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Fynbos Node postdocs add breadth and depth to understanding global change

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Over the last ten months, SAEON’s Fynbos Node has grown with the addition of three DST-NRF Professional Development Programme postdoctoral fellows, Chris Trisos, Glenn Moncrieff and Nicola Stevens.

With shrublands generally, and fynbos in particular, being the cinderellas of vegetation projections in the face of global change, the skills of these three newcomers are contributing to understanding the factors determining where and why fynbos occurs where it does and how factors in evolutionary history have shaped this biome. This is fundamental to understanding how fynbos may respond to change in the future.

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CHRIS TRISOS joined the SAEON Fynbos Node as a postdoc in August 2014. His research interests are the processes sustaining biodiversity, especially explanations for how multiple species live together in the same place at the same time and for how species assemblages respond to global change.

Chris uses approaches from both evolutionary biology and ecology to test for the influences of dispersal, speciation, species interactions and the environment on species coexistence and biodiversity from local to continental scales. His PhD work was on how habitat preferences, competition among species and species’ dispersal abilities influence the composition of bird communities in Peru.

"At SAEON I am working to combine an understanding of the evolutionary history of South African biomes with data on plant habitat preferences to better predict how species coexistence and biome boundaries will respond to environmental change,” explains Chris.

He is also exploring how the ability of some Protea species to resprout after wildfires reduces their risk of becoming extinct at a site and shapes Protea species distributions across the Cape Floristic Region.

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Born and raised in Cape Town, GLENN MONCRIEFF completed his Master’s degree in Botany at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2011. To pursue his interest in ecological modelling, he moved to Germany for his PhD, which involved modelling the distribution and functioning of biomes on different continents. His research provided evidence that the same biome, located in different regions of the world, can look and function very differently if the histories of the regions being compared are very different.

His broader research interests are wide ranging, both geographically and intellectually - from studying the impacts of megaherbivores on tree populations in African savannas to intercontinental comparisons of fire activity patterns in relation to climate.

"The thread that links these topics is the search for explanations of the vegetation patterns we see today (and those we may encounter in the future) that go beyond the usual suspects of climate and soils,” explains Glenn. "In the pursuit of these explanations I often must use a range of mathematical and computational tools enabling me to explore future events, alternate histories and unlikely scenarios that often reveal truths about the real world.”

While at SAEON, he is attempting to provide projections of global change impacts on South African biomes and identify the drivers responsible for altered vegetation functioning using a class of models called Dynamic Vegetation Models. These models simulate the past, present and future distribution of plant biomes by modelling plant functioning at the leaf-level and then scaling up to populations and eventually whole countries or even the globe.

"Like most South African males raised around a braai, I am fascinated by fire, and with SAEON I am attempting to create models of fire behaviour for the fynbos biome capable of predicting where fires will move in a landscape and regions where plants and people are more or less vulnerable to fire due to prevailing wind directions, topography and vegetation structure,” he says.

"I hope to produce fire models that are not only useful tools for understanding the ecological context in which fynbos and forests occur, but are also useful for planning and responding to fires before and during significant events such as the large Cape fires of March 2015.”

When not immersed in his "fantasy world of models” or engrossed in scientific thought, Glenn says he stays sane by clinging for dear life to rocks with nothing but fresh air and fynbos below, or pickling himself until he resembles the West Coast delicacy known as bokkoms in salty, seaweed-flavour waters cooled by the Benguela current.

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NICOLA STEVENS has returned to the SAEON fold. After a stint as the data scientist at SAEON’s Ndlovu Node, she left in 2009 to study towards her PhD with Prof. William Bond at UCT.

Her PhD centred around understanding potential global change impacts on savanna trees, focusing on measuring bush encroachment and understanding what determines the distribution ranges of common savanna trees. On completion of her PhD she took up a postdoc position at the Fynbos Node where she will be working on characterising the fire regimes across the Cape fynbos region.

Prior to working for SAEON, Nicola spent two years in the Netherlands where she completed her Master’s degree at the University of Groningen. "I took off several years in between degrees to work in the bush on a diverse range of projects - from ringing birds in Kimberley to tracking buffalo in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park to field guiding and tracking predators in Hoedspruit,” she says.

When she’s not contemplating global change or fire questions, she is out exploring what the Cape has to offer and attempting to master the art of surfskiing.

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