Field biologists and NASA to Map Biodiversity in South Africa’s Greater Cape Floristic Region

This article was republished from the University at Buffalo’s website.

A protea shrub growing amongst reeds and dozens of other plant species in South Africa’s Greater Cape Floristic Region. Source: Adam Wilson

Scientists from South Africa and the United States are launching a campaign to map marine, freshwater, and terrestrial species and ecosystems in one of Earth’s biodiversity hotspots: the Greater Cape Floristic Region at the southwestern edge of South Africa.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will fly planes over the area for six weeks in 2023 to measure the height and structure of vegetation and collect ultraviolet, visual, thermal, and other imagery across terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. In addition, teams on the ground will observe locations of particular interest, log plants and, possibly, animals they detect.

Using this data, the team will map the region’s biodiversity, provide estimates of species’ distribution and abundance, and the boundaries of ecosystems, and research how biodiversity impacts the physical environment and vice versa. In other words, the campaign will help scientists understand the structure, function and composition of ecosystems in the study area.

“This is a broad collaboration between several organisations,” says Adam Wilson, PhD, principal investigator and a biogeographer at the University at Buffalo. “The Greater Cape Floristic Region is a fascinating place — it has extremely high plant diversity, and there’s been a dramatic environmental change over the last 50 years, due to both climate and land-use change.

“Our data will capture this region’s biodiversity in greater detail than ever before from a plane or satellite. Together with the field observations, this new data will help us understand this dynamic region and improve our ability to monitor biodiversity from space globally.”

The project — titled “Marine, Freshwater, and Terrestrial Biodiversity Survey of the Cape (BioSCape)” — is funded by NASA, with UB researchers receiving USD 873,000 to complete their share of the work.

The leadership team includes Wilson, an associate professor of geography in the UB College of Arts and Sciences; Erin Hestir, PhD, at the University of California, Merced; Jasper Slingsby, PhD, at the University of Cape Town; and Glenn Moncrieff, PhD, at the South African Environmental Observation Network. Other institutional partners include the South African National Biodiversity Institute, South African National Parks, CapeNature Provincial Parks, and the South African National Space Agency.

Panoramic view of the Cape of Good Hope, one of the richest repositories of plant life on Earth. Source: Adam Wilson.

“Much of the research in earth observation has been conducted in the world’s forested ecosystems, like the Amazon or northern temperate forests,” says Moncrieff, a scientist with the South African Environmental Observation Network. “But non-forest ecosystems harbour a substantial proportion of the world’s biological diversity, and perhaps the most diverse of these non-forest ecosystems are the shrublands of the Greater Cape Floristic Region in South Africa.

“BioSCape will bring the most advanced NASA remote sensing technology to this region, facilitating a large amount of research into remote sensing of biodiversity beyond the forest edge. We hope that by mapping plant biodiversity and its function, we will be able to show the link between important ecosystem services that many people here depend upon and the unique flora of the region.”

King protea, a flowering plant, found in South Africa’s Greater Cape Floristic Region. Source: Adam Wilson

Slingsby, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, adds, “The BioSCape campaign is a great opportunity, not only for boosting the use of remote sensing in the region but for driving innovation in remote sensing of biodiversity in general. The shrubland ecosystems in the region are hyperdiverse and have complex spatial and temporal natural dynamics due to fire, seasonality, habitat heterogeneity, etc., and will put the science teams to the test. The aquatic ecosystems will be no less challenging.”

“The world is facing an extinction crisis,” says Hestir, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Merced. “We are experiencing the sixth great extinction in the history of the Earth, with unprecedented rates of species loss. Understanding the diversity of life, what drives it and how it might change in the future is critical to maintaining and protecting life on Earth — for us and all creatures.”

The second project

New plant life emerges in the fynbos of South Africa after a wildfire. Such fires, which help many native plants reproduce, make it difficult to detect unusual changes in vegetation. Source: Adam Wilson.

In a separate but related project in the Cape Floristic Region, Wilson is working with a team that includes some of the same partners to develop a tool that uses satellite remote sensing and AI to monitor ecosystems in the area. The goal is to detect fires, land clearing, the spread of invasive plant species and other unusual damage to vegetation.

The USD 483,000 project — also funded by NASA — is a collaboration among UB, the South African Environmental Observation Network, the University of Cape Town, CapeNature, the Nature Conservancy in South Africa, and South African National Parks.

“The idea is to create a decision-support tool that can support monitoring and management of biodiversity,” Wilson says. “The system will flag unusual ecosystem changes, such as invasive species out-competing native species, or land cover change in protected areas so that teams on the ground can then go check it out to learn more about what’s happening.”

This project will also leverage the expertise of Yingjie Hu, PhD, UB assistant professor of geography and a co-investigator on this project. Hu is an expert on geospatial artificial intelligence (GeoAI). One challenge of monitoring biodiversity and ecosystem changes in the Cape Floristic Region is distinguishing between natural changes — such as wildfires that occur regularly and are vital to the local ecosystem’s health — and anomalous changes that threaten biodiversity. Hu’s work will integrate AI and ecological modelling to facilitate developing a system that can make these distinctions out.

For more information about these projects, kindly contact 

Charlotte Hsu – chsu22@buffalo.edu.

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