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Biological Hot Spots
Africa’s Cape Floristic Province

A biological hot spot is a natural environment with a high biodiversity that contains a large number of endangered species found no where else on Earth. Twenty five known biological hotspots occupy only 1.4 percent of Earth’s land surface, but are home to 35 percent of the world’s vertebrate species, and 44 percent of the world’s plant species. A third of Earth’s known land plants and animals are confined to less than 2 percent of the land surface. Much of the land in these hotspots has no conservation protection.

Hotspots occur on every continent except Antarctica. In North America, the biological hotspot is the California Floristic Province. It is threatened by population growth, land development and pollution.

In South America, hotspots include the Chocó-Darién of Ecuador, the Brazilian  Cerrado, the tropical Andes and central Chile.

In Asia, hotspots include the Western Ghats of India, the regions of Indo-Burma, Southwest Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines.

In Africa, hotspots include the Guinean forests of West Africa, the island of Madagascar and associated islands in the Indian Ocean, and the Cape Floristic Province of Southern Africa. Hotspots also occur in Australia and Oceana.

The photographs and information that follow highlight the Cape Floristic Province of South Africa. This smallest and oldest biological hotspot occupies only 0.04 percent of the world’s land surface, and is the arguably the most biodiverse floral kingdom on earth.

 

The southern capes and offshore waters of Africa provide some of the most productive habitats on Earth. Offshore, the cold, nutrient rich Benguela current sweeping northward from Antarctic seas collides with warmer waters from the Agulhas Current, producing rich fishing grounds and some of the roughest seas in the world.

Cape Province, South Africa
Figure 1 - Cape Province, South Africa

 

The Fynbos
Figure 2 - The Fynbos

 

The Cape Floristic Province, one of the world’s six floral kingdoms, has up to 14,000 species of plants. It is probably the richest plant kingdom in the world. Locally, it is called the Fynbos (fine bush), because of the fine leafed characteristic of so many of its plants that have adapted to the extreme wet/dry climate and nutrient poor sandy soils.

Botanists estimate that as many as 14,000 species of plants occur in the Fynbos, including Proteas, restios (Cape Reeds), and ericas. Many species are endemic, including the largest of all Proteas, the silver tree (Leucadendron argenteum). Sugarbirds depend on Proteas, and time their breeding to the flowering of the Protea plants.

Delicate flowers characterize the Fynbos
Figure 3 - Delicate flowers characterize the Fynbos

 

Table Mountain
Figure 4 - Table Mountain

 

Dominating the Cape Floristic Province, with the city of Cape Town at its base, is Table Mountain. Its world famous flat top makes it one of the most striking visual images in the world, and a landfall long used as a navigation landmark by mariners rounding the southern capes of Africa.

Fortunately, much of the Cape Peninsula and Table Mountain has been set aside as an ecological reserve, so development is confined to the lower elevations around the mountain.

Cape Town
Figure 5 - Cape Town

 

Cape Coastal Region
Figure 6- Cape Coastal Region

 

The Cape of Good Hope has some of the most scenic oceanscapes in the world. Thousands of sea birds occupy the cliffs in this image, and offshore, thousands of Cape Gannets feeding on shoals of fish can be seen plunging into the sea.

On the western coast of southern Africa, the cold ocean waters and sea driven climate give rise to the great Namib desert, one of the world’s driest and most desolate coastal deserts. Here the immense red sand dunes of the Namib Desert predominate, and many uniquely adapted species thrive.

The Red Namib
Figure 7 - The Red Namib

 

Rough seas off shore
Figure 8 - Rough seas off shore

 

Well off shore, immense seas crash against submerged reefs producing spectacular displays and treacherous waters that have wrecked many ships.

The Angulate Tortoise is endemic to the tip of southern Africa. They feed on grasses and succulents, and drink through their nose from rock pools. In sandy soil, they push their snout into the sand, raise their back legs, and drink the water that runs off the shell and puddles around the head.

In the rivers and Vleis (lakes) of the Cape, other amphibians of the Fynbos include the Cape River Frog, Cape Rain Frogs, the Cape Chirping Frog, and the rare Thumbed Ghost Frog adapted to live in steams of Table Mountain’s ravines and gorges. Commensal relationships between plants and some thirty three species of indigenous ants maintain the community, but the introduced Argentine ant is making inroads on native ants

The Areoloate tortoise (Homopus areolatus)
Figure 9 - Angulate Tortoise (Chersina angulata)

Bontebok (Damaliscus dorcas)
Figure 10 - Bontebok (Damaliscus dorcas)

 

Many mammals once familiar to the Cape Province were wiped out, but the Bontebok, and the endemic Grysbok survived. Dassies, Cape mole rats, porcupines, and Namaqua rock mouse are still found, but the bluebuck, quagga, eland, red hartebeest, lion and klipspringer no longer grace these slopes. Much study is needed on the thousands of species of insects that occur.

 

Nearly 1,000 species of birds occur in Southern Africa. Jackass Penguins, Damara Terns, Whiskered Terns, and a rich assemblage of sea birds occur along the coast and offshore. The limited range of Hartlaub’s Gull extends along the coast from central Namibia to the western Capes. It is commonly seen in city center Cape Town.

 

Hartlaub’s Gull (Larus hartlaubii)
Figure 11 - Hartlaub’s Gull (Larus hartlaubii)

 

Crowned Plover (Vanellus coronatus)
Figure 12 - Crowned Plover (Vanellus coronatus)

 

The Crowned Plover and the attractive Blacksmith Plover and a host of landbird species can be found in the Cape Province.

The Pied crow, White-necked Raven, Black Crow, and House Crow, are readily observed in the Cape Province.

 

Pied Crow (Corvus albus)
Figure 13 - Pied Crow (Corvus albus)

 

Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus)
Figure 14 - Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus)

 

Sacred Ibis are commonly found south of the Sahara, and readily observed in the Cape Province.

Efforts to conserve the Cape Floral Kingdom are to be applauded. Such far thinking conservation efforts are needed here in the USA and across the globe, and especially in hotspot areas rich in biological diversity. Each species of plant or animal is unique, and an integral component of our complex biosphere.

Looking across the Top of Table Mountain
Figure 15 - Looking across the Top of Table Mountain

 

The Earth is our home. There is no where else to run. Do you want to live on a planet rich in animal and plant species, and filled with the sounds and colorful sights of thousands of different plants and animals? Or will you settle for a world filled only with sparrows, starlings, cats, dogs, cattle and those few creatures that can adapt to man’s urban sprawl and associated pollution?

The choice is yours. You can make a difference in your corner of the globe. Every species is unique, and each plays a role on our planet. Once a species is gone, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can exist again.

Further Reading

Berlitz Travel Guide. 1990. South Africa. A. Macmillan Co., Switzerland.

Maclean, G. L. 1993. Robert’s Birds of Southern Africa, 6th Edition. John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.

Moll, G. 1987. Table Mountain, a natural wonder. The Wildlife Society of Southern Africa. Cape Town.

Wilson, E. O. 2002. Hotspots. Preserving pieces of a fragile biosphere. National Geographic. January

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