• Dr Michelle Hamer
School of Botany and Zoology, UKZN
+27 31 260 5108
Scientists have discovered 18 new invertebrate species in the Mkhambathi Nature Reserve on the Wild Coast in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province.
The 18 previously undocumented spiders, worms, snails, centipedes and millipedes were unearthed by a group of scientists and volunteers from the Earthwatch organisation, working over an eight-day period.
Another 18 species, found along with the new creatures, are also thought to be undocumented, although this has not yet been confirmed. Research facilities around the country are currently examining and describing the discoveries.
The natural trove highlights the country’s unique biodiversity, say the scientists, as well as the natural importance of the region.
However, plans for infrastructure and mining developments could upset the ecological balance of the Wild Coast and deny scientists any further chance of finding more new species. Ongoing pressure to develop tourism in the area may also pose a threat.
Development is said to be on hold for the moment, because of the recession.
Special conservation area
Eastern Cape Parks ecologist Jan Venter described the area as being very special in conservation terms. “If we do another survey, we’ll find just as many new species,” he commented.
Invertebrate specialist Dr Michelle Hamer, a senior lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and supervisor of a number of Earthwatch projects in South Africa, agreed.
“These discoveries are important because they highlight just how little we know about our biodiversity,” she said in an Earthwatch statement, “even in a relatively well studied country like South Africa”.
Hamer added that the external threats posed by urban development might well have caused the newly discovered species to disappear before scientists had even laid eyes on them.
Understanding the area in terms of its importance to the invertebrate world, she said, could be a key factor in getting support for the protection of the Mkhambathi reserve. While new species have been discovered on other expeditions, this one has yielded a particularly rich bounty.
“Many of the species we collected seem to be unique to a small area in or around Mkhambathi,” she said. “Collecting data is critical in any motivation for continued conservation.”
Hamer also said that Mkhambathi is a prime spot for the development of ecotourism, which will boost the regional economy and filter down to communities living nearby.
Furthering scientific research
Earthwatch is a multinational environmental organisation with a focus on scientific research and expeditions. In addition to over 150 permanent staff, the organisation works with 50 conservation organisations and 50 corporate partners.
This teamwork enables Earthwatch to support the exploratory work of around 130 scientists each year, and arrange research expeditions for its global network of 20 000 members and 4 000 volunteers.
Nigel Winser, Earthwatch vice president, praised the new discoveries made by Hamer and her team, saying that systematic surveys of the plants and animals in such ecosystems as this are crucial to their proper management.
“Earthwatch is proud to be supporting this invertebrate research over many years,” he said. “Such findings give a boost to conservation commitments inSouth Africa.”
The organisation has supported Hamer’s research for seven years.
The 7 720ha Mkhambathi reserve is located on the coast of north-eastern Pondoland, between Port Edward in KwaZulu-Nataland and Port St Johns in the Eastern Cape. The regional amaPondo are an isiXhosa-speaking ethnic group, with a number of tribal sub-divisions.
The reserve falls into the ecoregion known as Maputaland-Pondoland bushland and thickets, which is characterised by montane shrubland.
This ecoregion is part of the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany biodiversity hotspot, one of three in South Africa. The other two are the Cape Floristic Region and the Succulent Karoo.
Maputaland-Pondoland lies between the narrow strip of KwaZulu-Cape coastal forest mosaic and the Drakensberg foothills, which has its own special growth of montane grasslands, woodland and forest.
A vast variety of creatures make their home in this region, including white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) and the critically endangered black rhino (Diceros bicornis). Besides the large diversity of vertebrates found here, Maputaland-Pondoland is also exceptionally rich in invertebrate fauna, including many butterflies and moths, caterpillar-like velvet worms, a family of giant earthworms and a variety of scarabs or dung beetles.
According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, South Africa is ranked as the third most biologically diverse country on earth in terms of species richness and indigenity amongst higher plants and vertebrates. Yet just 6% of this natural wealth is formally conserved.