning phenomenon in South Africa. Although the debate is heated, and there are some opposing ideas surrounding the topic within my own department at UCT, McAuliffe spoke clearly and succinctly – even Sue Milton found some clarity on the topic! It’s always interesting when researchers from halfway across the globe bring new perspectives on things we see every day. Just for the record – he’s on the termite side.

After tea, Kervin addressed the audience, presenting his Honours thesis (which is still in progress), titled ‘Do camelthorn trees use sociable weavers to forage for nutrients?’ Despite being the only plant physiologist among a matrix of ecologists, he did tremendously well in explaining his findings very clearly and confidently. The talks thereafter addressed conservation, education, outreach, and renewable energy development in the Karoo. Later that evening before dinner, Sue Milton reflected on the Tierberg LTER and everyone involved in it. It gave some heartwarming and inspiring insight into the amount of love and effort that her and her husband Richard Dean put into their work. I think it’s safe to say that everyone felt a bit nostalgic and strangely motivated after that talk.

Day three: 5 October

Wednesday morning began with a speaker session on livestock grazing patterns and resources. The talks were surprisingly interesting. I had no prior interest in grazing patterns, but I nearly changed my mind after hearing about research which involved the use of innovative technologies such as drones and RPAs to assess the impact of stocking densities, and how high quality livestock is better for improving both the veld condition as well as the livelihoods earned from livestock farming on communal rangelands. It’s always good to know how much difference applied research in these regions can make, not just on the quality of the land and ecosystems, but also on the livelihoods of the people who interact with these ecosystems.

Tea time was reserved for an extended poster session, where I (and about ten other students, including ecologists, social scientists, and systematists) had to stand by our posters and explain them to anyone who found them interesting. My poster gave an overview of my Masters research, and some preliminary results. The few people who came to chat to me all seemed more interested in my sampling approach (Whittaker plots), and I didn’t hesitate one bit to explain how intense, and intensive, the method is for obtaining species richness data. I also had a look around at the other posters (my colleagues Sam and Elelwani also presented posters, on rePhotoSA and more MSc research, respectively), and I was suitably impressed by the quality of work being done in the arid zone. It was all a very enriching experience, and made me throw my anxiety away and just talk to people.

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The amazing PCU team, posing with Joe McAuliffe (second from left) and Helga van der Merwe (second from right). I respect and appreciate every single one of these people.

In the afternoon, we went on one of four planned excursions. The options were the Tierberg LTER, Wolwekraal Nature Reserve located just outside of Prince Albert, a Karoo BioBlitz (which I chose), and a trip to Tarkaskuilen to see some unconventional grazing methods. So you’re probably wondering what a BioBlitz is. Essentially, it’s a few hours spent walking around an allocated area, snapping photographs and recording every plant species observed, and uploading said photographs to iSpot, in the hopes of improving the existing distribution maps for several species. To me, this was the most fun I could’ve asked for.

Here are a few photographs from the BioBlitz:

Day four: 6 October

The last day of AZEF finally dawned. I donned my lucky grey pompom socks (yes, I have lucky grey pompom socks), chucked on the pretty shirt that I had been wanting to wear since my sister gifted it to me in the dead of winter, chugged some breakfast, and seated myself neatly at the end of an aisle of seats so that I could sweat in peace. As you may have realised, I was slightly anxious. Okay, I was a nervous wreck. I barely heard anything that Ute Schmiedel, a highly respected researcher who spoke before me, had to say. When she finished, I heard my name being introduced, my body moved itself to the stage, I couldn’t see a damn thing because of the spotlight shining on my (probably sweaty/oily) face, and I delivered my talk. Honestly, I remember nothing apart from one moment of clarity when I used the laser pointer and said,

“I’d like to direct your attention to this slope, and the adjacent washes of the river here – you’ll see a slight increase in dwarf shrub cover.”

And then I was back in my seat, still sweating, but relieved. When I sat down, I got a funny look from Kervin, and he said, “I think you just won it.”

I didn’t actually think he was right. But whaddaya know, I won first prize for “best oral presentation by a young scientist”. Given that this was the first conference I’ve ever presented at, I was very surprised, but overall quite pleased. I was happy to do Timm proud – he was the one who coerced me into presenting my Honours thesis in the first place, because he thought my work was something worth sharing. Someone once told me that having even just one person truly believe in you is all the motivation you need. I had Timm, my mom, and the rest of my immediate family and friends all believing in me. I’m so ridiculously lucky. At this point I’d like to give Kervs an honourable mention as well: he claimed second prize for best oral presentation. Superb job, Mr Prayag, and thanks for listening to my presentation about three more times, and finally understanding the actual point of it a whole year after hearing it for the first time last year.

The rest of that afternoon and Friday morning was spent exploring Prince Albert a little bit. We visited a beautiful photographic exhibition, went to a really cute coffee shop called Lah-di-dah (where I met my patronus, a calico cat by the name of Grietjie), and then hightailed it back home to Cape Town. It was such an incredible experience, and I am privileged to have met and interacted with all of these inspiring researchers from other institutions. I’m left with a feeling of renewed motivation and eagerness to dive into my Masters research and do my best.

Thank you Prince Albert, you beautiful little Karoo gem.

The Arid Zone

Bit of a delayed start to this blogging business, but here it is: my first attempt at an academic diary.

As an introduction to what will (optimistically) be a prosperous account of my journey through my Masters degree in arid zone ecology, I would like to introduce you, kind readers, to the Arid Zone. Let me begin by saying that when I started my undergrad degree in Applied Biology and Ecology & Evolution in 2012, I had zero idea that I would be devoting essentially 2 years of my life to studying plants in some of the driest places in South Africa. In fact, I was dead-set on becoming a fully-fledged zoologist when I started out. See, the goal was to study zoology and then get a job at the Wolong Panda Sanctuary in China so that I could spend my life among giant pandas, which, to this day, I am somewhat obsessed with. Since then, however, I have been sorely disillusioned in that regard. But luckily, I found a happy niche amongst the botany researchers at the University of Cape Town, and realised that I actually enjoyed studying plants. Quite a lot. And so here I am, in my first year of my Masters degree. Serious business.

I first became acquainted with the Arid Zone during my Honours year in 2015. I had elected to take on a project with Prof. Timm Hoffman, the director of the Plant Conservation Unit at UCT. Possibly one of the coolest projects I could have chosen to do, it involved me getting to dig through incredible archives of lantern slides and black and white prints of landscape photographs taken by reputable biologists of their time like Rudolf Marloth, Margaret Levyns and John Acocks, some dating as far back as 1903. I also got to have a look through John Acocks’ field notes – regardless of how people feel about his sampling methods, his field notes were immaculate, and I wish more people could keep notes like those. I had such good intentions to keep detailed written field notes (with sketches), but time constraints in the field always prevented me from doing so. Anyway.

This research took me to the Tanqua Karoo – the place where two of South Africa’s biodiversity hotspots (the Succulent Karoo and Fynbos biomes), recognised by the IUCN, overlap. Having my first hands-on experience of independent botanizing was what got me hooked on the Arid Zone. Being out there was magical, especially in the company of and under the supervision of someone like Timm Hoffman, who made the entire experience feel like I was in a documentary with the way he could narrate and describe what we observed in the landscape and what the history of those places were. That trip lasted only five days, but the experience was magical enough for me to feel as though I had left a part of myself in the Karoo – so much so that I heartily agreed to take on an MSc once again supervised by Timm and a fellow Arid Zone ecologist, Simon Todd (affiliated with the South African Environmental Observation Network – or SAEON) in the following year (currently).

Having been on several subsequent trips to sites across the central Karoo, I can safely say that I still feel the same way. There is a certain magic about the Karoo that most people, myself included, just can’t put into words.

‘Stuur my Hemel toe, ek dink dis in die Platteland.’ – Fokofpolisiekar