Nature of the research

Research within the Plant Conservation Unit is organised broadly around the themes of historical ecology and palaeoecology which have a shared focus on a past-present-future continuum with the following broad aims and objectives.

Activities are closely integrated through the development of joint projects and publications, the co-supervision of students, the co-teaching of undergraduate and post-graduate modules and the joint development of workshops and conference presentations. This integration is outlined briefly in the descriptions provided by Hoffman and Gillson below of their research aims and objectives.


Image removed.The main aim of the work on historical ecology is to understand how southern Africa’s extraordinary diversity and its rich resources have changed over time in response to land use and climate. I use repeat fixed-point photography, the historical archive and long-term monitoring studies in my research. I use this information to inform conservation and management policy and practice particularly in terms of the long-term effects of land use and climate change on the biota of the region. Lessons learnt in this region have universal significance particularly in the context of global change research and the development of sustainable land use practices.

- Professor M. Timm Hoffman, Director


Image removed.The over-arching goal of the Applied Palaeoecology Lab is to mainstream palaeoecology into biodiversity conservation and sustainability science, with a focus on African ecosystems. We carry out applied research that investigates ecosystem dynamics over time and interprets these data using theoretical frameworks from non-equilibrium ecology. We then translate our findings into forms that are relevant to biodiversity conservation, ecosystem management and the sustainable use of natural resources. An important part of this is to embed palaeoecological data within interdisciplinary projects that combine the study of long-term ecological change with other techniques such as stakeholder engagement, modelling and scenario planning. Within this framework, my further aim is to contribute to building capacity in this field through the training of young researchers, especially those from Africa.

- Professor Lindsey Gillson, Deputy Director


Research approach

We integrate a range of methods with the aims of reconstructing past environmental change and understanding how past processes have shaped the patterns in landscapes that we see today. We apply this knowledge in exploring how landscape change affects ecosystem service provision and livelihoods and the resilience and adaptive capacity of social-ecological systems. This knowledge helps to inform the exploration of future scenarios, the conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable management of ecosystem services.

Our main areas of expertise are in historical ecology and palaeoecology. Increasingly, we rely on stakeholder participation and various modelling techniques (DGVMs, System Dynamics Models, Structural Equation models), alongside stakeholder engagement, to explore means of simulating past change and exploring future scenarios.

Focal areas

While our research is focused on the winter rainfall region we work across a wide range of biomes in southern Africa (Fig. 1). The Greater Cape Floristic Region, which comprises the Fynbos, Succulent Karoo, Renosterveld and Afromontane forest biomes presents a wealth of botanical, ecological and social-ecological research opportunities. Many of our projects are based within the GCFR.

We also have long-standing interest and expertise in the desert, grassland and savanna biomes of southern Africa, with past and present research focused on Kruger National Park and surrounds, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia, Mozambique, and the Drakensberg.

The PCU has a strong and growing presence in Madagascar, with current projects focused on the Western Dry Forests, and Central Highlands.

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Fig. 1: Location of PCU projects (2016 - 2020). A star symbol indicates a cluster of projects.


The location of our projects reflects our focus on the ecology and conservation of African ecosystems and provides opportunities for regional and inter-regional comparison and synthesis. The cross-cutting themes of our research transcend geographical boundaries and keep our research focussed and cohesive.