SARChI Chair University of Venda

The University of Venda based South African Research Chair in Biodiversity and Change in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve is a vibrant hub for biodiversity science, training and conservation application in the Southern African Development Community – a body of established and emerging researchers, postgraduate and postdoctoral candidates. The Research Chair, co-hosted by the Centre for Invasion Biology at the University of Stellenbosch, is funded by the Department of Science and Technology and administered by the National Research Foundation.

The Soutpansberg Mountains of northern South Africa run from west to east for some 210 km, ranging in altitude from 200 m to 1748 m (at Mt Lejuma); together with the Blouberg Mountains (which rise to 2050m) and the Makgabeng Plateau they form the core of the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve. Rainfall varies from 367 mm at Waterpoort on the northern slopes, to 1874 mm at Entabeni on the south-eastern slopes, resulting in a variety of vegetation types from semi-arid scrub to lush grasslands and mistbelt forests (Hahn, 2002, 2006). Apart from these strong environmental gradients, northern (tropical), western (arid), southern (temperate) and eastern (lowveld) influences contribute to astonishingly high levels of plant and animal biodiversity and endemism. Some 3000 species of plants comprise more than 1000 genera, representing a higher generic plant diversity than the Fynbos Biome. At least 57 plant species are endemic to the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve (N. Hahn, personal communication). Animal diversity is also impressive, with at least 38 known, endemic animal species, including reptiles, frogs, butterflies, snails, bugs, beetles, spiders and scorpions.

Investigating faunal and floral patterns across these remarkable environmental gradients offers an unparalleled opportunity to understand the underlying evolutionary and ecological drivers of these patterns. At the same time, such studies provide baseline data to monitor the impacts of global change on local biodiversity. Altitudinal transects of the western Soutpansberg have revealed in both ants and bats, a hump-shaped pattern in species richness on the northern slopes contrasting with a peak at lower altitudes on the southern slopes (Munyai & Foord 2012; Linden et al., 2014; Linden 2014). On the other hand, species richness of terrestrial small mammals on the southern aspect peaks at higher altitudes associated with the grassland biome (Taylor et al., in press). Scorpion diversity is significantly higher on the northern compared with the southern aspect of the western Soutpansberg, emphasizing the conservation importance of the northern foothills of the Soutpansberg (Foord et al., 2015). Work in progress investigates elevational as well as west-east transects in ground-dwelling insects and arachnids (Colin Schoeman: PHD research) and birds (Dr Steven Evans: postdoctoral research). Whilst most of the work so far has focussed on one transect in the drier western Soutpansberg, new research on bats (Alain Smith: PHD research) and birds (Steven Evans) will investigate elevation patterns across new transects in the central and eastern Southpansberg.

Lajuma peak

On top of Lajuma peak (1748 m)  in the western Soutpansberg



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  • Caswell Munyai Caswell Munyai
  • Peter Taylor Peter Taylor
  • Steven Evans Steven Evans
  • Stefan Foord Stefan Foord
  • Colin Schoeman Colin Schoeman
  • Ian Gaigher Ian Gaigher