learning about biodiversity Ecosystems

An excerpt from the new Life Sciences curriculum for Grade 11
STRAND: Environmental Studies
Organisms interact with other organisms and with the environments in which they live.

“And ‘tis my faith that every ower enjoys the air it breathes.“ William Wordsworth

TOPIC: Population Ecology CONTENT Interactions in the Environment Predation Competition - interspecific (for light, space, water, shelter, food). - intraspecific (for food, access to mates, water, space, shelter). Specialisation - Competitive exclusion and resource partitioning: One example of coexistence in animals, one example in plants. Parasitism - (Organisms that obtain food and shelter from another living organism at the expense of the other.) Two examples from Southern Africa. Mutualism - (A form of symbiosis in which two organisms exist in a close relationship of mutual benefit.) Two examples from South Africa: both species benefit. Commensalism- (An association between two organisms in which one benefits and the other derives neither benefit nor harm.) Two examples from South Africa: one species benefits. Social organisation (mention only): Benefits of herds/flocks (avoidance); packs (hunting) dominance; division of tasks (castes).

CAPS In January 2012, a single comprehensive Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) was put in place for each subject. As this section of Veld & Flora is specifically targeting the Further Education and Training (FET) phase that incorporates grades 10 to 12, we will be highlighting sections in which Veld & Flora can be used as a resource to complement the FET curriculum. The whole FET CAPS can be downloaded from http://www.education.gov.za/Curriculum/ CurriculumAssessmentPolic yStatements/ CAPSFETPhase/tabid/420/Default.aspx. Be informed Veld & Flora updates teachers and learners on what is happening in the world of science, especially in Life Sciences and Geography. Even if an article is not directly about teaching the curriculum, it will widen your and your class’s general knowledge, and give you a step up the academic ladder. Download this fact sheet and the poster overleaf on the BotSoc website http://www. botanicalsociety.org.za. Shapes and sizes In the table opposite there are excerpts from the Life Sciences curriculum for Grade 11. The poster overleaf will assist in the teaching of ecosystems as it demonstrates how our indigenous trees have adapted to the biotic and abiotic factors in their environment. Our bushveld and forest trees occur in areas that have great potential for ecotourism. Trees can be planted in your school garden but as they are rather slow growing, it would be more fun for your class to plant a miniature garden (see p. 75) that can mimic a larger ecosystem with all its associated interactions and feedbacks, but also provide interest and stimulation for creative young minds. Collect some lichens, fungi or mosses (from a nearby tree or the walls of your school) for the garden. These are wonderful for discussing mutualism as most of these organisms are in a symbiotic relationship. They are also great for investigative and creative writing. (See p. 74).

Living together
The flagship article on p. 56 of this issue of Veld & Flora, ‘Sunburst: Colourful associations between sunbirds and flowers at Kirstenbosch’ by Johan Booyens, illustrates perfectly the concepts of mutualism and urban ecology. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is by no means a pristine ecosystem, yet it protects and ‘showcases’ the splendours of our biodiversity. Anyone can visit Kirstenbosch ABOVE: A symbiotic relationship: and enjoy our indigenous plants and, for the more curious, the Southern Double-collared take a closer look at the incredible interactions going on Sunbird obtains nectar (energy) between the plants and animals (the biotic) and the soils and from a Pincushion Protea, and in climate (the abiotic). turn provides a pollination service to Such interactions are the subject of many studies, such as how the Pincushion. Photo: Johan Booyens. the Cape Spiny Mouse, although it enjoys eating fynbos seeds, is also an important pollinator and disperser of seeds in the Fynbos Biome (p. 66) or how ants and scale insects have developed an amazing symbiotic relationship that enables them both to flourish and ensure that future generations survive (p. 64) even though the relationship might not involve a friendly exchange of food for protection, but just might be that the scale insects are being ‘farmed’ and eaten by the ants. But if you are unable to visit a wilderness area or a botanic garden, these interactions are still taking place all around us. Step outside your front door, and you will encounter nature. Read the editorial of this issue, and if possible, get hold of the book The rambunctious garden by Emma Marris. It will add to your knowledge and understanding of our place in nature and inspire you and your class to become champions of nature in our changing world.

Science needs YOU
The editorial and many of the articles in this issue stresses the need for all of us to get involved in looking after the biodiversity of the Earth. If you live in a city, your observations of the weeds, birds and insects that live on your pavement are as important to science as studies in wilderness areas. Get your class involved with observing, photographing and writing about nature wherever they find it. Send a poster or story on a study that your class has done on local ecosystems to the Editor of Veld & Flora (see address on page 49) and stand a chance to win a subscription to the Botanical Society of South Africa, which includes free copies of Veld & Flora for your school library. We will publish a selection of the work that you send in Veld & Flora.

Come to the party. Miniature champagne glasses made from lichen fruiting bodies on the soil surface in renosterveld. See p. 75. Photo: Eugene Moll.

JUNE 2012



learning about biodiversity Digging in:



There is a great variety of tree shapes, sizes and architecture in southern Africa. Some have fat stems, others are tall and lean, some are short and squat, and others are relatively unbranched. There are trees that have a sparse canopy and there are some with a dense, heavy canopy. The huge variety of forms is a result of evolutionary pressure. Trees have adapted to their environment in many ways. Adaptations are features that animals and plants have that allows them to overcome challenges and live successfully in their habitats.

Surviving into old age:


What are the evolutionary pressures that have resulted in so many trees with this amazing ability to coppice? There are clear advantages for coppicing because if trees are damaged (for example, pushed over in a wind storm or in a flood, or by an elephant, or browsed heavily by other herbivores, or burned) then they can resprout and maintain their space in a highly competitive environment. One must remember that to germinate, grow and get established trees have to endure a huge number of tough environmental pressures. (Read the article The long walk to treedom by Glen Moncrieff, vol. 96(1), 22-23, in the March 2010 issue of Veld & Flora.) Once established, trees would not want to vacate their space, and those that tend to coppice with age have the advantage of being able to produce fresh young growth to replace old and decaying woody tissue; and so also keep their space in the community. It thus confers on trees a competitive advantage. The River Thorn (Acacia robusta) shown above, is a survivor that coppices readily. It is a riverine specialist that is knocked over in occasional flash floods.

What are the biggest challenges for trees?
• Ensuring that future generations survive – this involves pollination, fertilization, seed dispersal and the germination of seeds. • Coping with a whole range of pests and diseases and herbivores – for example, being eaten by an elephant. • Coping with fire and storms. • Competition from other plants for sunlight, water and space. Trees have evolved many ways of overcoming these challenges, and one of their survival strategies is the ability to coppice. Many trees coppice. Coppicing is a survival response to damage by which trees produce substantial shoots from adventitious (dormant) buds that remain hidden beneath the bark until such time as the tree is damaged, or the tree starts to age and die. It is thus a form of vegetative survival and renewal. RIGHT: Close up of a Mdoni Waterberry (Syzygium cordatum) re-sprouting from its base.

Outwitting fire and grazers:


In forest good examples of coppicing trees are African Wild Peach (Kiggelaria africana), Forest lemonwood (Xymalos monospora), African Assegai (Curtisia dentata) and Black Stinkwood (Ocotea bullata). In fact in our South Africa forests almost all the trees are capable of coppicing – certainly when young, but some are able to coppice as an age survival strategy. Notable exceptions are the yellowwoods which don’t coppice, but there is always one exception that proves the rule – the Breede River Yellowwood (Podocarpus elongatus), which is not a forest species but rather a riverine and rocky outcrop specialist in the fynbos (see box below). Old African Wild Peach (Kiggelaria africana) trees, shown above, usually have many young coppice shoots, and when the old stem dies, only one of these coppice shoots becomes the next trunk. Forest Lemonwoods (Xymalos monospora), shown left, on the other hand, often have a few trunks, as when the original single-trunked tree dies it is replaced by two to five coppice shoots that all become big trunks.

In the savannna and bushveld it seems that all trees are capable of coppicing. Examples range from the largest of trees like the African Baobab (Adansonia digitata), and Ebony Jackalberry (Diospyros mespiliformis) to the smaller thorn trees (Acacia), bushwillows (Combretum) and Buffalothorn Jujube (Ziziphus mucronata), all of which coppice prodigiously. Of course all the shrubs coppice too. The Red Bushwillow (Combretum apiculatum) shown left is a vigourous re-sprouter, which is of great advantage in times of drought. Elephants partially knock the trees down and chew the roots to get water. The trees are also subjected to fires and are able to survive thanks to their coppice growth. In fact the whole tree architecture, with its characteristic wand-like branches, is totally adapted to survive such damage. Elephants love the African Marula (Sclerocarya birrea) and break off branches to eat the leaves and fruits, tearing off huge chunks of bark and toppling trees to get water from the roots. As a result the tree’s ability to coppice is a good survival strategy, as you can see on the right where the new branches growing up from the fallen trunk are clearly visible. Above right is a Knob Thorn (Acacia nigrescens) showing recent elephant damage.

Taking advantage:
Humans have used the ability of many shrubs and trees to coppice to our advantage. In Curtisia, if intentionally damaged, the resulting coppice makes excellent spear shafts – hence the common name ‘assegai’, and the Zulu-speaking people have been exploiting this for centuries. There are many other examples. In England, farmers once used coppicing species to establish living hedgerows, and plantations of gums are often managed for coppice growth because they produce more poles per hectare than is possible from one tree.


A low coppice zone:


In South Africa, one region, very rich in plant species, is characterized by the fact that many of the shrubs and small trees present do not coppice. In fact a characteristic of this biome, the Fynbos Biome, is that many of the woody plants are ‘obligative reseeders’ after they are killed by fire. This means that they only survive by producing seeds and cannot coppice or re-sprout. This is the reverse of our savanna and forest biomes. Re-sprouters also have seeds, but young plants are rare as survival is mostly by re-sprouting. So whereas 95-100% of the shrubs in grasslands and savannas (and forests) are re-sprouters, only about 30% of fynbos species are re-sprouters, the rest (about 70%) being obligate re-seeders. The Breede River Yellowwood (Podocarpus elongatus), above, is one of our four species of yellowwood and the only one with the capacity to coppice or re-sprout. A Western Cape endemic, it prefers to grow along rivers in fynbos where it is subject to episodic flooding. When the trees are knocked down in floods, the ability to re-grow ensures its place on the river bank.

Read more
Discover more about our trees in these articles in back issues of Veld & Flora.

The long walk to treedom by Glen Moncrieff, vol. 96(1), 22-23, March 2010. Why do grasslands have no trees? by Julia Wakeling, vol. 96(1), 24-25 March 2010. How we lost the African acacias, vol 98(1), 26 March 2012.

Text and photographs (unless directly credited) by Eugene Moll. Download these articles at http://LABpages.blogspot.com. Please note that we are still using the name Acacia although in the future it will be changed to Vachelia or Senegalia.

What does that mean?
Coppicing The production of substantial shoots from adventitious buds that remain hidden beneath the bark until such time as the tree is damaged basally, or the tree starts to age and die. It is a form of vegetative survival and renewal.

Tree A substantial woody plant with a single stem, usually unbranched for a metre or two, and more than 3-4 m tall. Shrub A woody plant that is many stemmed from the base. (In South Africa our National List of Trees includes shrubs and woody climbers or lianas).

Trees come in all shapes and sizes. FAR LEFT: Umbrella Thorn (Acacia tortilis). RIGHT: The Namibian Kobas (Cyphostemma currorii). Photo: George Preschern.

learning about biodiversity

Earth Star
by Wendy Carstens, Melville Koppies guide and Chairman of the volunteer Melville Koppies Management Committee
Once upon a time in a dark, leafy wood at Melville Koppies, a ray of sunlight penetrated the trees and lit up a shining ball. It lay in the leaf litter of the forest, faintly glowing. At that moment, a tall human in gumboots and overalls came stomping through the forest, in search of alien weeds. She saw the shining ball. She picked it up and placed it in the palm of her hand. The shining ball was lying on a soft star-shaped bed. The human thought it was quite the most beautiful thing that she had ever seen in the forest. She took it home and placed it on a purple mat. The shining ball’s name was Earth Star. It was very unhappy and lonely on the purple mat. The human’s granddaughter tried to console it, but instead she also got sad. The granny couldn’t stand looking at the sad faces so she took Earth Star back to the forest where she had found it. ‘Home at last!’ sighed Earth Star as it settled into its warm snug bed of leaf litter on the forest floor. And the facts Earth Star is a puff-ball mushroom (a fungus in the division Basidiomycota) that appears in leaf litter after rain. The outer covering opens up and peels away like a star. The shining ball inside is the fruit of the mushroom. Tap it gently and brown ‘smoke’ puffs out the little holes that look like eyes. The smoke is full of minute spores – the ‘seeds’ of mushrooms. The seeds will only germinate in the correct environment which is in the leaf litter of the forest floor after rain. The ball gradually shrivels up when all the spores have been dispersed. This may take one or two days.

Fairy gardens
Create a Lilliputian fynbos garden
by Eugene Moll, Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, University of the Western Cape
illiputian or ‘fairy’ gardens are a delightful way to encourage younger children to start to learn about and value their natural environment. Having young granddaughters in particular has made me even more aware of how much pleasure fairy gardens can give young people, and their excitement and imagination is most infectious. Moreover, this is an ideal way to introduce them to the wild and instil in them an appreciation for the intricacies of ecosystems. In a fairy garden, the plants making up the tiny community are all less than 150 mm tall, and the whole garden covers an area of a few square centimetres. ‘Gardens’ like this can be found in many parts of South Africa and are generally, but not always, confined to rocky, shaded areas or on large trees, whose trunks and rough bark provide ideal niches. They are usually best investigated in the wet season for it is at this time that you will find bright green moss species growing on the rock or bark, forming a small, tight mat or covering. Cracks and small crevices can also provide a suitable habitat for flowering plants. The moss and lichen cover provides the substrate (rooting medium) for the taller plants when there are no cracks for soil to accumulate. The gardens I find particularly enchanting are those where the taller plants are species like sundews (Drosera), sorrels (Oxalis), small lilies and irises, and tiny sedges and grasses. In dry areas the understorey can be made up of pebbles and lichens, and occasionally some of the more arid-adapted grey-green mosses that form tight little cushions that are then colonized by small succulents and seedlings of the shrubby overstorey, or some species of annuals and hardy ferns. Certainly in all these places one can find natural bonsais and with thoughtful dialogue one

ABOVE: Earth Star on its purple mat. Photo: Wendy Carstens. BELOW: Earth Star in its natural environment: leaf litter on the forest floor. Photo: Wendy Carstens.


ABOVE: Sundews (Drosera) in a moss bed growing in a seepage area. MIDDLE: A clump of moss with a tiny tufter sedge. BELOW: Tiny Erica seedlings look like miniature fir trees. Photos: Eugene Moll. BELOW LEFT: In drier areas in the Cape you would find plants like ericas, daisies, mesembs and Cliffortia species in your fairy garden.

Granny was right to take the mushroom back as it is part of the ecology of the forest. She also didn’t taste it because mushrooms can be very, very poisonous.

Linking to the FET curriculum In the subject English Home Language for Grade 10, under section 2 ‘Introducing the language’ learners are required to ‘Write and present’ various texts in order to learn how to construct and communicate ideas. Using the format of this magazine story about an interesting mushroom that sends a conservation message to children, your class can learn how to plan such a story, draft it, edit it, proofread it and present it to each other in the classroom situation.

can introduce the young and fertile minds to a whole host of plant-habitat interactions as well as a range of different plant forms and species. You can make your own garden to attract fairies to your home and in so doing, discover the intricacies of plant habitats, ecosystems and specializations on a micro-scale. If you want a moist garden you will need a small fish aquarium or a large jar in which you can build your garden. If you are able to seal the container you will have a terrarium that you will not have to water very often. Once you have a suitable container and lid you will need to collect some rocks and moss from the garden, and look for some suitably small plants to grow in the moss. If you want an arid garden then a flat dish or tray will make an idea base to which you can add and build your basic garden from rocks, sand or pieces of bark. You may even start to bonsai a suitable South African tree. Given a little time and imagination your Lilliputian garden will slowly grow and give you much pleasure, and to add to the fairy ambiance, let your imagination run wild and add tiny artefacts where your fairies can rest, sit or hide. The sky is the limit to what you can do to thrill, entertain and educate the younger members of your family.

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