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Landscape History & Palaeoecology

Interpretations of changing landscapes are dramatically affected by the temporal scale of observation and the underlying ecological assumptions of the observer. In the absence of long-term data, it is easy to misinterpret changes in vegetation, without regard to the normal variability of the ecosystem. Long-term data on vegetation history can help ecosystem managers and restoration ecologists to understand the processes of landscape change and to develop management goals that are ecologically realistic. A long-term perspective can inform conservation goals, as well as provide benchmarks for restoration ecology.

Our research employs techniques like repeat photography and fossil pollen analysis to study long-term landscape change. Such approaches enable us to engage at an international level in debates over the use of long-term data in conservation and ecosystem ecology. Repeat fixed-point photography is a major tool used in this programme and an extensive database on historical photographs forms part of the outputs of this programme.  This database is located under the rePhotoSA initiative in collaboration with colleagues from UCT's Animal Demography Unit (ADU) and their network of citizen scientists.

One of our main projects in this theme has been funded by UCT's African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI).  Called "Benchmarks for the future" this project uses an innovative combination of approaches incorporating analyses of historical climate and land use data, repeat photography, palaeoecology and long-term ecological monitoring to assess changes in the vegetation over the last millennium along a 1,500 km transect from Namaqualand in the west to the former Transkei region in the east.



Original photo by Acocks, 1971 Repeat photo by Masubelele & Hoffman, 2010

These set of matched repeat photos near Middleburg in the Eastern Cape, illustrate a major increase in grass cover over a 40 year period in this area.