From flame and ash - the recovery of a fynbos field site

2년 전

About a month ago, I posted about our field site here in the Western Cape fynbos being ravaged by fire. As I mentioned then, fire is a natural part of fynbos ecology, however in terms of a field project, this untimely inferno was devastating. Or so we thought… The field site after the flames looked like this:


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’Welcome to Mordor,’ was my first thought on the morning we encountered this

Life, however, as Jurassic Park would have it, will find a way. And indeed, much to our surprise, it has done exactly that. The first few days were pretty ominous, the landscape deathly quiet except for the crows in their dozens circling overhead. Undoubtedly searching for freshly charred carrion. It was a pretty dismal scene until we started seeing signs of life basically everywhere. Most surprising was the fact that our lizard study subjects had not only survived the fire, but began reclaiming their territories within a few days…


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A very young specimen of the agama (Agama atra) which we are studying. This little fellow must have hatched out after the fire. What a world to wake up to!

Actually, everywhere we've looked, the usual denizens of this now ashen landscape have been cropping up. Without the benefit of ground cover, they have, of course, been shier than usual but I was pleased to find our neighborhood Cordylids still in their usual spots:


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A Cordylid lizard sheltering in his crevice

And to my absolute delight, one of my favourite creatures from these parts appeared to have survived as well!


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Just beneath the rock ledge, a Cape Elephant Shrew (Elephantulus edwardii) eyes me cautiously

Whilst the animals came as somewhat of a surprise (not so much that they survived, but rather that they've chosen to retain their usual territories rather than moving to an unburnt section of the mountain), the plant life I had been expecting to see again once we finally got some much needed rain:


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An autumn Haemanthus pushes out from its bulb beneath the ashes

So it would seem that things are recovering nicely, though now the project is close to wrapping up. We have still been able to spend some time in the field, conducting our behavioral study of the agamas. In time, this site will return to its usual densely foliated state, with a new (and possibly different) set of floral inhabitants. One of the fascinating things about fire in such a system is that the intensity of heat affects the recovery from this primary state. So the plants undertaking succession may differ from those that were here before. Seeds that have laid dormant for long periods may resurge, breathing new and different life into the fynbos.

For myself, I have mixed feelings about my imminent departure from this beautiful mountain site. Of course I look forward to new projects and spending time with my loved ones during my ‘downtime’, but I will miss walking up these slopes in the company of so many unique and fascinating creatures. Still, new challenges await, and there is potentially something big on the horizon, but that's a tale for another time.


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Happy Steeming people,
The Wise Fox

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We see very similar experiences in Australia, where I am from. The landscape can be truly devastated, yet new life reemerges from it and continues, as it has done for thousands of years. It's the animals welfare that can be the most worrying, so it was good to see you could find them still alive in your area.

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Yes, it's easy to forget that in the face of the most devastating events, nature simply continues and life eventually flourishes again.

Super cool! It just goes to show that adaptations to fire are common in Earth's ecosystems, and gives us even more reason to condemn US wildfire management policy over the 20th century.

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What do you mean with the wildlife policy over there? 🙂

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US policy for most of the 20th century was to attempt to prevent/stop literally all forest fires, which led to massive buildups of underbrush, dead trees, and other fire hazards that are contributing to our current severe fire hazards. It also damaged ecosystems that had evolved to function with regular fires as part of their life cycles.

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Ah ok. So do they do more controlled burns now?

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Wonderful article. Really well written and thought.

I was fortunate to be in the downwind proximity of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. The recovery of the mountain is stunning and well documented, but I was further out in the 8" ashfall zone. The recovery there still astounds me. It looked bad the morning after, but within a year it became really obvious that it would have no lasting effects. Amazing.

Thanks for a great update. I really do appreciate it.

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Now that must have been fascinating! I've always wanted to see an eruption (yes, I'm aware it's a strange desire). Did you see much of the event?

Very cool! One of my interests is island biogeography (though what constitutes an 'island' for microbes is interesting in its own right), and ecological recovery after a perturbation like a fire is a huge tool in understanding that.

Also, it took me nearly a minute to find the shrew in that picture, testament to how well their coloration works for them (or how bad my eyesight is).

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That sounds fascinating - have you written up any articles about microbe island biogeography? Would be a very interesting read.

As for the shrew - don't worry, I have a friend who still can't find him in that picture 😂

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I haven't, but I just added it to the file where I keep article ideas, thanks.

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Island biogeography is the best- definitely one of the few sciences that could potentially lure me away from geology. Definitely going to give some of your stuff a read!

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Come to the biological side, we have squishy things.

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I mean, we do too, they're just, uh... several thousand degrees Celcius.

Wow! This was an extremely interesting article and had me biting my thumb throughout! It is nice to see that there is already some recovery and it would definitely be interesting to see how it turns out in the long run.

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What really amazes me is how fast it regrows - that red flower (the Haemanthus) was not there 3 days ago. There are some other things sprouting which have grown a meter in a couple of weeks... With a bit more rain I think the site will be covered in foliage again very soon :)

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Wow, it grows that much in a few days? I am obsessed with its colour! I would prefer to call it hot pink rather than red.

I see the charred remnants of the leaves of the Haemanthus in your picture, by which it captured the energy for its florescence, stored safe from the fire in it's underground bulb. One of my late Mom's favorite subject to sketch and to paint, that fiery flower..

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My personal favourites are the flame lilies, when those come up, though I've only ever seen them in the mountains above Scarborough 🙂

Wow, such wonderful news! I am so happy to see that the animals have survived and returned <3
Thank you for sharing it :)

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Me too 🙂. You learn to cultivate professional detachment, but it's always nice to know that your study subjects have survived after something like this.

  ·  2년 전

That's great that your research subjects seem to have made it through okay. We have an area North of where I live that had a fire go through several years ago. I am always amazed at how much it has "rebounded" the couple of times a year we drive through. I have a feeling within five years, you may never be able to tell a wildfire ran through there.

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Faster than that with this type of vegetation ;)

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Awesome!

"Life...ah...finds a way."..... What the hell ever happened to Jeff Goldblum? Lol.

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I actually googled it because you made me curious : Seems he's still around and still considered a sex symbol in his mid sixties... Well done to him I guess 😂

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Wow. Lol.....then again I still think Sandra Bullock is looking pretty good and she could easily star in a film called Jurassic Actresses. I guess to each their own. lol

What a fun bunch of animals you get to visit.

Is this in South Africa? @onetree wrote about the fires that sweep across her part of the country literally every year, like the weather. She's got to rush home and make sure nothing is close enough to her house that it'll make it ignite.

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Indeed it is - hmm, a fellow South African heads off to read blog

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