Know Your Biomes IX: Chaparral

Sep 06 2011

Fynbos in the Western Cape, South Africa*

As much as any biome or global ecoregion is a challenge to group, differentiate or otherwise generalize, the chaparral or Mediterranean woodlands (scrubland/heathland/grassland) biome may be the best example such classification difficulties. There’s perhaps more general agreement regarding the features of this biome, even if the name tends to change from author to author. Many texts will not even include this biome in their list of major regions, instead making a small reference to it in the section regarding deserts. However, these areas, considering their combined territory, contain about 20 percent of the world’s species of plants, many of them endemic gems found nowhere else. On the flipside, due to the often environmentally heterogeneous nature of this biome, organisms that are prominent, integral members of other biome classifications are found in the chaparral as well. For the sake of consistency in this post, I’ll continue to refer to this biome as chaparral, as incomplete a descriptive designation as that may be.

Specifically, chaparral biomes exist in five major regions: South Africa, South/Southwest Australia, Southwestern California/Mexico, Central Chile and in patches wrapped around the Mediterranean Sea, including Southern Europe and Northern Africa. These regions are unified by their hot, dry summers and mild winters, referred to as an archetypal Mediterranean climate at 40 degrees north and south approximately.

The vast majority of rainfall usually comes with the cold fronts of winter. Annually, chaparral can experience anywhere from 250 mm of rain all the way up to 3000 mm in isolated subregions like the west portion of Fynbos in South Africa.

Plants in chaparral areas tend to be sclerophyllous (Greek: “hard-leaved”), meaning the leaves are evergreen, tough and waxy. This adaptation allows plants to conserve water in an area where rainfall is discontinuous, but probably evolved to compensate for the low levels of phosphorous in ancient weathered soils, particularly in Australia where there have been relatively few volcanic events to reestablish nutrients over millions of years. Obviously, these plants also happen to do very well during the xeric summers of the chaparral where drought is always a threat.

Because of the aridity and heat, the chaparral plant communities are adapted to and often strategically dependent on fire. Evolutionary succession scenarios constructed by scientists typically point to fire as one of the major factors that created much of chaparral areas in Australia and South Africa from Gondwanaland rainforest. (Fire ecology really deserves at least a post of its own, which I’d like to discuss given the time in the future.)

Some of the regions in the chaparral are exceptional. In South Africa, the area known as the Fynbos constitutes its own floristic region (phytochorion) among phytogeographers, the Cape Floristic Region. While it is the smallest of these floral kingdoms, it contains some 8500 species of vascular plants, 70 percent of which are endemic. The March rose (Oromthamnus zeyheri) is one of the standout specimens of the group as well as the national flower of South Africa, the King protea (Protea cynaroides). P. cynaroides is a “resprouter” in its fire-prone habitat, growing from embedded buds in a subterranean, burl-like structure. Another endemic species, the Cape sugarbird, is shown feeding on a King protea below**.

There is one unique threat to the chaparral: anthropogenic fire. In the past, if nature had not provided a fire to burn back the accumulated brush in these areas, often the native peoples would do so, and generally speaking, the fires seemed to be controlled and effective. But increased frequency of fires due to negligence or downed power lines can potentially cause catastrophic, unrecoverable fire. Only so much tolerance to such a destructive force can be built by evolutionary processes.

*Image by Chris Eason
**Image by Derek Keats

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