Tony Verboom 

Dr Tony Verboom is plant biologist whose research examines the ecology and evolution of the Greater Cape flora of South Africa. His research interests include diversification pattern and process, functional trait evolution, vegetation pattern and the assembly of communities and biotas. In addition, he actively researches the systematics and taxonomy of Cape plants, particularly in the families Asteraceae, Cyperaceae and Poaceae. Dr Verboom is based at the University of Cape Town, where he teaches a range of topics in ecology, evolution and systematics. To date he has authored or co-authored 64 journal articles and three book chapters, and he co-edited a multi-contributor book on the ecology and evolution of the Greater Cape biota


Vegetation of the Greater Cape Floristic Region: a floristic perspective


While vegetation organization and dynamics are typically evaluated from a functional trait perspective, floristics offers an alternative but complementary approach. Informed by the individuality thesis of Ghiselin and the concept of phylogenetic trait/niche conservatism, floristic approaches recognize that biological lineages are evolutionarily unique, their member species displaying distinct behaviours which differ from those of other lineages. In this talk, I use floristics to tease apart the organization, ecological dynamics, and diversity of the Greater Cape flora of South Africa. Focussing first on vegetation classification, I argue that floristics provides a valuable foundation for grouping plant communities into broad, biome-scale assemblages, the boundaries between biomes corresponding to zones of high lineage turnover. Floristic turnover at biome boundaries is variable, however, reflecting variation in the strength of the environmental contrasts that underpin them. Thus, turnover is greatest across boundaries that describe extreme environmental contrasts, with ecological specialization involving trait co-adaptation and consequently low trait plasticity and lability being most pronounced in the context of extreme environments. In the Greater Cape Floristic Region this describes the boundaries between open and closed-canopy vegetation and between the vegetation of extremely infertile versus somewhat more fertile soils. While the floristic affinity of fynbos heathland and renosterveld scrubland is surprising in view of their contrasting edaphic associations, this almost certainly reflects fire-modulated resource fluctuations which are particularly pronounced in fynbos vegetation. By enabling multiple floristic assemblages to be superimposed locally during the post-fire succession sequence, these fluctuations likely also contribute to the exceptional species richness of fynbos vegetation.

Alexandra D. Syphard

Dr. Syphard is a chief scientist at Sage Insurance Holdings LLC and serves as an affiliate of the Conservation Biology Institute and adjunct professor in Geography at San Diego State University. Alexandra is a research scientist who has spent more than two decades analyzing the ecological and social drivers and impacts of landscape change, particularly focusing on wildfire in Mediterranean ecosystems. Using a variety of mapping, statistical, and modeling approaches, Alexandra investigates how change has occurred in the past, how it is likely to occur in the future, and how different policy or management scenarios may impact ecological and social well-being. For the last decade, Alexandra has concentrated intensely on wildfire risk to communities and identifying the best approaches for balancing fire risk reduction with biodiversity conservation. Her research also focuses on the interactions among wildfire patterns, land use change and urban growth, climate change, vegetation dynamics and biodiversity, invasive species, and species’ range shifts.


Unraveling the complex effects of global change on altered fire regimes in California 


Catastrophic effects of wildfires on human lives and assets have increased the prominence of wildfire in the media and across the scientific community. Consequently, there is growing awareness of the importance of wildfire as a natural process, and there is a rich and rapidly growing body of literature on wildfire and global change. Nevertheless, the complicated nature of changes in fire regimes creates confusion in the media and is leading to widespread misconceptions about how and why fire regimes are changing, and which management decisions are most appropriate in different contexts. Although wildfire impacts to humans are increasing monotonically, changes to natural fire regimes and associated ecological consequences are more variable. The relative contribution of global change drivers to altered fire regimes varies geographically, even within similar regions. In California, an environmentally heterogeneous state with a Mediterranean climate, fire return intervals have been altered in nearly opposite directions, for different reasons. The effects of climate change, vegetation management, human land use, and invasive species on ecological conditions and natural fire regimes vary in direction and magnitude, yet there have been many thousands of structures lost to wildfire across the entire state in recent years. In the northern part of the state, climate change and forest stand conditions will likely be top concerns for driving future large fires. In southern California, however, human ignitions, invasive species, and fire weather are most important. Although the pathways vary, fire-driven vegetation type conversion is driving substantial ecological transformations statewide and is one of the most serious threats to biodiversity and ecosystem integrity.  Better understanding and awareness of this complexity and geographical variability will be critical for matching appropriate solutions to the problems.

Frank Schurr 

Dr. Frank Schurr is an ecologist interested in the spatiotemporal dynamics of biodiversity. His research ranges from basic evolutionary ecology to applied conservation biology. A unifying theme is that he aims to improve the mechanistic understanding of biodiversity dynamics. To this end, he works on linking process-based models to experiments, field surveys and molecular data. While he worked on several Mediterranean-type ecosystems, a long-standing focus of his research is the South African Fynbos biome where he has studied Proteaceous shrubs for almost 20 years.


Macrodemography – how large-scale biodiversity dynamics arise from the reproduction, mortality and dispersal of individuals


The three demographic processes of reproduction, mortality and dispersal determine the dynamics of local populations. Hence, much demographic research has so far focused on local populations of single species. Yet theory states that demography should also drive biodiversity dynamics at large spatial, temporal and organizational scales. This comprises the dynamics of species’ geographical ranges, macroevolutionary dynamics, or the dynamics of species-rich communities. Macrodemography, the study of demographic variation in space, time and across multiple species, thus holds considerable promise for advancing the understanding and prediction of large-scale biodiversity dynamics. However, a macrodemographic research agenda faces two major challenges: (1) to understand drivers of demographic variation within and between species, and (2) to understand how demographic processes acting at the level of individuals scale up to large spatial, long temporal and complex organizational scales. Here, I give an overview of recent progress on these topics. I focus on serotinous shrubs from fire-prone Mediterranean-type ecosystems, notably on Proteaceae from South African Fynbos. Their fire-linked life history makes them particularly suited for macrodemographic studies, their remarkable diversity enables comparative demographic analyses, and their key role in Fynbos ecosystems means that demographic research on them has high applied relevance. Research on this model system of macrodemography yields predictions that can be tested in other Mediterranean-type ecosystems and beyond. It should thus shed new light on the mechanisms that drive the past, present and future dynamics of biodiversity.

Wendy Foden

Wendy Foden is a conservation biologist who focuses on climate change adaptation. She led development of IUCN’s methodology for assessing climate change vulnerability of species, and its subsequent application to the world’s birds, amphibians, corals and lemurs. Dr Foden is based at South African National Parks where she leads the Cape Research Centre, a team carrying out applied research in Fynbos and Succulent Karoo biome parks. She is also preparing SANParks’ climate change preparedness strategy.  Dr Foden chairs the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Climate Change Specialist Group and recently won IUCN’s George Rabb award for her “innovative, dynamic and thoughtful leadership of SSC’s work on climate change”. She’s passionate about fostering conservation leadership, and continues her ongoing research on climate change impacts on Namib desert Quiver Trees.


Responding to climate change impacts in Mediterranean ecosystems: challenges and opportunities


Climate change impacts on biodiversity are now common-place, with impacts spanning genes, populations, species, ecosystems and their services.  Countries’ generally poor progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions means that such impacts are ongoing and escalating, and since critical thresholds of polar land and sea ice melt have now been surpassed, threats resulting from sea level rise and changing ocean currents are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years. The need for conservation action is clear and urgent, but several factors are obstructing and slowing our progress. 

The conservation community has embraced climate change vulnerability assessment. With notable exceptions, assessments have most commonly focused at species levels, upscaling these to infer impacts on ecosystems and in specific geographic areas (e.g., protected areas, countries). Although subject to limitations, such assessments are valuable for identifying the biodiversity most at risk from climate change, and may help to identify the mechanisms underpinning vulnerability. As such, they have formed an important foundation for development of conservation strategies and adaptation plans. I discuss examples, including a case study of South Africa’s National Parks.  

Evidence of real-world roll-out of adaptation plans is, however, concerningly rare, as noted in the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. I discuss possible reasons, including the inherent conservatism of modern conservation practice and the relatively short duration of typical funding cycles. Because climate change is a new threat, the suite of adaptation tools has many gaps and its long- and medium-term effectiveness remain unclear. Developing a shared evidence base and filling the adaptation toolbox with appropriate tools is urgently required. Mediterranean ecosystems face particular climate change trajectories relative to other systems, with both shared and differing impacts and challenges. Meeting the urgent adaptation need is dependent on a strong, cooperative response by the science community and a collective focus on innovative research and practice. 

Jaco Le Roux

Dr Jaco Le Roux is a plant biologist, broadly interested in the ecology and evolutionary biology of invasive species. His research traverses spatial and temporal scales, from studying the microevolutionary dynamics of populations to interpreting the biogeography of plant species. He also has a keen interest in understanding how plants interact with soil microbes. Over the last decade his group’s research in this field has focused on invasive Australian acacias (genus Acacia) and their symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Using this system, he aims to understand the role of mutualisms in facilitating the success of non-native legumes in Mediterranean-type ecosystems. His group also studies the impacts of invasive plants on native soil microbial communities and the consequences of these impacts for native plants. Dr Le Roux is affiliated with Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He is the author/co-author of 94 research papers and two book chapters.


How do soil microbes drive and respond to plant invasion in Mediterranean ecosystems?


Invasive species can have numerous impacts on biodiversity. Our understanding of these impacts comes largely from the aboveground components of invaded ecosystems. It is only recently that ecologists have begun to appreciate the impacts of invasive species on the unseen majority: microbial communities. Microbes not only play critical roles in structuring native plant communities, but also in the establishment success of non-native species. I will discuss these ideas in the context of mutualisms between rhizobium bacteria and invasive Australian Acacia species in Mediterranean ecosystems. In countries like South Africa, different Acacia species show variable invasiveness, yet share the same rhizobia. Phylogenetic analyses show that these bacteria have been co-introduced with their host plants from Australia. So, what are the consequences of co-invading acacias and rhizobia for native biodiversity? Ecological networks suggest that acacias and native legumes form highly distinct rhizobial associations. Consequently, rhizobium interactions of specialist native legumes (i.e. those capable of forming associations with only one or a few rhizobia) are more severely impacted by acacia invasion than the interactions of generalist legumes. While some native legumes are able sanction exotic rhizobia, dense acacia thickets homogenise soil rhizobial communities, contributing to positive invasive acacia-soil feedbacks. The latter suggests that broader soil microbial impacts are likely to arise under acacia invasion, illustrated by the lower diversity and complexity of soil microbial networks in invaded sites compared to uninvaded sites. I will discuss all the above findings in the context of plant invasion and how this knowledge can be used to assist management and ecological restoration.

Roberto Salguero-Gómez

Dr. Salguero-Gómez is an associate professor in Ecology, a tutorial fellow and NERC independent research fellow at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. His research interests include:

  1. Demography: population responses to disturbances and climate change. Importance of buffering mechanisms for the maintenance of populations in stochastic environments. Demographic resilience. Transient dynamics
  2. Functional ecology: predictive power of functional traits for life history traits and population dynamics
  3. Ecophysiology and anatomy: Acquisition and allocation of belowground resources
  4. Biomolecular bases for the evolution and escape of senescence
  5. Comparative biology: macro-ecology, evolution of senescence, trait diversification, phylogenetic analyses
  6. Desert ecology: Non-linear effects of projected shifts in abiotic factors on biota
  7. Open-access, reproducible research


In the search for demographic oddities and their role in ecology, evolution and conservation biology


Population ecology has come of age, and with it, a clearer picture of our demographic knowledge across the Tree of Life. After decades of field demographic data acquisition, and supported by the development of multiple open-access databases and consortia, the discipline has finally reached the an unprecedented position of being able to carefully set priorities based on the landscape of what is known and what is not. In this talk, I will make the case for which life histories, biogeographic corners of the planet, and branches of the Tree of Life require more attention and why. I will introduce a technological pipeline that uses autonomous robots, unmanned aerial vehicles, hyper spectral sensors, and cloud computing, to expedite a full, comprehensive knowledge of the demographies of the Tree of Life

Mingzhen Lu

Lu is an Omidyar Complexity Fellow (2020-2023) at the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico. His research interest is to unearth the simple rules that give rise to empirical complexities across the Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems, especially their component biology and elements cycling. He hopes to improve our ability to project the future trajectories of terrestrial ecosystems with improved causal understanding.
Lu received his bachelor’s degrees in Geography and Biology (‘12) from Peking University, his PhD (‘18) in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) from Princeton University. He held a postdoctoral research associate position at Princeton after his graduation before he was promoted to an Associate Research Scholar in 2019. He is a board member of SinoEco, and member of Sigma Xi, Ecological Society of America, and the American Geophysical Union.


Biome boundary maintained by intense belowground resource competition in world’s thinnest-rooted plant community


By reversing a multimillion-year Earth cooling trend in merely two centuries, our modern civilization has challenged plant species to move, adapt, or go extinct at unprecedented rates and scales. This raises the urgent and fundamental question of how terrestrial biomes — specially their component vegetation dynamics — will respond to the rapidly changing environmental conditions. We examined the novel hypothesis that belowground plant-plant resource competition may be critical for determining the location and composition of biomes. Specifically, we present a 4-yr field experiment designed to evaluate whether rooting strategies, combined with soil resource competition, can act to stabilize the boundary between two distinct biomes in the Cape Floristic region of South Africa: Fynbos and Southern Afrotemperate Forest. Both biomes occur interchangeably on exceedingly phosphorus-poor geological substrates throughout the region and the biome distribution cannot be straight-forwardly resolved by climate-edaphic or other landscape-scale variables. Our findings reveal that the fynbos biome is the thinnest-rooted biome worldwide, standing out even compared with other climatically analogous biomes. What was more unexpected however, was that this biome is limited by nitrogen rather than phosphorus. This finding challenges the historical expectation that fynbos is shaped by persistent and severe phosphorus limitation. Overall, these findings are important for understanding the factors that determine vegetation dynamics, and for predicting how these vegetation dynamics will be affected by human activities including climate change.

Rupert Koopman

Rupert currently works at the Botanical Society of South Africa. Previously, spent more than a decade as a botanist at CapeNature specialising in fynbos – specifically threatened species and habitats. Rupert works in Botany, Ecology and Biology. Their most recent publication is ‘Marasmodes (Asteraceae, Anthemideae), the most threatened plant genus of the Cape Floristic Region, South Africa: Conservation and taxonomy


Upcycling the past to shape the present and future of Plant Conservation


Just as the plants of Mediterranean ecosystems have evolved over time to perfectly fit their niches, the formation of a core of plant observers and citizen scientists is not an overnight event. We will reflect on the Fynbos Research group which led into Fynbos Forum and how the baseline was laid for today’s contemporary plant conservation work in the Botanical Society and Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers . A key contributor to laying the base was Ml (Margie Jarman) who recently passed on and it is fitting to remember the key role she played in both the Fynbos Biome Project and the Fynbos Forum. 

Our contemporary work tends towards cutting edge but it is NB to return to the roots for inspiration. For example. sites identified in the Jarman Report remain some of the highest priority in the CFR and, although some have been secured, some have been lost. 

Previous BotSoc and other fynbos conservation work has leaned heavily on this information as a key reference to, amongst others, the Cape Lowlands Renosterveld Project and Putting Plans to Work. We celebrate the advanced thinking of what was achieved with the data and technology available at the time which is unsung but still vital for current conservation workers to know, use and improve.

Karen J. Esler

Karen is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Conservation Ecology & Entomology at Stellenbosch University. She has an interest in best-practice conservation, management and restoration of biodiversity in Mediterranean-Type ecosystems. She has been a core team member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology since its inception (2004), and currently serves as African Associate Editor for the journal ‘Conservation Biology’


Spotlight on Mediterranean-Type Ecosystems: Model systems for global change comparisons, regional and local responses.


The Mediterranean Biome is uniquely special, containing several diverse biodiversity hotspots but subject to a range of biodiversity loss drivers. These include variously interactive drivers of land use/Land cover changes, changes in natural (fire) disturbance regimes, invasions from alien species and anthropogenic climate change. Overt similarities between the five distinct regions of the world that support Mediterranean Type Ecosystems (MTEs) have led to a long history of comparative research, but since drivers of change vary in magnitude across these regions (as does political, social, historical and cultural context), the topics considered important for biodiversity conservation differ. In a recent study of research priorities for MTEs, these regional and sectoral priorities were highlighted, and common to all regions were priorities around governance, climate change and public participation. While local questions reflect globally recognized concerns, priority research questions for Cape biodiversity conservation more frequently deal with nuances of perceptions and behavior linked to conservation, governance and human values. These aspects are best addressed at local levels. A key strength in the Cape is the Fynbos Forum, a 40+ year strong partnership of researchers, planners, managers, landowners and other stakeholders that meets annually to discuss and debate research results, management priorities and conservation actions. This diverse regional network has demonstrated its value in maintaining networks, building sound knowledge bases, developing capacity and supporting implementation. Integrated approaches that provide opportunity for managers and researchers to interact in the long-term are especially valuable to address global change challenges – specifically, I will describe a successful local partnership, the Blaauwberg Large-scale Sand Fynbos Restoration Project, as a model example to achieve such goals. To effectively conserve MTE systems and to counter global change challenges, the conservation sector has to be willing to broaden research agendas to include social sciences, humanities and citizen science, and in this way work towards conservation in a societal context.

Kathleen M Kay

Kathleen M. Kay is an Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She grew up in California, where she fell in love with the flora from many family trips to natural areas around the state. She then earned her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Biology from the University of California, Davis. In 2004, she received a dual PhD in Plant Biology and Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior from Michigan State University, with a dissertation on speciation mechanisms in Neotropical spiral gingers. She then received a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Park Foundation to return to California and her native habitat. In 2008, she joined the faculty at UCSC and has developed a research program centered on understanding patterns and processes of adaptation and speciation in the California and Neotropical floras. She holds the Jean H. Langenheim Chair in Plant Ecology and Evolution at UCSC.


Divergent edaphic adaptation promotes speciation, coexistence, and persistence in the California flora


Mediterranean climate ecosystems (MCEs) are renowned for their floristic diversity and comprise many plant species radiations tightly packed into relatively small geographic areas. Comparative work in many MCEs, including the California flora, suggests that rather than MCEs being hotbeds of plant speciation, the remarkable diversity can be attributed to low extinction rates over long timescales and spatial coexistence of close relatives. Topography, and the associated variation in edaphic (soil) conditions, may contribute to the plant diversity in MCEs by providing diverse niches for species coexistence and divergent adaptation. Moreover, harsh and unusual soils may provide a refuge for the persistence of species that are otherwise poor competitors. I use serpentine soil-plant associations in the California flora to address several outstanding questions about the mechanisms by which edaphic adaptation contributes to plant diversity. I investigate the spatial scale and repeatability of edaphic divergence between coexisting congeners. I ask whether, and how, edaphic divergence limits gene flow among populations within a species and between recently diverged sister species. I use a comparative study across the California serpentine flora to ask whether adaptation to harsh soils is typically associated with loss of competitive ability and whether that loss can help explain edaphic endemism. I use examples from my lab’s work in several California plant lineages to address these questions, and I pose additional questions for future work, with the goal of a synthetic understanding of how edaphic factors contribute to floristic diversity of a Mediterranean Climate Ecosystem.

Kerstin Braun

Dr. Kerstin Braun is an Assistant Research Scientist with the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University. Her main research interest is the reconstruction of South African climates and environments on glacial-interglacial timescales. Dr. Braun is especially interested in the impact that past changes in climate had on the vegetation in the region and how past variability (or lack thereof) can shape present-day diversity patterns. Her research also aims to contextualize the environmental and resource landscapes that hunter-gatherer communities encountered in southern South Africa.


Climatic stability recorded in speleothem stable isotopes affects diversity of Mediterranean climate regions


The geography and genesis of diversity remain an enduring topic in ecology and evolution. Mediterranean Climate Ecosystems (MCEs), with their high plant diversities in winter rainfall climates, pose a challenge to popular hypotheses evoking high water-availability and temperature as necessary prerequisites for the evolution of high diversity. The world’s highest extratropical plant diversity and endemism are found in South Africa’s Cape Floristic Region (CFR) and have been attributed to greater Pleistocene biome stability compared to other MCEs (Cowling et al., 2015; Linder, 2008). In this study, we test the hypothesis of environmental stability as a fundamental driver for the evolution of regional-scale floristic diversity using speleothems oxygen (δ18O) and carbon (δ13C) isotopic values as proxies for past climatic variability in the CFR and other MCEs.

We present a new ~420 ka-long record of speleothem oxygen and carbon stable isotopic compositions from Robertson in the western CFR. The dispersion of these stable isotope records is used as a measure for climatic variability. We compare our new record to speleothem records that cover full glacial and interglacial conditions and are located in other MCEs (California and the Mediterranean Basin) as well as in eastern regions of the CFR. All sites used in this comparison have lower vascular plant biodiversity than the western CFR.

Analyses of the dispersion of the δ18O and δ13C data sets show that the highly diverse western CFR experienced extraordinary climatic stability across several glacial-interglacial cycles, compared with the less diverse regions within and outside of the CFR. This result provides compelling support for the hypothesis that lower extinction rates associated with Pleistocene biome stability underpins hyper-diversity in MCE regions.

Anton Pauw

Prof. Anton Pauw teaches and conducts research in ecology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. The topic of his research is biological diversity, how it originates and how it is assembled into ecological communities. To answer these questions, he focuses on plant-animal interactions in South Africa, in particular, the West Coast Region.

Anton has been awarded the Percy Sargeant Medal for the Promotion of the Flora of Southern Africa and its Conservation and the University of Natal General Book Prize for Table Mountain: a natural history. His research findings have been published in Nature, Ecology, Evolution, American Naturalist, and Journal of Ecology. He is a board member of Ingcungcu Sunbird Restoration, which aims to reconnect migration routes for nectar-feeding birds across the City of Cape Town while providing environmental education at under-resourced schools. Previously, he was employed by the BBC Natural History Film Unit.


Ecology of the West Coast of Southern Africa


The aim of the talk is to introduce visiting scientists to the natural history of the region in which the conference is located. I start with a description of climate, soils, and environmental history. Then ask how four key processes namely dispersal, speciation, selection among species and random subsampling has influenced the species composition of the West Coast Region. The actors in these processes include long-proboscid flies, oil-collecting bees, sunbirds, molerats, eland, pincushion proteas, orchids, and irids. I hope to provide some insight into the unique circumstances of the West Coast while keeping in mind the broader processes that generate and maintain biological diversity. The talk will be illustrated with numerous photographs from the region.