In sugarbird valley we picked up this leopard, which appears to be a young male that does not match any of our known leopards.
In sugarbird valley we picked up this leopard, which appears to be a young male that does not match any of our known leopards.
Fire, fynbos and felines
A team from Biosphere Expeditions has spent the past month trying to understand how fire affects a range of species from flowers to felines, in the fynbos area of South Africa. The study site (Blue Hill Nature Reserve) was impacted by a wildfire in early 2017, and whilst many may view this as destructive, it offers a unique research opportunity to assess how fire impacts this ecosystem.
The Cape Floral Kingdom (fynbos) of South Africa is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and as such a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is dominated by a fire-driven ecosystem – the fynbos biome with unsurpassed botanical richness: 7,000 of 9,000 plant species that are found here are endemic. In theory fire should be a positive force.
It is in the flower-filled Cape Fold Mountains that the Cape mountain leopard is also found – a leopard half the size of the savannah leopards of Africa, but with home ranges twice the size. As project scientist, Dr. Alan Lee says “despite the importance of fire in driving ecological patterns in the fynbos, the role of fire on determining population sizes or land use patterns of many mammal species (including leopard) is poorly understood”.
Leopards are iconic and awe-inspiring creatures. They are the last remaining apex predator in the fynbos, where once lions roamed. As well as surveying leopard distribution (via a camera trap networks), the team have also been conducting vegetation surveys, small mammal trapping, bird and bat surveys – to better understand the affects of fire on the habitat, prey base for leopards and other ecosystem components.
“Understanding the impact of fire on feline predators is really important” says Dr. Lee, “there is mounting evidence to show that smaller predators, e.g. black-backed jackal and mongoose species, are more common when leopards are rare or absent. Black-backed jackals are notorious stock predators, resulting in significant numbers of small stock loss per year: especially in the Karoo area adjacent to the fynbos – an area where leopards are largely absent”.
“Better understanding the pieces of the fynbos puzzle is vital” says expedition leader Dr. Craig Turner. “It is a slow process, but critical process, if we are to better protect Cape leopards”.
The team still has much data to process, but highlights of the past month of field research include:
A selection of pictures (c) Craig Turner from the expedition is below:
That’s all folks. Once again we must call time on our expedition in South Africa. Our citizen scientists have departed, the kit is packed and now I must make my travels north, back to Scotland. But what a month in the fynbos it has been – expeditions never fail to surprise me – they offer difference, diversity, discovery, data and sometimes adversity.
Before we talk about the discovery and data, let me initially offer some thanks. First off, to our participants, who stepped up to the daily challenge of data collection to achieve our collective goals of better understanding the ecology and conservation issues of the fynbos. Thank you for your contribution towards advancing knowledge, and making this expedition a success.
Before that, we owe a big thank you to Melda, Gurli and Barbara, for the continual provision of culinary delights, and their botanical wisdom! A big thanks also to John and Lizzie, for sharing their time, knowledge and enthusiasm for the Cape rockjumper work and all things avian. We would also like to thank the extended Lee family (Anja, Elli, Charlie, Chris & Elaine), for not just hosting the expedition, but their un-ending hospitality. And finally, our enormous collective thanks go to Alan, our leader in all things scientific. It is indeed a privilege to share in your world and work with such a dedicated scientist and committed conservationist.
So what of the success I mentioned? Well, success is a strange metric to measure when it comes to expeditions. It is influenced by the people you meet, the experiences you have, the challenges you overcome…to mention a few. Ultimately, it is perhaps most dependent on your expectations.
The expedition’s expectations focussed on a few key field research activities. Of course much data still need to be crunched from the various field surveys and just think of all those camera traps still clicking and collecting data….long beyond our departure. But what have we achieved in the past month?
In case you have forgotten, here are just some of our highlights:
In isolation, these may just seem like bits of data, as field research rarely gives us instant results or fast answers to our bigger questions. To paraphrase one of our participants, we are simply uncovering and fitting together small pieces of the fynbos puzzle. And as we slowly put them together, we will reveal a bigger picture of how this fire-driven ecosystem works and sustains the larger predators such as Cape leopards. Arguably, only with this knowledge can we adequately conserve them.
So to my mind, with this bounty of new information, we have been more than successful. I refer you to one of the earlier blogs at the start of the expedition, when we set out Alan’s aims and expectations. We have achieved all of these, and more. No matter whether you are a citizen scientist, scientist or expedition leader, we all go on expeditions with a varying mix of nerves, hope and expectation. If your expectations are realistic, then with a bit of graft, success is often forthcoming.
Thank you for all your efforts and I, for one, look forward to returning next year.
Best wishes to you all
The devil is the detail, when it comes to expeditions. This is true of the planning, organisation and execution of most of the fieldwork. The latter also requires a combination of hard work, flexibility, patience and luck. Particularly when you are trying to get data on Cape leopard and caracals.
We are all realistic that only the ‘lucky’ will encounter them face-to-face. However, we have technology on our side, in the form of camera traps. The ‘detail’ is picking where to locate them, so you have to think like a cat and site them where they will hopefully pass. These camera traps give us ‘eyes’ in the field in multiple locations, over a huge area and every hour of the day or night.
We also have the eyes of our team in the field every day, also looking for signs of these predators, which can range from tracks to scratched trees to scat. We have all been issued with ‘scat bags’, so potential leopard scat can be collected, verified by DNA analysis, and in turn help build a DNA database, to track movements of leopards – dead or alive. A powerful conservation tool from such small evidence.
Detail in scientific or conservation terms often equates to data. Whether this comes from our mammal mapping, small mammal trapping or camera trapping, it all helps to inform our understanding of how leopards, caracals and other species (often the prey base) use the fynbos environment. However, we shouldn’t become fixated on the predators, as we are also here to understand the wider biodiversity of this environment, which includes the ongoing work on the bird and vegetation. After all, we are not on safari, where we are spoon-fed the big five from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus.
The weekend did give us a new understanding and a chance to get some historical perspective on the landscape. A morning walking to some rock art sites and viewing some stone artifacts (e.g. stone hand axes) from the wider area gave us alternative appreciation of how people and wildlife once used and survived in this landscape.
Our modern day ‘survival’ in terms of fieldwork at least, is often vehicle dependent. It’s a long walk over tough terrain to most of our field sites, so vehicles are vital, but things go wrong. And an afternoon fixing the rear shock absorbers on one of our field vehicles (thanks Steve) was another detail that needed addressing but means our fieldwork can continue into its last week.
So as we enter the home straight of this year’s expedition, we already know the team’s hard work and patience in the field has delivered some great data. The checks on the camera traps will now begin and fingers crossed we’ve got the detail of the set-up right. We just need a bit of luck on our side to reveal more data on our target species.
There is much good news to report. Firstly the weather has warmed again, with murmurs of it now being too warm for fieldwork….is that possible?
Despite the climatic yoyo, our fieldwork programme is now in full swing, with at least two more honey bush monitoring sites being established and data recorded. The mammal mapping programme continues to document the distribution of most mammal species across the Blue Hill Reserve. Both surveys benefit from the aid of technology, using bespoke Android Cybertracker apps for data entry. We always hope we have some Android users in the group – thank you Tobias and Elena.
But the mammal mapping doesn’t cover all species. For the bats, technology is again our friend, as high frequency microphones can be plugged into iPhones or iPads (who are we to not share stuff equally between the greedy corporate giants). Combine these with the magic of a Bluetooth GPS and a bat identification app, and we can detect and map that which we can’t even see! Finally, smartphones can live up to their name and be positive force for conservation research.
You still have to walk the walk tough – well, do the 2 km transect at night. But that just offers more opportunities to map nocturnal mammals. And who knows when you may bump into a cat! Despite this ‘incentive’, it is still a tough ask if your day in the field started at 06:30 (or earlier).
However, no amount of technology is substitute when it comes to small mammals, as live traps are still the default preference. Our trapping programme has continued, repeating the survey of 2016. The surprise is our capture rates have almost doubled, and again we are recording species not previously documented. Next week, we will trap completely new site, so have high hopes.
I will let our scientist (Alan) crunch the data to see if the results thus far are a function of the recent fire? There is still much to learn about how the fynbos functions and supports such a diverse fauna.
The ‘Carnivores of the Cape Floral Kingdom’ expedition continues to evolve and expand, and for the first time we can extend a warm welcome our second group of citizen scientists. It’s great to be able to double our time in the field this year.
The team all arrived safely. With initial introductions, risks assessments and briefings completed, we stretched our legs with a brief orientation around Blue Hill Escape – the team’s new home for the next 12 days.
Alan kicked off the initial scientific training with an overview of the mammal mapping work, where we are trying to build a spatial database of mammal sightings to compliment the results collected by the camera traps. The team were also introduced to a range of equipment that will become their tools of the trade. The day was rounded off with some mammal identification training, and a brief history of the work so far at Blue Hill.
Rested and recuperated from the travel and briefing exertions of the first day, the science training ‘on the job’ began in earnest on day 2 (Monday), with camera trapping deployment and setting up honey bush plots along the south road. This offered a chance for some practical exertions in the form of the off-road 4WD ‘commute to work’, and then a 2 hr hike back to base (for most). Steve was the lucky one, undertaking some 4WD training with the expedition leader, before driving home.
In the afternoon we were introduced to the work of our guest scientist Dr. Margaux Rat, part of the Hot Birds research team. We’ll be helping her project by assisting via video analysis – exploring the effects of temperature on the social networks of sociable weavers. It should give us an insight on how hot and bothered we will all be by climate change!
Tuesday morning brought yet more variety, this time in the form of the weather. Our field visit along the east road was cut to less than hour, by sub-zero temperatures, and the effects of unseasonal wind chill. Highlighting why hypothermia always gets mentioned in the safety briefing. Welcome to South Africa in the Spring!
Margaux was the ultimate beneficiary of the conditions, with all volunteers more than willing to sit in a fire-warmed kitchen, nursing cups of hot coffee whilst undertaking video analysis work on the weavers.
There will be a 20 degrees swing in temperature in the next 24 hr, so will all be out in the field again, and this time hopefully for a little longer…
All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, and so we must say our farewells and extend our gratitude to group 1. And also say goodbye and thank you to one of our cooks, Gurli. You’ll be missed, but your efforts not forgotten.
You have all left your mark at Blue Hill, in terms of your contribution to advancing our knowledge of this area of the fynbos. Alan (our scientist) neatly summed this up in his science review on the last evening.
The team have: assisted in finding at least nine Cape rockjumper nests, thus supporting ongoing doctoral research; completed two sets of small mammal trapping, resulting in two new species records for Blue Hill; established 200 (!) honey bush monitoring plots; mapped multiple mammal species and collected several leopard samples for DNA analysis; completed 60 bird point counts across the Karoo (clocking up 1,500 km!); undertaken multiple nights of bat monitoring and 8 km of bat transect walks; and lastly, completed many hours of bat sonogram analysis.
You’ll note that I have glossed over the camera trapping, simply because it deserves its own mention. Four new camera trapping stations have been established, but the most exciting news comes from the camera traps established previously at Blue Hill. These existing camera traps were serviced by the expedition team and revealed that ‘Strider’, a known male, has recently been on the reserve, as well as a new, unknown female. In the last month the cameras have recorded leopards both on the east road saddle and along the south road. Great news for us, Blue Hill and the Cape leopards.
The team has made a big contribution to all of the scientific aims of the project, set out at the start of the expedition. Alan already has his scientific eyes set on at least one research paper. Not a bad achievement for eleven days work!
So we wish group 1 safe travels, and extend a warm welcome to our new cook, Barbara, who will be working with Melda. We can rest assured we will be well fed and the research will continue to be fuelled on excellent desserts!
So the bar has been set, and the research baton now passes to group 2. Your first challenge will be the weather, which looks like being cold and wet for the first couple of days. Hopefully you are prepared and we look forward to meeting you all.
The collective efforts of the team are beginning to bear fruit.
Bat surveys have been going both using ‘static’ detectors – stationed in set locations – and using detectors connected mobile phones for night time transect surveys. This will allow us to compare and contrast species richness between different habitats and ultimately build a bat map for Blue Hill.
This has also meant many hours of data processing and sonogram analysis. Judy and John and have been leading the charge in labelling bat calls, and identifying the differences between a Cape horsehoe and a Cape serotine bat.
The second array of small mammal trapping has also been completed and the results are intriguing. The recent fires do not seem to have negatively impacted the small mammals. And we appear to have trapped two species not previously recorded at Blue Hill – which of course needs expert verification. But could indicate a potential response to fire.
Understanding how fire drives this ecosystem and species respond to it is important. And current literature seems scarce on small mammals (based on the searches of our resident professor – thank you Peter). Typically, our field research is generating more questions than answers.
We have also made progress with one of our main target species – the Cape leopard. On one of the bat transect surveys, a set of large eyes were spotted in the rocks on the south road. This was followed, by hearing a low growling noise, whilst visiting some rock art locations on Sunday afternoon, during our day off. This might sound more speculative than scientific, however, on Monday morning leopard tracks were located only metres along the same track, and less than 1 km from the base – so they are in the area!
We’ve somehow also managed to complete yet more surveys at Blue Hill and across the wider Karoo, set out yet more vegetation monitoring plots, and find time for a geology talk (from Chris Lee).
A great job by all so far.
Our surveys are up and running. And our volunteer team have been deployed in all directions of the compass.
The first array of small mammal trapping has now been completed and all traps moved to a ‘new’ location. This is one we also surveyed in 2015, which too has recently been burnt. The charcoal-striped clothing at the end of each survey is a clear reminder. Hopefully the results will give further insight into how the small mammal responds to fire. These mammals are a vital component of a leopard’s diet!
Talking of which, additional camera traps have also been established at Blue Hill, Welbedacht and the Nuwekloof pass, in the Baviaanskloof. The latter took Peter and yours truly, twice as long as expected to deploy – taking a whole day to deploy four cameras. I think we only got lost three times, pushed the 4WD to its limits and managed to scale one dry waterfall. All worth the effort as the cameras will be left in situ for 45 days. Hopefully they will be less effort to retrieve!
Completing any survey in this part of the world requires some level of effort. Alan, Karin and John managed to cover some 600kms (with just one puncture) in one day, in order to complete bird surveys in the Karoo – supporting a wider study with BirdLife South Africa.
Closer to home, the team have also been establishing vegetation monitoring plots at Blue Hill. These will assist an ongoing study on the Honey Bush – indigenous and endemic plants of the Fynbos biome in South Africa, cultivated and harvested for tea production. Most tea currently comes from wild harvested populations. The plots (which will receive different harvest treatments) will hopefully improve our understanding the impact of wild harvesting.
The plots (marked with metal stakes) all need to be labelled – metal tags are the best option to survive the harsh conditions. Turns out aluminium drinks cans (e.g. beer) provide ideal raw material for the required tags. Our Australian and Swedish citizen scientists were more than happy to drink for conservation – obviously in moderation – well enough to make 300 tags!
In amongst all of this we have also been assisting surveys of Cape Rockjumpers – a passerine bird restricted to the Fynbos biome, and advancing our bats surveys. We’ll save the details on those until the next blog…
After an early start for the final pieces of preparation, we were finally able to welcome our first group of citizen scientists for 2017 to the ‘Carnivores of the Cape Floral Kingdom’ expedition.
The team all arrived safely, and if anything, slightly earlier than expected. We have a great mix in our team in terms age and experience; including a couple of Biosphere Expeditions newcomers (welcome Libby and Sandy) and several veterans.
After a little time to settle in and with initial introductions, risks assessments and briefings completed, we headed straight into the field. It was time for a crash course in mammal mapping and camera trapping. Alan (our scientist) was keen to get some additional cameras deployed – to monitor our target carnivore species – whilst also getting the team used to mammal mapping.
The mapping was completed from the back of the 4x4s whilst others in the team also got used to driving the 4x4s. Our two transport options on the project are either ‘by foot’ or ‘by 4WD’. All vehicles, drivers, and mammal mappers returned to base in one piece. And our top spotter was one of our newcomers – great work Libby.
Day two involved a lot of preparation work for the vegetation monitoring and mammal trapping. Large area of the research area was burnt earlier in the year, so our small mammal traps now need insulating from the cold and the heat – cue a morning of trap shade construction. The rest of the day was spent deploying the traps.
The burnt areas of the reserve (there was a large bush fire earlier in the year) offer a unique opportunity to compare this year’s data to previous (unburnt) years and hopefully better understand how the fynbos responds to, and recovers from, fire – after all it is a fire-driven ecosystem with many plants needing fire to germinate. Over the coming days we’ll all be breaking new ground in terms of understanding the ecology of this mountain fynbos environment.