Category: Botany

How you can help save the Karoo

By Sarah Wild, first published by

South Africa’s National Biodiversity Institute is calling on nature lovers to help it save the Karoo — with science

“Scientists know very little about the plants and animals in the Karoo, and there is an urgent need to document the indigenous species found in this important part of South Africa,” says the Karoo BioGaps Project, a citizen science initiative which aims to document the Karoo’s natural resources.

But this vast track of South Africa, which contains a wide range of animal and plant life despite its extreme temperatures and low rainfall, is being eyed for development. Shale gas exploration, solar plants and other infrastructure are being earmarked for the Karoo, to boost much-needed development. But without data, scientists and policy makers do not know which areas require additional protection or to be left alone entirely.

“We need to learn which species are widespread, and which are sensitive to proposed future changes in land use and development,” says the newly launched project.

There are two ways you can get involved in documenting Karoo biodiversity:

You can photograph Karoo species and upload your pics to There is also a community forum where uploaders can discuss photos and observations.

Even if you have no plans for visiting the Karoo anytime soon, you can help to transcribe the thousands of historical records at These treasure troves were collected before conservationists and explorers dreamed that a person would be able to take and share photos with anyone in the world instantly.

“It is absolutely critical for us to digitise these old herbarium and museum records as they are basically unavailable for use by scientists in their un-digitised format,” says Carol Poole, the South Africa’s National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) project co-ordinator for biodiversity research. “The ability these days to crunch large datasets means that including all these historical records along with current fieldwork records is very important.

“They give us a perspective of what species existed where in the past, and we can compare that to where we find these species in the fieldwork being conducted today. So comparing historical and current species records is an important part of assessing species’ distribution and threat status,” she says.

Some of these records date back to the 1830s, and digitizing them will make them accessible to anyone who wants to look at them.

There are 12 main groups that the Karoo BioGap Project is looking to inventory: plants, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, freshwater fish, birds, bees, spiders, dragon flies, scorpions, grasshoppers, and butterflies.

Citizen science is the latest trend in resource cataloguing, but researchers say that engaging non-scientists in this way introduces them to a world that usually gathers dust in archives or allow them to discover new things.

There are a number of citizen science projects in South Africa, allowing anyone interested to choose the project that would suit their interests best.

For example, rePhotoSA, an initiative out of the Plant Conservation Unit and the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape, is collecting photos from around southern Africa to track how climate change and development have altered landscapes. It calls itself a “repeat photography project of southern African landscapes”

For a more hands-on experience, the miniSASS project aims to create an inventory of life in our rivers and dams. The types and numbers of small animals living in our water bodies tell whether that water is in a good condition or not. Based on the SASS (the South African Scoring System), this initiative — which is the brain-child of the Water Research Commission, environmental consulting organisation GroundTruth, and the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (Wessa). This information is then passed on to policy makers.

Asked what volunteers got in return for being part of the Karoo BioGaps Project, Poole says that they will be helping decision-makers on important national issues, such as the shale gas development. “There is also the excitement of being part of history in a way – transcribing these historical records will mean that the transcriber themselves has played a role in history as these digitised records will exist in databases forever.”

One thing that makes the Karoo BioGaps Project stand out is that its managers recognise that sometimes kudos is not enough. There are also prizes for the most pictures and most transcriptions.

Plant dupes dung beetles

It looks like a pellet of buck dung, it smells like one too, but the centimetre-long seed is not dung, and is one of the few proven instances of sensory deception for seed dispersal.

“The smell is incredible,” says Jeremy Midgley, a professor in biological sciences at the University of Cape Town. “From the smell, we should have known there was something going on.”

The relatively large seeds of long-grass-like Ceratocaryum argenteum have such a pungent odour that they fool dung beetles into thinking that they are pellets of dung. The findings of the research were published in journal Nature Plants earlier this month.

Below is a multimedia clip made by Nature:


“As the seeds are hard and offer no reward to the dung beetles, this is a remarkable example of deception in plant seed dispersal,” the authors write in the paper.

Midgley was initially convinced that a rodent species was removing the seeds and eating or burying them. During a field trip to the De Hoop Nature Reserve in the southern Cape, Midgley, UCT small mammal expert Dr Gary Bronner and masters student Joseph White set up motion-sensitive cameras to see what was happening to the seeds.

“We used motion-sensing trail cameras to observe small mammal interactions with the nuts under field conditions, and it seemed that they were either disinterested or even repelled by the seeds,” White says. While a field mouse species ate the insides of the seeds if they happened to be cracked, they did not hoard them.

Instead they saw that dung beetles removed the hard-shelled seeds and buried them, thinking that they were dung. The advantages for the plant are that its seeds do not get incinerated in the fire-prone area and that they get dispersed, but the dung beetle “can’t eat them or lay its eggs inside them”, Midgley says.

The team included University of KwaZulu-Natal professor Steve Johnson, who undertook a chemical analysis of the seeds. He found that the volatiles [the chemicals which create the aroma] were three hundred times higher in the C. argenteum seeds than in seeds of other plants in the family (Restionaceae). “The volatile composition of emissions from C. argenteum seeds is similar to that of the dung of large mammalian herbivores, particularly eland and bontebok,” the authors write in their paper.

But because the seeds are only around for two to three weeks of the year, the dung beetles have not adapted to recognise the different between dung and the C. argenteum seeds, Midgley says. “There isn’t enough time for beetles to get smarter about what is dung and what isn’t.”