Field biologists and NASA planes to map biodiversity in the Greater Cape floristic region of South Africa
The region includes two global biodiversity hotspots; the project will document the distribution and function of species and ecosystems
Release date: July 8, 2021
BUFFALO, NY – Scientists from the United States and South Africa launch campaign to map marine, freshwater and terrestrial species and ecosystems in one of Earth’s biodiversity hotspots: the region floristics of the Grand Cap, at the south-western extremity of South Africa.
NASA will fly over the region for six weeks in 2023 to measure the height and structure of vegetation and collect ultraviolet, visual, thermal and other images in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. The satellites will collect additional data. Field teams will make observations on sites of special interest, slaughter plants and possibly animals they detect.
Using this data, the team will map the region’s biodiversity, provide estimates of species distribution and abundance and ecosystem boundaries, and investigate how biodiversity affects the physical environment and vice versa. . In other words, the campaign will help scientists understand the structure, function and composition of the ecosystems in the study area.
“This is a vast collaboration between several organizations,” says Adam Wilson, PhD, senior researcher and biogeographer at the University of Buffalo. “The Greater Cape Floristic Region is a truly fascinating place – it has extremely high plant diversity, and there have been dramatic environmental changes over the past 50 years, due to both climate change and land use. lands.
“Our data will capture the biodiversity of this region in greater detail than ever from an airplane or satellite. In combination with field observations, this new data will help us understand this dynamic region and improve our ability to monitor biodiversity from space on a global scale.
The project – titled “Cape Town Marine, Freshwater and Terrestrial Biodiversity Survey (BioSCape)” – is funded by NASA, with UB researchers receiving $ 873,000 in funding from NASA to accomplish their part of the project. job.
The management team includes Wilson, assistant professor of geography at UB College of Arts and Sciences; Erin Hestir, PhD, University of California, Merced; Jasper Slingsby, PhD, at the University of Cape Town; and Glenn Moncrieff, PhD, of the South African Environmental Observation Network. Other institutional partners include the National Biodiversity Institute of South Africa, South African National Parks, CapeNature Provincial Parks and the South African National Space Agency.
“Much of the research in Earth observation has been carried out in the forest ecosystems of the world, such as the Amazon or the northern temperate forests,” says Moncrieff, scientist with the South African Environmental Observation Network. . “But non-forest ecosystems are home to a substantial proportion of the world’s biological diversity, and perhaps the most diverse of these non-forest ecosystems are the shrub areas of the Greater Cape Floristic Region of South Africa.
“BioSCape will bring NASA’s most advanced remote sensing technology to this region, facilitating a great deal of research on the remote sensing of biodiversity beyond the forest edge. We hope that by mapping plant biodiversity and its function, we will be able to show the connection between the important ecosystem services that many people here depend on and the unique flora of the region.
Slingsby, Senior Lecturer at the University of Cape Town, adds: “The BioSCape campaign is truly a great opportunity, not only to boost the use of remote sensing in the region, but to spur innovation in remote sensing of biodiversity. in general. The region’s shrub ecosystems are hyperdiverse and have complex natural spatial and temporal dynamics due to fires, seasonality, habitat heterogeneity, etc., and will really put scientific teams to the test. Aquatic ecosystems will not be any less difficult.
“The world is facing an extinction crisis,” says Hestir, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Merced. “We are living through the sixth great extinction in Earth’s history, with unprecedented rates of species extinction. Understanding the diversity of life, what motivates it and how it might change in the future is essential to sustaining and protecting life on Earth – for us and all creatures.
The geography department of UB is recruitment of a postdoctoral researcher to fill the position of BioSCape scientific project manager. The team is committed to building a diverse and inclusive project, says Wilson.
A second project
In a separate but related project in the Cape Floristic Region, Wilson is working with a team that includes some of the same partners to develop a tool that uses satellite remote sensing and AI to monitor ecosystems in the zone. The goal is to detect fires, land clearing, the spread of invasive plant species and other unusual damage to vegetation.
The $ 483,000 effort – also funded by NASA – is a collaboration between UB, the South African Environmental Observation Network, the University of Cape Town, CapeNature, the Nature Conservancy in South Africa and the South African national parks.
“The idea is to create a decision support tool that can support the monitoring and management of biodiversity,” explains Wilson. “The system will signal unusual ecosystem changes, such as invasive species supplanting native species, or change in land cover in protected areas, so that teams in the field can then go check it out to find out more.” on what’s going on. “
This project will also benefit from the expertise of Yingjie Hu, assistant professor of geography at UB and co-researcher on this project. Hu is an expert in Geospatial Artificial Intelligence (GeoAI). One of the challenges of monitoring biodiversity and ecosystem changes in the Cape Floristic Region is to distinguish between natural changes – such as forest fires that occur regularly and are vital to the health of the local ecosystem – and the abnormal changes that threaten biodiversity. Hu’s work will integrate AI and ecological modeling to facilitate the development of a system capable of making these distinctions.