NWU, USA researchers receive sought-after award

Issued by
North West, Dec 2, 2015

An extremely sought-after research award of the National Geographic Society was bestowed on researchers of the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the North-West University.

Prof Stefan Siebert of the NWU's research unit for environmental sciences and management, and Prof Nishanta Rajakaruna, an extraordinary professor from the USA, received more than R230 000 ($17 850) to research the role of substrate chemistry and the climate in the diversity of lichen species in South Africa.

The project entails collaboration between international experts of the USA and South Africa and, according to Siebert, it also offers an ideal opportunity for undergraduate and postgraduate students in the USA and SA to co-operate. The other collaborators are Dr Alan Fryday (Michigan State University) and students of the NWU (Ricart Boneschans) and the College of the Atlantic in Maine (Ian Medeiros and Nate Pope).

The National Geographic award is very competitive, with only 25% of the applicants deemed worthy in any given year.

According to Rajakaruna, they are excited about the project, and their efforts to examine the diversity and the ecology of lichens (an understudied group of organisms) in a biodiversity hotspot such as South Africa will contribute to their understanding of lichen diversity in South Africa.

This study will help to shed light on how climate change can affect elements of the South African natural world. Efforts to document rock lichens in terms of climate gradients can help to demonstrate how geology and climatic factors interact to generate patterns of lichen diversity, and to give insight on how climate change can affect South Africa's lichen biota.

Rajakaruna wrote the proposal for the award and mentioned that the project would investigate how climate variables such as rainfall and temperature interacted with rock and soil chemistry to affect the diversity of rock-dwelling and soil-dwelling lichen species.

The study would augment conservation efforts by showing which edaphic (soil properties) diversity had to be protected to conserve South Africa's lichen diversity. He said that because rainfall patterns could be changed by climate change, the research would also provide insight on how climate change could influence South Africa's lichen biota.

According to Rajakaruna, the project will also assist with the lack of studies on lichen species in South Africa and the training of local scientists.

Rajakaruna says the project strongly concentrates on growing research capacity in South Africa and is a critical component of the work he will be doing during his appointment as a visiting research professor at the NWU.

In the summary of the proposal, he wrote that lichenology was a seriously understudied science in South Africa and that no taxonomists (someone who classifies plants and animals in types or families) or ecologists of lichen species are resident in South Africa.

Prof Stefan Siebert said a lichen is an organism consisting of algae or cyanobacteria that live in symbiosis with a fungus. "The fungus benefits from the relationship because the algae and the cyanobacteria produce food through photosynthesis. In exchange, the filaments of the fungus protect the algae and the cyanobacteria against the environment and serve as an anchor, but the fungus also shares the water and the nutrients that the filaments absorb from the environment."

He says lichen species have many assorted sizes, shapes and colours and three main growth forms, namely very small leafless branches, or flat foliose structures, or flakes that resemble peeling paint.

Siebert says there are 1 750 known lichen species from across South Africa, from the coastal area to the tops of the highest mountains. Lichens flourish in a variety of environmental conditions and can grow on practically any surface.

"It is estimated that 6% of the earth's land surface is covered by lichens."

Prof Stefan Siebert 018 299 2507 [email protected]