Fynbos is the term used to describe the vegetation of the South Western Cape Province which is dominated by Sclerophyllous shrubs and boasts a rich diversity of flora and fauna. This paper aims to highlight the geographical distribution and environmental variables of this biome. Its species composition and diversity, threats to the system, conservation status and importance as well as historical context are briefly described below.
Geographical Distribution and Environmental Variables
In South Africa, over one third of all plant species occur in the Cape Floral Kingdom, even though the kingdom occupies less than 6% of the area of the country, it occurs almost entirely in the south-western and southern parts of the Western Cape Province (Miller, 2002). The kingdom refers to the general geographical area and includes other vegetation types in the Forest, Nama Karoo, Succulent Karoo and Thicket Biomes. However, this botanical region refers mainly to the two main vegetation groups namely; the Fynbos, which is more dominant and the Renosterveld (Miller, 2002). Only five other floral kingdoms are recognised which cover relatively larger areas such as the whole of Australia and vast areas of the northern hemisphere. The Cape Floral Kingdom is the smallest of the six Floral Kingdoms in the world (Miller, 2002). It is unique in that is the only one to be contained entirely within a single country (Miller, 2002). It is characterized by its high richness in plant species, with about 8 700 species and its high endemicity of which 70% of plant species are confined to the Cape Floral Kingdom (Miller, 2002).
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Fynbos growth is common in the Western Cape Mountains, valleys and coastal plains. The resultant growth formation is a crescent shaped band from Niewoudtville in the north to Cape Town in the south and east to Grahamstown (Meadows, 1985). The eastern boundary of the Fynbos ends next to the Indian Ocean around Port Elizabeth (Meadows, 1985). Fynbos makes up four-fifths of the Cape Floral Kingdom, which covers an area of less than 80 000 square kilometres (Miller, 2002).
The Fynbos Biome has a resemblance to the vegetation in other Mediterranean climates, which is found on the western side of land masses that have cold ocean currents. These regions have cool wet winters and hot dry summers, therefore Fynbos has had to adapt to wet winters and dry summers giving rise to its unique growth forms (Meadows, 1985). Renosterveld on the other hand tends to occur where rainfall is between 250 to 600 mm per year and at least 30% of this falls in winter (Meadows, 1985). Whereas Fynbos replaces Renosterveld in areas that receive around 600 to 800 mm annual rainfall. Climatic differences from west to east, coast to the interior and altitudinal differences are brought about by the mountains (Campbell, 1983). The western lower mountain slopes experiences cold wet winters and hot dry summers (Campbell, 1983). Further east of the mountain, rain falls throughout the year, especially during Spring and Autumn (Fuggle and Ashton, 1979). High wind speeds also plays an important role in the Fynbos ecosystem (Campbell, 1983). The Cape Super group sandstone and Malmesbury Shale dictates the soil fertility and nutrient availability, this directly influences the vegetation of the Fynbos and Renosterveld (Meadows, 1985).
Species Composition and Diversity
Within the Fynbos region there are five types of growth forms, most of which have small thin leaves. The tallest shrubs in Fynbos are the Proteoids with large leaves which are 1 to 3 metres in height, having large leathery leaves (Fuggle and Ashton, 1979). The Ericaceae family consists of the heath-like ericoid growth form, which has about 3 000 species (Fuggle and Ashton, 1979). It has leaves which are small and mostly hard and the edges rolled under. The restoids consists of about 310 species in the Restionaceae, a family closely related to the grasses and which uniquely characterises Fynbos (Fuggle and Ashton, 1979). All restoids have separate male and female plants. Fynbos has the richest geophyte flora in the world with 1 400 species (Fuggle and Ashton, 1979). Asteraceae which are part of the daisy family, have more than 600 species and are endemic (Fuggle and Ashton, 1979). A shocking feature of Fynbos is the total number of species found within this place, which only occuppies a tiny percentage of South Africa. Small mammals common to Fynbos are Chama Baboons, Klipspringers, Grysbok, Dassies and Mongooses (Meadows, 1985). Only around six bird species are endemic to the south-west Cape, such as the Cape sugarbird and Orangebreasted sunbird (Fuggle and Ashton, 1979). These two birds are found only in Fynbos and play an important role in pollinating flowers of ericas and proteas, from which they drink nectar. Fynbos is not particularly rich in reptiles and amphibians, many of the species living there are both endemic and threatened such as the rare Geometric tortoise (Campbell, 1983).
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The Renosterveld is characterized by the abundance of the Asteraceae family, specifically the species, Renosterbos Elytropappus rhinocerotis, from which the vegetation type gets its name (Campbell, 1983). Renosterveld is abundant of species of geophytic plants and species that belong to the Orchid Family. Due to good soil fertility, it is possible that large game in the Fynbos Biome occurred in Renosterveld. Mountain Zebra Bluebuck, Bontebok, Buffalo, Cheetah and Leopard were common (Campbell, 1983). Only two of these mammals have occurred in the Fynbos Biome in the past, such as the Bluebuck and Bontebok. Only the Mountain Zebra, Leopard and Bontebok are still found in this area. The rest have become extinct in the Fynbos biome (Campbell, 1983).
Threats to the system and conservation
About three-quarters of all plants in the South African Red Data Book occur in the Cape Floral Kingdom, with 1 700 plant species are threatened to some extent with extinction (Campbell, 1983). This number is extremely high for the given area of the Kingdom. Most Fynbos species are ecologically very delicately balanced. They are extremely localized in their distribution, and are endemic to that particular area; even a small scale disturbance may cause the extinction of an entire species (Campbell, 1983). A serious threat is the spread of alien plants such as hakea, the Australian wattles Acacia cyclops, commonly known as Rooikrans and Acacia saligna commonly known as Port Jackson, and Pine trees from Europe (Campbell, 1983). They infest large tracts of otherwise undisturbed mountains and flats, their impact on these extremely localized species are severe. Aliens are the major threat to Fynbos vegetation and its plant diversity, especially in the mountains. On the lowlands and on the less steep slopes the threat is agriculture, new technologies, commercial a forestation, the development of housing projects, farms, fertilisers and crops (Campbell, 1983). As a result of urban expansion many species are extinct or severely threatened. Although fire is essential to Fynbos growth, its misuse can have severe consequences. Fynbos must burn, but fires in the wrong season or too frequently does not allow plants to have time to reach maturity to set seed (Campbell, 1983).
Fynbos areas within the Cape Floral Region are now regarded as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are protected in a number of reserves. The Cape Flats have the highest concentration of Red Data Book species 15 species per square kilometre are in danger of extinction (Campbell, 1981). There are 12 nature reserves (51 099 ha) and four wilderness area (123 115 ha) that are in operation in the Fynbos areas (Campbell, 1981). Development is completely disallowed within these areas. The Hottentots-Holland Reserve at present is the largest reserve at (24 569 ha) (Campbell, 1981). It is estimated that 75 % of South Africa's rare and threatened plants are found within the Fynbos. In the Fynbos biome twenty-six species are already extinct and 1700 species are threatened with extinction (Campbell, 1981).
Conservation strategies should include the conservation of Fynbos within urban areas, control of invasive vegetation by forming hack groups, search and rehabilitation programmes for endangered plants (Campbell, 1981). A major issue regarding the conservation of Fynbos is the potential of the public to protect a rare species by knowing its location. Such knowledge may be exploited, and the species may be subjected to illegal collection and cultivation. However ignorance may lead to the public destroying species (Campbell, 1981).
Fynbos species allow for economic development of the Cape region. Products, such as Fynbos flowers which are sold both dry and fresh for export, especially the Protea. Rooibos tea and honey tea are Fynbos products that are cultivated and exported. Buchu, rich in oil, is used on a large scale production of medicines and as an oil base for perfume (Miller, 2002). Fynbos soil is infertile and nutrients are very scarce, due to the Quartzitic parent rock (Meadows, 1985). Plants have evolved having adapted mechanisms for the efficient locating and absorbing of available nutrients (Miller, 2002). Some species have formed symbiotic relationships with bacteria and fungi. Bacteria stimulates the plant in two ways. Firstly the production of nodule outgrowths on the roots of certain species helps the plant to absorb nitrogen that would not be available (Miller, 2002). Secondly it stimulates the production of dense rootlets to improve the ion uptake efficiency (Miller, 2002). Certain plants have adapted to trap and digest insects by using sticky glandular hairs on their leaves. Fynbos also has about a hundred species of root parasites, which derive their nutrients from the roots of other species (Miller, 2002).
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Some Fynbos plants have defensive mechanisms that give of a pungent smell and forms blisters on the skin which evolved to discourage herbivores (Miller, 2002). Fynbos plants metabolise energetically in the early mornings and late afternoons in order to balance their water content by conserving energy (Miller, 2002). Some Fynbos leaves adapted to form epidermal hairs that increase the sheen of the leaf, thereby making it more reflective and allowing it to withstand the harsh summers (Miller, 2002).
In the fossil record the first Sclerophyllous fossil appeared by the late Eocene in southwest Africa and was derived from a xeromorphic species (Meadows, 1985). This vegetation occurred and adapted in arid to semi-arid climates, which intensified during the past two million years. This lead to vegetation taking root in the current southwest of the country (Meadows, 1985).
To conclude this paper, the Cape Floral Kingdom, boasts tremendous richness off Fynbos life. It has a very delicate environment that is susceptible to numerous external variables. However, this natural kingdom, has a way of regaining its ecological balance. The Fynbos thus poses to be vital to varies plant and animal species including human beings.