Content provided by Free State University, image by Dr Falko Buschke

The iconic sandstone cliffs of the eastern Free State are often the focus of paintings and postcards.

Now, new research shows they also protect wild plants and animals from climate change.

This finding is the outcome of a collaborative research effort by the University of the Free State (UFS); BirdLife South Africa; the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and KU Leuven, Belgium, which has recently been published in the journal Biological Conservation.

Mountains key for climate change mitigation

The study, led by Dr Falko Buschke from the Centre for Environmental Management UFS, used satellite data from NASA to track the ecological effects of wet and dry seasons, including the record drought of 2015/16.

This showed how vegetation on the cool and moist mountain slopes was less affected by dry spells.

The complex physical terrain allows moisture to accumulate in the shaded parts of the south-facing slopes and ravines.

This creates cool and moist habitats for plants and animals that wouldn’t survive in the rest of the hotter and drier landscape.

The team also discovered that these positive effects of mountains do not end at the foot of the mountain, but extend at least 500m into the flatter lowlands.

“Presumably because water and nutrients accumulate in these surrounding buffers due to run-off,” says Dr Buschke.

Butterflies find safety on mountains

In addition to their high-tech analysis of the area, the team also relied on old-fashioned fieldwork to monitor butterflies over two years.

“The data showed us how these insects find safety on mountains during harsh climate conditions and can then recolonise the rest of the landscape after conditions improve,” explains Dr Buschke. “This gives us clues on the best way to protect nature,” he adds.

This study took place in the Rooiberge-Riemland Key Biodiversity Area (KBA), an area significant for maintaining global biodiversity.

Several species of insects, reptiles, birds and mammals here occur nowhere else on earth.

“If they disappear here, they will go extinct from the whole planet forever,” says Dr Falko Buschke.

Despite its ecological significance, most of the area is covered by commercial farmland.

So, the next stage of the project is exploring ways of protecting these important habitats while ensuring that farmers can continue producing food and supporting rural livelihoods.

“Farmers hold the key to preserving biodiversity,” says Dr Buschke, “so conservation scientists need to work closely with them to ensure that we protect species for future generations.”

The FBIP is funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) under the Global Change Programme, and is jointly managed by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).

Biodiversity data

  • The survey of butterfly diversity in and around Bethlehem inselbergs, in agricultural landscape, has produced 1872 observation data records.
  • The survey was done over a period of one year.
  • The data was well recorded with high accuracy of GPS points and most observed butterflies identified to species level.
  • Of the 1872 records only 59 records contain genus level identification, the rest are at species and subspecies level.
  • The data records contain five families, 33 genus, 34 species and 16 subspecies.
  • This indicates the richness of the butterflies in this area. Figure 1 on the other hand indicate the area which the butterflies were observed.
butterfly map