Plant Ecology

, Volume 207, Issue 1, pp 107–119

Changes in plant form and function across altitudinal and wetness gradients in the wetlands of the Maloti-Drakensberg, South Africa

  • Erwin J. J. Sieben
  • Craig D. Morris
  • Donovan C. Kotze
  • A. Muthama Muasya

DOI: 10.1007/s11258-009-9657-5

Cite this article as:
Sieben, E.J.J., Morris, C.D., Kotze, D.C. et al. Plant Ecol (2010) 207: 107. doi:10.1007/s11258-009-9657-5


A survey of 93 wetlands in six catchments across the Maloti-Drakensberg is used to assess the distribution of plant functional types across altitudinal and wetness gradients. Altitudes range from 1,000 to 3,200 m a.s.l. Within each catchment, the wetlands were selected to cover the complete range in altitude and wetland types. In each of the selected wetlands, vegetation was sampled in 3 by 3 m quadrats covering the entire range of wetness represented in the wetland, from temporarily wet to permanently inundated soils. Plant species were allocated to one of 11 different functional types (examples are C3 grasses, C4 sedges, rosette plants, and shrubs), and the proportion of the vegetation in each sample occupied by each functional type was calculated from the species’ abundances. Canonical Correspondence Analysis shows that “wetness” clearly has the highest impact on the distribution of functional types, followed by altitude. The most important plant functional types in wetlands are grasses and sedges, however, at higher altitudes, forbs (especially rosette plants) and bulbous plants become a more prominent feature in the wetlands. The total amount of graminoids gradually decreases with altitude. The general trend is that sedges tend to increase with increasing wetness and C3 plants (grasses and sedges) increase with increasing altitude, but these effects are not independent. The distributions of C4 sedges and C4 grasses along an altitudinal gradient are quite different, and C4 grasses grow abundantly at much higher altitudes than C4 sedges. C4 sedges are very scarce at the altitudes represented in the Maloti-Drakensberg area, whereas C3 grasses occur in the permanently wet parts of the wetlands, especially at higher altitudes (normally mostly occupied by sedges). Shrubs are rare in wetlands and tend to be an indication of disturbance. This study complements previous studies on the distribution of grasses and sedges at the lower altitudes within KwaZulu-Natal, which found that at altitudes below 1,000 m a.s.l. C4 sedges were much more prominent, while forbs and rosette plants were largely absent. This confirms that C4 as an adaptation to hotter and warmer climates is sometimes a less favorable metabolism in wet high altitude areas. At high altitudes, rosette plants and bulbous plants become more competitive in wetlands, probably because grasses and sedges present at these altitudes generally grow smaller than they do in low altitude wetlands.


Functional composition Mountains Photosynthetic pathway Graminoids C4 metabolism 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Erwin J. J. Sieben
    • 1
  • Craig D. Morris
    • 2
  • Donovan C. Kotze
    • 3
  • A. Muthama Muasya
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Plant SciencesUniversity of the Free StatePhuthaditjhabaSouth Africa
  2. 2.Agricultural Research Council, Animal Production Institute (ARC-API)University of KwaZulu-NatalScottsvilleSouth Africa
  3. 3.Centre for Environment and DevelopmentUniversity of KwaZulu-NatalScottsvilleSouth Africa
  4. 4.Department of BotanyUniversity of Cape TownRondeboschSouth Africa

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