One of the most notable things when traveling across South Africa is the remarkable change in biodiversity as you make your way through the different provinces of the country.
South African Biomes
What is a
A large naturally occurring community of flora and fauna occupying a major habitat, e.g. forest or tundra.
South African Biomes, Explained
There are a number of reasons for these changes you may notice as you make your way from the east to the west coast, which mostly are attributed to the wide range of climactic conditions and many variations in topography, ranging from a narrow coastal plain, steep escarpment and large central plateau.
South Africa has one of the highest ranges of biodiversity in the world, which generally refers to the richness or variety of life in an area including the number of species found in their respective areas. With a land surface of 1,1 million square km – representing only 1% of the world’s total land surface – South Africa contains almost 10% of the world’s total known bird, fish and plant species, and over 6% of the world’s mammal and reptile species. The combination of climate and topography give rise to broad vegetation zones in the country, and together with their associated animal life they form diverse areas we refer to as South Africa’s biomes. There are nine classified biomes across the country, each offering unique opportunities to explore the natural specialties found within them. Below we will discuss how to recognize some of these eco regions.
The grassland biome is found mainly on the high central plateau of South Africa, and the inland areas of Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Eastern cape. The topography is mainly flat and rolling, but includes the escarpment itself. Altitude varies from near sea level to 2850m above sea level. It is a summer rainfall region with an average of 450mm – 1900mm of rainfall per year. Grassland is generally dominated by a single layer of grasses. The amount of cover depends largely on rainfall and degree of disturbances i.e. fire or grazing which also results in trees being absent expect in a few smaller more localised habitats.
This biome supports a large variety of plant and animal life due to its variable climate conditions based on altitude. This region contains main 14 vegetation types and is habitat to large herds of antelope and many smaller animals. Ten bird species are exclusively restricted to grasslands.
Flagship species of the grassland biome
- Star flower
- Giant bullfrog
- Blue Crane (National Bird)
- Redwing Francolin
- Black Wildebeest
The thicket biome does not form a continuous zone and extends in rather fragmented band along the coast from Kwa-Zulu Natal down to the Western Cape. It is most extensive in the Eastern Cape and is thought to contain the most species rich formations of woody plants in South Africa. It is characterized by sparse to dense, spiny, evergreen shrub vegetation, with a tree component of varying proportions. Four vegetation types ranging from Dune thickets to varying types of succulent thickets are present here.
Flagship species of Thicket biome
- African savanna Elephant
- Albany Adder
- Tree Dassie
- Addo Dung Beetle
Nama Karoo Biome
The Nama Karoo biome occurs on the central plateau of the western half of South Africa. It is the second largest biome in South Africa with topography that varies from expansive rocky or sandy plains to flat topped mesas. This region is generally hot and windy in the summers and very cold in the winters with a fairly low rainfall of below 500 mm per year. A large variety of life forms exist here, with the dominant vegetation being dwarf shrub land. Plant eating animals in the Karoo are usually small and very mobile. There are a number of special insectivorous mammals and birds, including some of the smallest and largest species in South Africa. There are a great number of reptiles and a high number of invertebrates.
Flagship species of the Nama Karoo biome
- Riverine Rabbit
- Karoo padloper (Tortoise)
- Namaqua Sandgrouse
- Yellow Mongoose
This biome is found in the south western corner of South Africa and is known to be synonymous with the Cape Floral Kingdom, one earth’s six plant kingdoms. The Cape floral Kingdom is the smallest of six total kingdoms in the world and is the only one contained in its entirety within a single country. It is characterized by its high richness in plant species, 8700 species, and high endemicity of 68% of plants confined to the Cape Floral Kingdom. The biome has two main vegetation types within the region, namely, Fynbos and Renosterveld. Fynbos must burn, but fires in the wrong season or too frequently will eliminate species.
Renosterveld is dominated by members of the daisy family, specifically one species; Renosterbos (Elytropappus rhinocerotis) from which the vegetation gets its name. All the different shrubs in this vegetation type are characterized by their small, tough grey leaves and tends to occur where rainfall is between 250 mm to 600 mm per year. Where rainfall is higher the Renosterveld is replaced by Fynbos.
Fynbos is characterised by the following three elements;
- A restoid component belonging to the Cape reed family
- A ericoid or heath component, these plants have small narrow rolled leaves with thick walls and hairs on the lower surface.
- A proteoid component. These plants have broad, isobilateral leaves. They are the dominant overstory Fynbos.
One of the major influences on Fynbos community processes is fire. Fynbos must burn at intervals of 6-45 years of age in order to sustain its plant species. Many species store their fruits fire-safe seed cones for release after fire, and ants are enticed to bury the fruits where they are safe from rodents and fire.
Flagship species of Fynbos biome
- Stag beetle
- Micro frog
- Cape sugarbird
- Geometric tortoise
So the jest South Africa is a very diverse country and there are things to discover and places to explore wherever you may be. Great areas of natural importance span from East to West across this great land so look out for these unique areas as you make your travels throughout our beautiful country.
Occupying one third of the area of South Africa, the savanna is the largest biome in the country. It is well developed over the Low-veld and Kalahari region of South Africa and is also dominant in Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. This biome is defines by a well-developed grassy layer with a prominent woody layer of trees and shrubs. Altitude varies from sea level to 2000 m with average rainfalls of 230 mm-1000 mm. Almost every major geological soil type occurs in this biome. The great variation in environmental factors results and variation in vegetation, and also the animal life it supports.
Flagship species of savanna biome
- Ground Hornbill
- Cape Vulture
- Wild Dog
- White Rhino
- 532 bird species
- 167 mammal species
- 161 reptile species
- 5700 plant species
Forests cover less than 0,25% of South Africa’s surface area, making this the smallest biome. Forests are restricted to frost free areas with either high winter or summer rainfall. They can occur from sea level to above 2100m. Forests tend to be fragmented and occur in the high altitude Drakensberg to the coastal plains, with the largest forests found in the Western Cape in the Tsitsikama and Knysna regions. A narrow strip of continuous dune forest also stretches up from St. Lucia to the northern Kwa-Zulu Natal border.
Flagship species of Forest biome
- Samango monkey
- Cape Parrot
- Gaboon Adder
- Rhumorha fern
- Blue Duiker
Succulent Karoo Biome
This biome is confined to the western parts of South Africa that receives mainly a very limited winter rainfall with hot dry summers. Most of the terrain consists of flat undulating plain with some hilly and broken veld. Similar to the Nama Karoo biome, the soils are lime rich and weakly developed on rock. Rainfall is cyclonic and ranges between 20 mm to 290 mm per year with summer temperatures in excess of 40 degrees Celsius with desiccating berg winds occurring throughout the year.
Vegetation here is mainly semi desert shrub land with large amounts of succulents of which Vygies and stonecrops are particularly prominent. The number of plant species, mostly succulents, is very high and unparalleled elsewhere in the world for an arid area of this size. The area is also rich in endemic vertebrates, especially small mammals and reptiles, with larger animals ranging from small antelope and some predators.
Flagship species of the Succulent Karoo biome
- Namqua Pollen Wasp
- Bastard Quiver tree
- Desert Rain frog
- Granulated thick tailed scorpion
- Toontjies (Plant)