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In the south of the country, lush forest sits alongside a semi-arid landscape, creating a spectacle that looks man-made, yet is perfectly natural. A study by researchers at Princeton University reveals why…
In the southernmost regions of South Africa, there is an incredible landscape that leaves an indelible impression on anyone who sees it for the first time. While the geological composition of the soils, the topography, the water supply, the wind and the sunshine are broadly comparable, the areas of the Western and Eastern Cape have two radically different ecosystems within the same biome. On the one hand, there is the lush, green temperate forest, and on the other hand, the fynbos, a semi-arid scrub landscape reminiscent of that of the Mediterranean region. Between the two: a clear border, like no other in the world. By way of comparison, in Central Africa, the transition zone between the tropical forest and the savannah is on average several kilometres long. But this biological eccentricity hides another…
A wall of roots
Against all expectations, the fynbos is teeming with life, as it is home to 7,000 plant species made up of shrubs, bushes and grasses, of which around 6,000 are endemic. This is an absolutely exceptional density that is usually only found in tropical regions, where the natural humidity is particularly favourable to the development of life.
For more than a century, this mystery has been the subject of debate within the botanical community. It has now been partly solved thanks to a study by researchers Lars Hedin and Mingzhen Lu of Princeton University, published by the National Academy of Sciences. The scientists reveal that the fynbos has developed an exacerbated ability to defend its living space…thanks to its roots. Due to the poor soil conditions, the plants have reacted by developing a dense and deep network of very long and extremely fine filaments. The result: these roots saturate the underground spaces, capture all the nutrients present in the soil, and prevent any invasive species from colonising the territory.
Applications in agroecology
The example of fynbos can be useful for studying soils in a more global way, particularly with regard to their defences against the consequences of human activity and their regeneration. Indeed, this case illustrates the natural capacity of an ecosystem to protect its nutrient reserves while accommodating the limiting constraints of the soil. Fynbos also teaches us how a complex root system can inhibit the spread of invasive plant species. Whatever happens, unless all original life is destroyed on a fynbos plot, it will reclaim its rights. If it is discovered that other ecosystems or certain plants behave in the same way, this could open up a number of possibilities for the restoration of natural areas or the improvement of techniques used in agroecology.