Where are the world’s biodiversity hotspots and why do they matter?

king protea flower
King protea flower in the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa. Credit: Haroldo Castro

Ecologists have long sought to understand why some areas of the planet are extraordinarily rich in species. The research set out to find an answer by focusing on the Cape Floristic Region in South Africa, a non-tropical heartland of biodiversity with around ten times as many native plant species as the UK, squeezed into an area a little smaller than Belgium.

The international team of researchers – including scientists from the University of York (UK), Nelson Mandela University and the University of Cape Town – mapped the distributions of nearly all of the region’s 9400 plant species, from the king protea to the red disa.

They found that the region’s richness could be largely explained by the fact it had not experienced major changes in its climate over the past 140,000 years.

Senior author, Dr. Richard Cowling from Nelson Mandela University, added: “The extraordinary diversity of the Cape Floristic Region – as rich as the most diverse tropical forest regions – contradicts the long-held theory that high productivity is a requisite for high plant diversity.”

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“The results suggest that climatic variation will not affect the biodiversity of all regions evenly. The impact of climate change may be greater on areas where stability has been the norm over extremely long time periods. Similarly, near major ecological boundaries, such as forest to grasslands or shrublands to semi-desert, climate change is likely to cause major, long-lasting loss of biological diversity.”

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