UP Plant Science student wins Grassland Society of Southern Africa Young Scientist Award

Posted on September 13, 2021

Annerine Myburgh, an MSc Plant Science student at the University of Pretoria (UP), recently won an award for the Best Presentation by a Young Scientist at the Grassland Society of Southern Africa’s 56th Congress.

She won this prestigious award for her research which aims to understand patterns and drivers of forb diversity in the under-sampled and threatened grasslands of South Africa. She is doing her master’s degree under the supervision of Prof Michelle Greve (UP Department of Plant and Soil Sciences) and Dr Caroline Lehmann (University of Edinburgh).

“Nature conservation has been my passion from a very young age. My life goal has always been to impact conservation efforts in South Africa, as we are truly fortunate to live in a country with incredible diversity that is worth preserving. Therefore, winning this award is a tremendous honour, as it is the first formal recognition that I received in pursuit of this dream. Furthermore, the publicity this award brings will hopefully further the case for grassland conservation in our country,” said an elated Myburgh when asked about winning this award.

Diversity in grassland systems has historically been significantly undervalued and understudied while there is also the Eurocentric notion that forest systems are the only climax vegetation communities, with open vegetation systems (like grasslands and savannas) owing their existence to forest degradation by humans, said Myburgh. “Yet, natural grasslands are ancient and boast exceptional floristic diversity. In South Africa, the grassland biome is the most transformed and least protected biome. Mining, agriculture and afforestation having permanently altered enormous swathes of grassland regions, which results in a gross loss of floristic diversity,” Myburgh explained, giving some background on her research.

Myburgh said the results from her research project confirm that grassland systems are incredibly rich, not only on a species level but also on genus and family level.

“This indicates that multiple species belong to many genera and families, even in a fairly small grassland area. We also found that different grasslands sites had very different species assemblages, even when they were fairly short distances apart. This shows that neighbouring grassland areas often house very different suites of species; in other words, each grassland site harbours some or several species that are not found elsewhere.”

As a result, she noted, the transformation of even comparatively small grassland areas will potentially lead to a significant loss of species diversity in grasslands.

“Therefore, it is necessary to conserve many larger sites across the grassland biome to conserve grassland species effectively. Implementing this new knowledge about diversity patterns in grassland systems will help to conserve this very unique and special biome effectively,” Myburgh concluded.

- Author Martie Meyer

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