allsoppRating: ★★★☆☆

Nicky Allsopp, Jonathon Colville and G Anthony Verboom (eds). 2014. Fynbos: ecology, evolution and conservation of a megadiverse region. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978 0 19 967958 4

I first heard of the Fynbos from neighbours who had lived and travelled in South Africa years previously. It sounded dramatic but it wasn’t until later that I was aware of its biodiversity and uniqueness. From that point of view, I was pleased to see a text devoted to the topic – there being so little in the mainstream press. As an ecological educator, I was also pleased to see such a text because it gets people away from the usual rainforest/reef directions of study. It’s important we see global diversity, not just the charismatic bits! To me, this text was a much a learning exercise as a reviewing one. Given that the editors note that this was the first major addition in two decades, maybe I won’t be the only one!

We start with three chapters that lay out the key characteristics of the Fynbos – vegetation, abiotic environment and key stressors (in this case, fire). Vegetation is not so much a simple map it’s a question of how the categories have come into being and how they have changed. Having considered issues of classification, this opening chapter describes the key features of the major ecosystems that go to make up the region. Images, backed by colour maps, guide the reader through the main divisions. The vegetation might seem complex but the chapter on physical environment provides a far simpler picture. Geology and climate (as well as micro-climate in response to geology) dominate the description and attempt to account for the region’s extraordinary variety. Like the Australian bush, fire is a key factor in Fynbos dynamics. The sheer timescale of the fire regime (dating back to Miocene times) gives an indication of the importance of this to ecosystem development. The question arises as to whether this is a totally distinct region – a biochoria in terms of the text here. Certainly, as we see here, there is so much that is endemic but the ultimate results depend of which groups of species are chosen.

From this point, we turn more to those features that can be seen and analysed. Chapters looking at Cenozoic flora and clade development can give us some clue but often, as we see elsewhere, data are sparse. Whereas we might expect invasive species to provide a solid grounding, as we see here, it’s probably as much to do with speciation. The extreme diversity of the landscape giving rise to a considerable diversity of species. Human occupation of the region has also contributed over a considerable timespan (at least 1 million years) but, given that this was largely hunter-gatherer, fewer changes were seen.

From floristic¬† considerations, the text moves to consider how the region functions and how it might adapt to change. It is clear that the dominance of fire and the timings and conditions of fire will be crucial for the survival of the area. It’s also clear that the very rarity and complexity of the situation will influence survival if conditions change too much. Perhaps we need to focus on diversity and its production. Pollination is one area where there are just a few distinctions (the role of ants compared to elsewhere for example) along with some ecophysiological distinctions (the sclerophyllous leaves more commonly seen in Australia) set in the complex edaphic environment.

Up to this point, the key word for the region is diversity. Its extreme complexity makes generalisations difficult if not redundant. Onto this unique canvas, the final chapters consider human impact. Starting with introduced species (for which there is little comprehensive research on impacts) to climate change (probably negative for natural and human environment), the message is one that management and research is urgently needed. Conservation, that staple elsewhere, finds difficulty in getting a programme for such a diverse region. The penultimate chapter considers how the region, largely congruent with Western Cape Province can be made sustainable and survive. As one might expect, it will require considerable knowledge as well as strong management and leadership.

This is a fascinating but complex text. Coming to the region almost fresh, many areas were totally new and so required a good deal of thought to find the key points. Other areas were less so, suggesting that if a review such as this, a basic chapter might be useful to bring all readers to the appropriate level. That aside,  effort is worth it because it highlights the extreme diversity of an iconic region. It takes those ecological principles so clearly seen elsewhere and shows variations can be produced given the conditions. This very complexity that makes the area fascinating, also makes it difficult to manage and here we have one of the key lessons and one especially useful for educators Рin complexity, we need to to clear about our objectives.



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