The fynbos region is one of the most spectacularly diverse places on earth and full of amazing ecological adaptations, interactions and dependencies. Fynbos grows in a diversity of habitats in nutrient poor soil, surviving the harsh conditions of summer heat, drought, gale force winds, and cold wet winters.
Many types of fauna - insects, birds, reptiles and mammals play a unique role in fynbos pollination and dispersal.
“Biologists visiting the fynbos region are often struck by the apparent lifelessness of the landscape. No large animals are seen roaming about, relatively few bird calls are heard, and one does not need insect-proof netting to sleep at night. They may conclude that this corner of Africa is a botanical and zoological desert. Yet, many ecological processes in fynbos are sustained by interactions between plants and small, often inconspicuous animals. Rodents, beetles, flies with an absurdly long proboscis, ants and birds with long curved beaks all play their part in shaping a unique flora.” (The Ecology of Fynbos, edited by Richard Cowling).
Fire plays a hugely significant ecological role in fynbos, it is a natural and essential part of fynbos and its sustainability; without fire, fynbos would senesce and thicken, seeds stored in mature plants would die and seedlings would find it tough to germinate in the low light and poor soil. Burning stimulates re-sprouting and re-seeding of plants and the ash from the burnt vegetation provides much-needed nutrients for growth.
Insects, birds and mammals play a major role in fynbos pollination, and there is intense rivalry between plant species for the attention of pollinators. Competition for pollinators has been one of the driving forces in the evolution of the fynbos. Studies show that the majority of plants c. 83% are insect-pollinated, c. 12% wind-pollinated, 4% bird-pollinated and less than 1% are mammal-pollinated.
Four insect orders dominate the insect pollinator spectrum – beetles, long-proboscis flies, bees especially the Cape Honey-bee which is indigenous to the fynbos region, butterflies and moths.
Some 400 plant species in fynbos are adapted for pollination by Cape Sugarbirds and Sunbirds. Of these 100 belong to the genus Erica and 80 to the Protea family. Sugarbirds can visit up to 300 protea flower heads a day. Sunbirds frequently visit those members of the Erica genus which possess long tubular flowers. The Orange-breasted sunbird is the most common sunbird in fynbos at higher altitudes and the Lesser-double Collared sunbird is commonly found at lower altitudes.
Rodents are common in fynbos and it is perhaps not surprising that certain plants utilise them as pollinators. Protea species which are visited by small mammals usually have a bowl-shaped flower situated near the ground, a yeasty odour and copious amounts of nectar.
Reference: The Ecology of Fynbos, edited by Richard Cowling