Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Historical data add value to BioGaps

The BioGaps project not only has teams of experts going out into the field in the Karoo to collect new data. It also has a team working hard on mobilizing historical data in herbaria, museums and other research institutions.

There are many specimens of plants and invertebrates, relevant to BioGaps, which are not yet databased and thus not usable. In order to be able to use these data for BioGaps, four digitisers started on the project around September last year to either capture label information onto computer, or else take images of labels for transcribing later on.

Three digitisers have been focusing on herbarium specimens only. They are Someleze Mgcuwa stationed at Selmar Shonland Herbarium at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, Sifiso Mnxati stationed at Bews Herbarium at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermartizburg, and Mpumelele Gumede stationed at Compton Herbarium at SANBI Kirstenbosch in Cape Town. The Cape Town digitiser will also be working on specimens at the Bolus Herbarium at the University of Cape Town.


They recently attended a training course at SANBI Kirstenbosch to be shown how to use the new imaging equipment that has arrived. This equipment will speed up the pace for photographing plant specimen labels.

Plant digitisers being trained on how to use the imaging equipment

The fourth digitizer is Tebogo Ledwaba who is stationed at the Ditsong Natural History Museum in Pretoria, and she is focusing purely on bee and grasshopper specimens from the museum and from the Agricultural Research Institute. She has completed imaging all the relevant specimen labels and will now image representative specimens per species. She is also lucky enough to jet off to New York in a few months time where she will image scorpion specimens at the American Natural History Museum.


All images of specimen labels will be made available via SANBI’s new online transcribing platform called Transcribe. Transcribe will allow citizen scientists to assist with capturing label information into useable digital fields.

Once specimen labels are digitized they are ready to have latitude and longitude coordinates assigned to them. For this, BioGaps has employed two geo-referencers, Nkhume Ramavhunga and Given Leballo who are both based at SANBI in Pretoria, and SANBI intern Portia Mailula has also been assisting.


Given hard at work


They have been working tirelessly since last year July in adding coordinates to each data record. They started with datasets that were already digitized and soon will move over to the specimen data made available via Transcribe.

The geo-referencing lab

MSc student Precious Tshililo, from the Univeristy of Stellenbosch, has also help geo-reference grasshopper specimens for her research.


Recently volunteer Jill Earle also joined the team, as well as Lesiba Papo, and with their help we’ll get closer to our data targets for BioGaps.

Overall, there are about 100 000 plants specimens that require imaging of their labels and then geo-referncing, and a further 100 000 already-digitised plants that require geo-referencing. And for the invertebrates there are about 20 000 which require imaging of labels and a further 40 000 that requiregeo-referencing.

The task is large, but with our great team of digitisers and geo-referencers we are sure to make good progress.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Fynbos Endemic Birds Survey

Team spider

Team Spider on the move
Team Spider kicked off their fieldwork in early September for the Karoo BioGap project. The main area of focus was the eastern site because this part of the Karoo had received rain during summer. With rain in mind, the very first sampling day was a wet one. The rain, along with the fact that this was the first of the sites that were sampled, presented a few challenges that were however easily overcome.

Rain moving in towards the sampling site on the first day in the field for Team Spider

Tyrone Le Roux catches his first baboon spider ever!

During the second trip, two spider teams headed out and completed a site together as a training exercise and a bit of team building. The sampling protocol was carried out by each team. Methods such as pitfall trapping, sweeping, beating and active searching proved to be easy with so many helping hands. After completing the first site, the teams went their separate ways to cover more ground. In this way, ten sites were completed and more sites will be done later this summer.
One thing was clear from all the sites visited- the Karoo was very dry and the current drought is extremely serious. Many farmers cannot remember conditions ever being as bad.  The extent of the drought is not fully felt by those of us living in the city. 

Team members learning how to dig up a mygalomorph spider

Both teams hard at work digging in pitfall traps

Team members learning to looking through plant material for spiders collected by beating a tree and a bush

 Robin Lyle and Tyrone Le Roux, one of the teams, out in the middle of the Karoo

team spider

Wednesday, 1 March 2017


By Precious Tshililo

From the 26th September to the 15th October 2016 I went on the first grasshopper collecting trip for the Karoo BioGaps project together with my intrepid field assistant, Paula Strauss, and joined for the first week by Orthoptera taxon lead and my MSc supervisor, Corey Bazelet.  The weather, especially the wind, was very discouraging at first and a few farmers said to me,” good luck catching grasshoppers in this weather!” Three weeks, 5000 km, and 13 sites later, I had bags full of grasshoppers - about 800 specimens of a wide diversity of species - and a huge sense of accomplishment!

I was hoping to find at least a few Euryphyminae, a southern African endemic subfamily which has rarely been studied and which is the focus of my MSc. Based on museum specimens, we suspected they may be abundant at certain times of year in the Karoo – but we had no idea how to predict when and where to find them! Not only did I find a huge diversity of Euryphyminae on this trip – some of which I hope may be new species to science – but I was surprised by the large diversity of stone mimicking grasshoppers (Pamphagidae) which were present at this time. The females of these species are flightless and camouflage perfectly with the Karoo’s bare ground and stones, while the males are often fully-flighted and sing loudly at night to attract their mates.

Besides getting too much sun, getting lost, getting startled by “toads” or “stones” which turned out to be grasshoppers, and getting sore from all the exercise chasing grasshoppers (some grasshoppers fly like birds!), in hindsight I can safely say that the fieldwork was a great success. Our predictions that the Karoo would house a diverse, abundant and endemic grasshopper assemblage of arid-adapted species seems to (luckily) be true! The timing of the trip was also excellent, with most grasshoppers’ already young adults which are much easier to identify than nymphs.

Grasshoppers are definitely more diverse and abundant in the Karoo than someone would expect when seeing the sparse vegetation and dry habitats – after all aren’t grasshoppers supposed to be found in grass?  Now, I can’t wait for the next field work session!!! I have my running shoes ready and I can’t wait to see what else I find.






Pamphagidae - mating pair