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The Role of Colonizers in 17th Century Fire Regime and Vegetation Composition in South Africa’s Fynbos Biome

Year: 2023

Presenter Name: Topher Roller

South Africa's fire-adapted fynbos biome is one of the most biodiverse in the world, covering 90,000 km^2 along South Africa's western and southern coasts, and containing nearly 9,000 plant species- of which about 70% are endemic (Goldblatt & Manning 2002). For millennia, climate conditions and natural variability have controlled fire activity in South Africa's fynbos biome. However, the interpretation of these causes driving fire activity today has largely faded, favoring anthropogenic drivers. Aside from less dominant influence from early pastoralists, the entry of Dutch settlers to this area initiates a regimen of change onto Fynbos fire activity through a variety of mechanisms, including fire suppression, agricultural use, and the introduction of alien and invasive species to the existing extremely biodiverse landscape. The research proposed has the intention to explore the ecological indicators of these changes that colonizers brought to the area by investigating fire activity and vegetation change. To achieve this goal, I will focus on a coastal lake along the Southern Cape coast, Eilandvlei, by reconstructing fire history using macrocharcoal and analytical tools such as Char-Analysis, quantifying charcoal morphotypes based on physical appearance, or morphotype, and synthesizing existing pollen data from Eilandvlei and other nearby fynbos sites. I expect that changes in Fynbos vegetation during this time, with the introduction of species like Pinus and Acacia and the buildup of fuel from fire suppression, had a large influence on fire activity in the aftermath of Dutch settlement after 1652 CE. Furthermore, the frequency and intensity of fires in the area as a result from this change are important for understanding the impacts that humans had on the environment in general and are also relevant to modern day issues revolving around fire and land management. As such, reconstructing fire history is important in a broad sense because of the many ways it informs our understanding of past activities and future management operations. This project is currently ongoing, and though it is still not close enough to attribute to colonialism, there are evident shifts in charcoal counts that give insight into the health of the system's fires before Dutch arrival. This research is projected to extend another semester, so it may not be entirely complete before UCUR, but is anticipated to be able to give some preliminary information to the research question, which is: how did colonization influence fire activity in the coastal fynbos system and how has fynbos vegetation changed because of anthropogenic pressures? Currently I hypothesize that periods of low fire activity (indicated by low counts of macrocharcoal and reduced charcoal influx) juxtaposed with a large and intense fire (indicated by high counts of microcharcoal and elevated charcoal influx) afterward will indicate the use of fire suppression techniques from the Dutch. I hope to be able to use my poster to convey changes in charcoal activity that reflect these possible techniques, and also provide a digestible description of the ins and outs of this research. I will also discuss morphotyping and hope to have enough of my own data to make some preliminary explanations about the vegetation changes.
University / Institution: University of Utah
Type: Poster
Format: In Person
Presentation #A89
SESSION A (9:00-10:30AM)
Area of Research: Social Sciences
Faculty Mentor: Stella Mosher