Landscape functionality and plant diversity of grassland fragments along an urban–rural gradient in the Tlokwe Municipal area, South Africa
Van der Walt, Luanita
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Urbanisation is an ever-growing global phenomenon which creates altered environments characterised by increased human habitation, exotic species, impermeable surfaces, artificial structures, landscape fragmentation, habitat loss, and modified energy– and resource pathways. The vulnerable Rand Highveld Grassland vegetation unit in the Tlokwe Municipal area, South Africa, has been extensively degraded and transformed by urbanisation and agriculture. Only 1% of this endangered ecosystem is currently being actively conserved. Grassland fragments in urban areas are considered to be less species rich and less functional than their more “natural” counterparts, and are therefore not a priority for conservation. In this study the effects of landscape matrix quality on intra patch variables, namely plant species diversity and functional diversity, and fine-scale biogeochemical landscape function (as determined by Landscape Function Analysis or LFA) of 30 fragments of the Rand Highveld Grassland vegetation unit were explored. Four urbanisation measures (percentage urban land cover, percentage grass land cover, edge density, and density of people), acting as indicators for patterns and processes associated with urban areas, were calculated for matrix areas with a 500m radius surrounding each selected grassland fragment to quantify the position of each grassland remnant along an urban-to-rural gradient. Using the specific urbanisation measures, the grassland fragments were objectively classified into two classes of urbanisation, namely “rural/peri-urban” and “urban”, to allow for statistical comparisons between intra-patch variables for grassland remnants exposed to similar urbanisation pressures. Plant species composition and diversity were determined in the selected grassland fragments and nine functional traits were described for each species. Plant functional diversity was determined by five functional diversity indices, namely functional richness, evenness, divergence, dispersion, and specialisation. Fine-scale biogeochemical landscape function was determined by executing the LFA method. LFA assesses fine-scale landscape patchiness and 11 soil surface indicators to produce three main LFA parameters (stability, infiltration, and nutrient cycling), which indicates how well a system is functioning in terms of resource conservation and soil processes. Possible relationships between fine-scale biogeochemical landscape function and plant species- and functional diversity were also investigated. NMDS ordinations and basic statistics were used to determine trends and effects within the data. The results indicated that urban grassland remnants had lower mean plant species richness, Shannon species diversity (significantly), and Pielou species evenness than rural/peri-urban grassland fragments. Urban grassland fragments also contained significantly higher percentage of exotic species. Correlations were found between the four urbanisation measures and percentage species of the total species richness possessing certain functional attributes. This indicated that increased urbanisation may influence the species composition and the occurrence of certain plant traits in the selected grassland fragments. Urbanisation seems to have no effect on fine-scale landscape heterogeneity of the selected grassland fragments. Rural/peri-urban grassland fragments had higher infiltration capacity, nutrient cycling potential, and total SSA functionality (although not significantly), which may be ascribed to differences in management practices, such as mowing in urban areas and grazing in rural areas. Rand Highveld Grassland fragments in the urban landscape matrix of Potchefstroom city are just as conservable in terms of plant species diversity and functional diversity, as well as on a biophysical function level involving soil processes than rural/peri-urban grassland fragments. High plant species diversity and the presence of certain plant traits did not contribute to high soil surface stability, infiltration capacity, nutrient cycling potential and total soil surface functioning.