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Meet the Marasmodes: A celebration for Freedom Day

APR 23, 2020  |  Written by Zoë C Poulsen, Photos by Rupert Koopman, Ismail Abrahim & Leandra Knoetze

Meet the Marasmodes

 

 

Today we celebrate Freedom Day, commemorating the day that South Africa held its first democratic elections. This important day in our country’s history is a celebration of freedom and opportunity for South Africa as a new era dawned. Our partners at the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW) have found a perfect way to celebrate this day, honouring our natural heritage by collecting data for conservation.

Each year since 2007 on Freedom Day CREW host Marasmodes Day, a day of monitoring for the threatened species that make up this little-known genus of plants. It is at this time of year that members of this genus come into bloom, well outside the normal flowering season for many plant species that call the Fynbos Biome home. This year sadly, due to COVID-19 and associated social distancing regulations, we can’t go and find the Marasmodes, so we decided to celebrate Marasmodes Day by bringing them to you at home instead.

 

Above: Marasmodes oppositifolia (Critically Endangered) growing in its only known habitat in Breede Alluvium Fynbos at Romansrivier, Breede River Valley. Photo: Rupert Koopman.

 

So what are Marasmodes? Marasmodes are a small genus of shrubs that belong to the Asteraceae or Daisy family. There are currently thirteen recognised species, all of which grow in lowland renosterveld and fynbos vegetation. The majority of our Cape lowland vegetation has been lost, predominantly due to habitat transformation for agriculture and urban development as this vegetation occurs on fertile soils in accessible areas.

This has rendered Marasmodes the Cape Floristic Region and South Africa’s most threatened plant genus, with ten of the thirteen species classed as Critically Endangered. The remaining three are classified as Endangered on the Red List of South African Plants. One species in the genus, Maramodes reflexa, was last collected in the Napier area of the Overberg in 1946 and is considered to be possibly extinct. Extensive efforts have been made by CREW volunteers to locate any surviving subpopulations, currently without success. It is however possible that this species may have been overlooked, and biodiversity surveys in the area are ongoing.

 

Above: Marasmodes dummeri (Endangered). Photo: Rupert Koopman.

 

So what are Marasmodes?

Marasmodes are a small genus of shrubs that belong to the Asteraceae or Daisy family. There are currently thirteen recognised species, all of which grow in lowland renosterveld and fynbos vegetation. The majority of our Cape lowland vegetation has been lost, predominantly due to habitat transformation for agriculture and urban development as this vegetation occurs on fertile soils in accessible areas.

This has rendered Marasmodes the Cape Floristic Region and South Africa’s most threatened plant genus, with ten of the thirteen species classed as Critically Endangered. The remaining three are classified as Endangered on the Red List of South African Plants. One species in the genus, Maramodes reflexa, was last collected in the Napier area of the Overberg in 1946 and is considered to be possibly extinct. Extensive efforts have been made by CREW volunteers to locate any surviving subpopulations, currently without success. It is however possible that this species may have been overlooked, and biodiversity surveys in the area are ongoing.

For those of us in the Cape Town area or the Swartland, the Marasmodes are close to if not right on our doorsteps. We cannot be the generation that stood by and did nothing as this part of our natural heritage quietly journeys towards extinction. It is not just the big spectacular flagship species that bloom during spring that are important, these off-season autumn blooming ‘Cinderellas’ of the Cape Floristic Region need a look in too.

 

Above: Marasmodes macrocephala (Critically Endangered) in bloom on Wolsley Commonage in Breede Alluvium Fynbos. Photo: Rupert Koopman.

 

So what have we done and what can we do?

Effective conservation of threatened species is driven by knowledge. How many populations still survive? Where are they? What threats do they face? What can we do about it? We have identified that Marasmodes are often overlooked in biodiversity surveys, as they are easy to miss when not in bloom and most surveys and monitoring take place during spring. Most also grow on private land outside formal protected areas, which may not be routinely visited by biodiversity practitioners. There may therefore very likely be populations of Marasmodes species that have gone undiscovered and undocumented.

With a relatively limited number of biodiversity professionals in the field, the citizen scientists of CREW have become the heroes in the story of the Marasmodes. Each Freedom Day they have volunteered their time and headed out into the field, gathering data that each year has improved our knowledge of this little-known and neglected genus.

 

Above: Marasmodes dummeri being visited by a Crimson Speckled Footman moth. Photo: Rupert Koopman.

 

Each Marasmodes Day we have celebrated new discoveries, including new subpopulations identified and even new species found. Two new species, Marasmodes crewiana and Marasmodes oppositifolia, were described alongside a new revision of the genus, published in the South African Journal of Botany in 2017. This would not have been possible were it not for the efforts of CREW’s citizen science volunteers. Revising the genus has meant that past confusion over species names no longer hampers accurate red listing of threat status and other conservation efforts.

 

Above: Marasmodes undulata in bloom. Photo: Ismail Abrahim.

 

Furthermore, the CREW Cape Floristic Region (CFR) team, with support from the Drakenstein municipality, Stellenbosch Botanical Gardens, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens and the Millennium Seed Bank team at Kirstenbosch, have received a grant from the Mohammed Bin Zayed species conservation fund to improve the conservation status of the Critically Endangered Marasmodes undulata, which is currently only known from three individuals at Orleans Park in the Paarl Valley.

This project aims to secure and grow the last wild population of Marasmodes undulata at Orleans Park, by propagating the species from 300 seeds that have been collected and stored ex-situ by the Millennium Seed Bank project team. In addition, the project aims to raise awareness around the conservation status of Marasmodes undulata and support the municipality in the effective management and conservation of the site.

 

Above: CREW volunteers in the field at Orleans Park (Photos taken prior to COVID-19 social distancing regulations). Photo: Ismail Abrahim.

 

We can celebrate that the Marasmodes have now been given the attention they deserve, although there is still much work to do for their monitoring and conservation. There are still many other Cinderella plant species across South Africa and beyond that are threatened and of which we know little. Maybe they bloom outside the main flowering season, or perhaps are overlooked in biodiversity surveys. They deserve our attention too.

 

Above: Planting seeds of Maramodes undulata ex-situ at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. Photo: Leandra Knoetze.

 

The close- knit community of SANBI’s CREW citizen science volunteers look forward to returning to the field when it is safe, to continue their dedicated and hard work, bringing a little more hope for survival in the future for of the ‘Cinderellas’ of South Africa’s megadiverse flora.

 

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