Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Protea: Biodiversity

Not just a pretty flower!!!

Protea, Cape Floristic Region (CFR) of South Africa
 ©Am Ang Zhang 2005

Nikon 180/2.8 ED on Nikon D70(around 250mm)

Some parts of the planet with a Mediterranean-style climate have become species-rich biodiversity hotspots, a recent study reveals.

New species of flowering plants called proteas are exploding on to the scene three times faster in parts of Australia and South Africa than anywhere else in the world, creating exceptional ‘hotspots’ of species richness, according to new research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Proteas are most well-known for being the national symbol of South Africa. The international team behind today’s new study created an evolutionary ‘family tree’ of all 2000 protea plant species on Earth – the majority of which are found in South Western Australia (SWA) and the Cape Floristic Region (CFR) of South Africa.

This ‘family tree’ enabled the researchers to examine how these and other regions of the planet with Mediterranean-style climates have become so-called ‘biodiversity hotspots’.

Mediterranean hotspots
Until now, scientists have not known exactly why such large numbers of plant and animal species live in these Mediterranean hotspots. They are places of significant conservational importance which, like the rainforests, contain some of the richest and most threatened communities of plant and animal life on Earth.

The research published provides the first conclusive proof that plant species in two of these hotspots are evolving approximately three times faster than elsewhere on the planet. The study dates this surge in protea speciation as occurring in the last 10-20 million years, following a period of climate change during which SWA and the CFR became hotter, drier, and more prone to vegetation fires.

Dr Vincent Savolainen, a biologist based at Imperial College London and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, one of the authors of the new study, explains its significance, saying:

“Something special is happening in these regions: new species of proteas are appearing notably faster than elsewhere, and we suspect this could be the same case with other plant species too. This study proves that the abundance of different kinds of proteas in these two areas isn’t simply due to normal rates of species diversification occurring over a long period of time.

“This is the first step towards understanding why some parts of the planet with a Mediterranean-style climate have become species-rich biodiversity hotspots.”

The Cape Floristic Region of South Africa and South Western Australia are two of five areas on Earth with a Mediterranean-style climate which have been designated ‘biodiversity hotspots’ by Conservation International. The others are central Chile, California, and the Mediterranean basin.

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