Thursday, 17 August 2017

Monday, 31 July 2017

Karoo Biogaps Project Needs Your Help

by Silvia Kirkman 

You can help the Karoo biogaps project by transcribing data from museum and herbaria collections using the online platform

Why do we need help transcribing? 

There are thousands of historical museum and herbaria specimens collected before the time of computers! The information in these specimen records is critical to understand previous distribution patterns of species, but the information is inaccessible if it remains in hard copy only. We need to digitise all museum and herbaria records so that scientists can analyse the data. Photographs of the specimen have been uploaded onto this website, but we need your help to type the data from the specimen label into the database. By doing this transcribing, you are helping to make species information as old as 1830 available to scientists and the general public!

Monday, 26 June 2017

BioGaps Scorpions Fieldtrip

By Lorenzo Prendini

The first BioGaps Scorpion Fieldtrip was conducted during from 17 to 28 February, 2017, by Lorenzo Prendini, Curator of Arachnida and Myriapoda at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and field assistant, Reginald Christiaan, from Soebatsfontein, Namaqualand, Northern Cape. The trip was planned for the period between last quarter and first quarter of the lunar cycle in the summer, usually a time when scorpions are active and abundant at night in the Karoo.
Eleven compulsory 1 x 1 km2 sample sites were surveyed for scorpions. In an effort to collect scorpion species within pentads that were not found in the eleven compulsory sites, another twelve sites, falling within the eleven compulsory pentads and one noncompulsory pentad, were sampled in addition. Therefore, 23 georeferenced sites were sampled in total.

Collecting was conducted at night with ultraviolet (UV) light detection, and augmented by rock-rolling and burrow excavation during the daytime. UV light detection involves walking and scanning the ground with powerful long-wave UV-emitting LED flashlights. Work began at sunset and continued until midnight or later (ca. 2 am), depending on scorpion surface activity and weather conditions. Each sample site was traversed twice by both investigators, walking in different directions. All scorpions observed were captured with forceps and preserved directly in bottles of ethanol. Tracks walked within the compulsory sample sites were recorded with GPS.

Prendini and Christiaan camped out within many of the sample sites because this was more convenient for collecting throughout the night. However, in some cases, they stayed in nearby accommodation, mostly provided gratis by the landowners. At two farms, they camped overnight in a large skuur (shed) to avoid heavy rainfall. Landowners were very hospitable and interested in the project. Several invited Prendini and Christiaan in for coffee or dinner. Two couples accompanied the investigators into the field to collect scorpions at night! Unfortunately, cold and/or rainy weather on several nights, as well as extremely dry conditions following a prolonged drought across the western part of the Karoo, reduced the number of specimens collected to lower levels than expected. Scorpions were more abundant further east (notably in the Victoria West District), following recent rains.

The count of species collected per pentad varied from three to eight (average five), which is typical of the Karoo, based on a decade of research in the region by Prendini. Therefore, in spite of the weather, it appears that all or most of the species present in each pentad were recorded. The most diverse pentad, with three genera and eight species, was 3105_2245 (Biesiebult). This pentad included a considerable range-extension for Parabuthus nanus, previously known only from Bushmanland and southern Namibia. The diversity of this pentad may be attributed to the heterogeneity of the landscape, which provides a range of different habitats for scorpions, including rocky hills, sand plains, and clay pans.

Altogether, the identified material collected across the 23 sites and twelve pentads comprises sixteen species, in two families and three genera, i.e., two genera and eight species of thick-tailed scorpions (Buthidae: five species of Parabuthus and three species of Uroplectes) and eight species of burrowing scorpions (Scorpionidae: Opistophthalmus). The trip resulted in 106 presence-only records. Among the highlights were a possible new Opistophthalmus species and one of the smallest species of South African scorpions, Uroplectes ansiedippenaarae, both collected in the Tankwa Karoo.

Lorenzo Prendini and Reginald Christiaan thank the NRF BioGaps project for funding which supported expenses on the ground; Gigi Laidler for assistance with planning, logistics and contacting landowners; and the landowners for their hospitality and assistance: Elias and Elsje Basson, Johan and Carine Botes, Jaco de Bruyn, Hendrik and Melissa Cloete, Basie Esterhuyse, Loues and Sunette Hoon, Gerda Kellerman, Pieter, Carin and Elmer le Roux, Grant Middelton, Jan-Roux and Sandra Schlebusch, Tiaan Schoeman, Andre van der Merwe, Neil and Riaandra Viljoen, Hennie Visagie, Marge Vivier.

                                    Karoo campus site at dusk

Searching for scorpions in the Karoo

Lorenzo Prendini digging scorpion burrow

Opistophthalmus pallipes

Opistophthalmus burrow entrance

possible new species of Opistophthalmus from Tankwa Karoo

Uroplectes ansiedippenaarae

Uroplectes ansiedippenaarae with ant for size

Lorenzo Prendini holding Opistophthalmus burrowing scorpion

Reginald Christiaan holding Hadogenes rock scorpion close up

Stegodyphus social spider

Reginald Christiaan holding Hadogenes rock scorpion

Uroplectes carinatus

Monday, 8 May 2017

Karoo Biogaps experience

By Thaakira Samodien

Our first pentad was Rietfontein farm, South of Colesberg. The weather was extremely humid and the sun was at its peak while we were out in the field. The first plant species that stood out for me as we drove to our site was the Brunsvigia radulosa. Its shape, size and beautiful colour caught my eye immediately and I was in utter awe that such beauty exists in the Karoo. As we got to the site, we got all our equipment ready and started our day. I was amazed at how many different species there were that were flowering. Aspalathus, Selago, Hermannia, Jamesbrittenia, Gnidia, and lots of different grasses were some of the species that we collected on the first day. In total we found about over 130 species on the first day. 

The second day was the best Karoo experience I had. This site was on Doornberg farm in Nieu Bethesda. It was a beautiful hot day and we found lots of special flowers. Although it was hot, it rained while we were in the field which made the day even more special. The site was a beautiful site; flat dry land with hill tops filled with lots of grasses. We reached a river area as well where we found different types of Cyperus and dragonflies. My favourite flower that we found on that site was a tiny little Hermannia species. We called it Hermannia candy-like, because its colour was a combination of white, yellow and a reddish-pink.

The next few days it rained quite a bit which made some of the sites very difficult to gain access to, but we still managed to collect some species on the wetter sites. 

We found some succulents and more grasses. We saw lots of different Aloes; Aloe ferox, Aloe broomii and Aloe striata. The flora field trip experience overall was amazing and fulfilling. Being a part of the BioGaps project has taught me a lot and it gives me motivation to do more to protect the flora of Southern Africa. 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Behind the scene supporters of Team Spider-by Robin Lyle

Fieldwork is the fun, hard and dirty part of an arachnologist’s job. However, have you ever wondered what happens to the spiders once they are collected? As part of the Karoo BioGap project, all spiders collected are deposited into the National Collection of Arachnida (NCA) that is housed in the Biosystematics building at the Agricultural Research Council.
Background of the collection
The National Collection of Arachnida (non-Acari) was established in 1976, the under Plant Protection Research Institute, which later became the Agricultural Research Council. It was established by Dr Ansie Dippenaar-Schoeman and is a comprehensive and fast growing collection in South Africa. It contains 70,200 accessions represented by approximately 210,600 alcohol-preserved specimens. Sampling of spiders has focused mainly on South Africa.
The NCA is one of South Africa’s Agricultural National Public Assets and it is maintained on behalf of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The collection contains a wealth of information, ranging from taxonomic names, biological and biogeographical information.

Process of accessioning a specimen
A specimen collected in the field follows a set procedure before it is included in the NCA. These steps are as follows:
1.       Specimens are sorted and placed into a glass container suitable for the collection.
2.       Specimen is identified to include order, family, genus and species name, where possible.
3.       Specimen information is written into a catalogue and given a unique accession number.
4.       Correct locality and identification labels, including accession number, are generated.
5.       Specimen and all associated data is captured into the NCA database.
6.       Specimen is stored in the collection.

The people behind the scene at NCA

The growth and upkeep of the collection is always ongoing. The National Collection of Arachnida is lucky to have a small team that helps in this task.

 Ezekia Sgudhla (left), Joel Mooka (middle) and Sma Chiloane (right) help with different aspects of accessioning a specimen. Responsibilities include basic sorting, label generation and identification to family level. 

Petro Marais (left), the collection manager of the National Collection of Arachnida, and Maggie Menyatso (right) who is responsible for databasing accessioned specimens. 

Small impoundments: a necessary evil for fish conservation in a global biodiversity hotspot

Small impoundments represent one of the most widespread anthropogenic changes to the riverscapes in the Cape Fold Ecoregion (CFE) at the southern tip of Africa - a region which originally lacked natural standing water bodies. These impoundments were primarily built for agricultural and livestock farming and have proliferated with increasing demand for water. Consequently, there are few free-flowing streams in the CFE. Construction of small impoundments has been widely documented to have serious ecological and biodiversity impacts, including changes in hydrologic regimes and fragmentation of historically connected populations of stream-inhabiting fishes, with adverse effects on their genetic characteristics. Small impoundments have also created favourable habitats that have facilitated the proliferation and spread of non-native species. 

While these negative impacts cannot be denied, observations and preliminary results from a recent comprehensive survey of the Great Fish River system by researchers and students from the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity and Rhodes University are showing that small impoundments can also benefit biodiversity. This survey was conducted in January 2017 as part of Delsy Sifundza’s MSc research (funded by the NRF-FBIP Karoo BioGaps Project) to map the distribution and determine the status of remnant populations of the Eastern Cape Rocky, Sandelia bainsii (Figure 1). The Eastern Cape Rocky is a highly threatened endemic stream fish which has been listed by the IUCN as Endangered since 1987 due to rapid decline in population sizes and severe decline in its historical distribution range.

A picture of the Eastern Cape Rocky, Sandelia bainsii, showing the species’ live colour pattern.

Our survey indicated that the Kat River is the remaining stronghold of the Eastern Cape Rocky in the Great Fish River system. The survival of this species in the upper section of the Kat River has been facilitated by the presence of several impoundments of various sizes (Figure 2) which have prevented the spread of non-native fishes, such as the sharptooth catfish, small-mouth yellowfish and banded tilapia which are now dominant in the mainstem Great Fish River. Sandelia bainsii was abundant at sites above the weirs that formed the upper limit of non-native fishes in the Kat River. In these river sections, S. bainsii occurred with three other native fishes of the Great Fish River system: Labeo umbratus (moggel), Enteromius anoplus (chubby head barb) and Glossogobius callidus (river goby). Some of these impoundments are therefore likely to have formed effective barriers that could have protected the genetic integrity of the original L. umbratus genetic lineage in the Great Fish River which is threatened by potential hybridisation with a genetically distinct lineage of this species that was introduced into the Great Fish through the Orange-Fish tunnel Inter-Basin Transfer. The Kat River therefore represents an important sanctuary of highly threatened endemic fishes of the eastern CFE and should be prioritised for protection. There is critical need for building awareness among the communities to prevent the spread non-native fishes in the Kat River catchment. There is also need for establishing collaboration between researchers, conservation authorities and the local farming communities and land owners to identify the weirs that are preventing the upstream migration of non-native fishes to ensure that they are effectively secured and protected from potential breach or flood damage.

 A. A major weir in the lower Kat River close to the confluence with the Great Fish River is an impassable barrier for fishes from the mainstem Great Fish; B. a moderately sized weir in the Upper Kat where the lower distribution limit of Sandelia bainsii was recorded during the survey in January 2017.  

Research Team
Miss Delsy Sifundza (MSc candidate, Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science, Rhodes University)
Mr Tadiwa Mutizwa (MSc candidate, Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science, Rhodes University)
Dr Albert Chakona (South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity)
Dr Wilbert Kadye (Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science, Rhodes University)

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Team Mammal's surveys for BioGaps-Zoe Woodgate and Nadine Hassan

It constantly amazes me how time flies. Indeed, our months spent trapesing across the Karoo feel like a lifetime ago- and yet we’ve only been back home for three weeks.

Since October last year, Nadine Hassan and myself have been surveying the Karoo for mammal species as part of SANBIs Karoo BioGaps project. In total we’ve been on five fieldtrips, with each one taking a few weeks due to the great distances we needed to transverse each day. To help us in this end the EWT Drylands programme kindly lent us their vehicle for the duration of the fieldwork. The Mazda (affectionately known as ‘Karoo Bean’) has been both gutsy and reliable.

The two main tools of our trade, so to speak, are camera traps and Sherman small mammal traps. Camera traps stand on an allocated site for a minimum of 30 days, dutifully taking photographs of all that moves past. Interestingly, whilst many photographs were of the usual suspects (steenbok, kudu, black-backed Jackal, scrub hare and the like), there were the occasional novelties. In particular rock monitor lizard, secretary bird and bush pig made cameo appearances. As expected, the sheer amount of data collected has been immense. Approximately 400 gigabytes of photographs lie in wait on my hard-drive. As one can imagine, going through them all is proving to be quite the challenge.

Nadine’s Sherman traps have produced equally important data. At each site she patiently baited and left 120 traps overnight, scattered amongst the various micro-habitats available. Pre-dawn every morning we checked each one, carefully processing and releasing any live captures. What a pleasure to be up close and personal with these fluffy creatures, whom are so often over-looked in mammal surveys. Despite the drought Nadine captured at least 10 micromammal species. The most cosmopolitan species for the drylands, the Namaqua rock mouse (Micaelamys namaquensis) was found around the various rock formations that characterise much of the Karoo landscape.

As winter approaches it becomes too cold to sample for the small mammals. Thus for now we must take a step away from the Karoo and turn our attention back towards our laptops. Fieldwork was only half the story- now begins a rigorous session of data cataloguing and analysis. Nonetheless we are both excited to see the result of our hard work, and eagerly await our next fieldtrip come spring.