Karoo bossies (bushes) are some of the toughest creatures alive. They are programmed to withstand intense heat, bitter cold, prolonged droughts and periodic flooding.
As if that were not enough, they are the “bread and butter” for the herds of hungry livestock that form the backbone of the economy in the Karoo. Bossies are also responsible for shading and protecting the soil that nurtures them, and their roots bind the soil, preventing it from washing away.
In cases where the bossies lose the battle against the odds stacked against them, degradation sets in and swathes of biodiversity – the bossies and the communities within which they live - is lost.
Right here is where the Riverine Rabbits come into play. Icon of the Karoo, elusive indicator of when Karoo riparian habitat is in crisis, Critically Endangered Riverine Rabbits fly the flag for Karoo conservation which leads us to the secret life of bossies.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Drylands Conservation Programme has adopted an action-based research approach to rehabilitating degraded Karoo veld, in particular riparian areas that are responsible for crucial ecosystem services that basically keeping us supplied with life-giving water.
These riparian ecosystems are also home to Riverine Rabbits and many other unique Karoo species. Saving rabbits therefore means saving their habitat. Re-establishing vegetation on degraded areas means bossies are needed to plant on the bare areas after the soil has been prepared. That means growing them, thousands of them.
As far back as 1935 it was established that Karoo bossies might be tough, but they sure are slow to reproduce. EWT propagates bossies at the Programme’s Indigenous Karoo Plant Nursery based in Loxton, in the heart of Riverine Rabbit country. Here they are discovering just how stubborn some of the species can be to “put out” as it were.
EWT has been monitoring seed germination of several riparian species to determine germination rates and peaks since November 2011– but have been putting the cart before the horse to some extent as EWT have been unable to assess seed viability properly. A seed in the hand is not necessarily worth ten on the bush, especially when only two of said ten seeds have the potential to produce a little seedling.
The problem is that many of the bossies produce miniscule seeds so determining whether the sack full of “seed” actually contains seeds and whether those seeds are fat and healthy is more than our naked eyes were capable of.
Recently the Drylands Conservation Programme team were fortunate enough to be able to add to their arsenal of spades, picks and other rehabilitation tools, a beautiful Leica microscope.
Nursery staff immediately took the new microscope to visit Professor Sue Milton, Karoo plant ecologist and guru of all things Karoo, at her RenuKaroo Nursery in Prince Albert. Milton provided training to assess the viability of seed using the microscope, as well as to set up trials based on viability (the potential to germinate). Very little work has been done on plant species in the Great Karoo. Much of this research is novel and will help to further unravel the secret life of Karoo bossies.