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Working at the Tierberg LTER

By Phila Ngwilikane, Intern of SAEON’s Arid Lands Node, Prince Albert
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At the Tierberg LTER, a weather station and many shrubs reveal the extent of the drought

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Markings at one of the Tierberg LTER’s ten phenology sites

For as long as I can remember, I have always been captivated by the natural environment.

Being raised on a farm, I had always thought I would end up working in the agricultural sector, but after becoming a fan of BBC documentaries and National Geographic, my interests started shifting. I wanted to study nature conservation.

After all, how hard could it be – when I got my degree, my job would be 20% looking at interesting plants, and 80% cuddling and protecting all types of animals. At least that’s what I thought.

The more research I did on my chosen career and as soon as I started studying towards my degree at Nelson Mandela University (Saasveld), I learnt that there was more to this than just being a “bunny-hugger”. Besides the more zoological aspects, I started appreciating the socio-ecological and botanical aspects of conservation.

With both hands I grabbed the chance to work as an intern with the SAEON Arid Lands Node at the Tierberg LTER because I recognised it as a great way to gain research and work experience.

Getting to grips with the changing climate

The research I am currently working on is predominantly based on plant phenology. The data collection started in 2017 and being a part of this ongoing research has been a very worthwhile opportunity for me. Although I have only been at Tierberg for five months, the whole experience so far has been significant, as I am witnessing the limits that plants in the Karoo can be pushed to in their own environment because of the changing climate.

The town of Prince Albert has been experiencing a drought for over five years. With all the data collected so far, I get to see the changes in temperature and rain patterns as well as how these affect the five most common species (Pteronia pallens, Ruschia spinosa, Galenia fruticosa, Osteospermum sinuatum and Drosanthemum montaguense) on the 100-hectare site.

I also get to look at, among other things, how rainfall and temperature determine the time of flowering or leaf and shoot development, how similar the patterns of phenology are among the different growth forms and how phenological patterns within a species compare across different habitats.

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Phila (left, in blue jacket) leading a National Science Week field programme with learners from the Zwartberg High School, Prince Albert

Science engagement

The drought poses a challenge as some other research projects, specifically those focusing on historical land-use, had to be put on hold because of the extremely dry conditions. Looking on the bright side, this leaves an opening for new projects as well as getting more involved with the local people. I have already organised and facilitated a few science engagement sessions with the local schools as well as wrote articles for the local newspaper.

Since becoming a SAEON intern, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to places I have never been to before. In July, I got to present my Honours dissertation, titled “The extreme Knysna fire event of 2017: causes and impacts as evidenced from content analysis of local media and government reports”, at the Grassland Society of Southern Africa (GSSA) conference in Upington.

Even without travelling, I get to meet researchers from different organisations all the time, as they come to collect their own data from the research hotspot that is Tierberg LTER. I look forward to meeting more people as well as learning and gaining more experience in the months to come.

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