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Explore the diverse biomes of South Africa

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

This blog about South Africa’s biomes was researched and written by Bushwise Professional Field Guide student Ziphozonke Zwane. 

The classification of biomes is based on the prevailing climatic conditions and dominating plant life types. Large-scale patterns in the global plant cover can be seen in biomes, where plants and animals coexist to some extent. Although other environmental factors are occasionally significant, moisture and temperature substantially influence plant establishment and survival – so biomes generally coincide with climatic regions.  

Each biome includes a distinctive collection of plant and animal species in addition to a distinctive general appearance. The general plant traits provide a distinctive visual signature that makes it possible to identify the biome. 

The nine diverse biomes found in South Africa are:

  1. Savannah 

  2. Grassland

  3. Fynbos

  4. Forest

  5. Desert 

  6. Albany thicket

  7. Coastal dune

  8. Nama karoo

  9. Succulent karoo

Savannah

The sun hides behind a cloud over a vast savannah scene in South Africa’s Limpopo province.

Life in the savannah is distinguished by its animals, vegetation and seasonality. I believe this biome is one of the most pristine ecosystems because all of the lives that are so intricately intertwined. A sizable number of animals, sporadic trees and drought-tolerant grasses can all be found in this biome. The ecology is shaped by herbivores, predators that eliminate the weak, and insects that pollinate the region. As a result, it is one of the most distinctive macro habitats on Earth, rich with biodiversity.

Grassland

The KwaZulu-Natal interior, the Eastern Cape and South Africa’s high central plateau are where the grassland biome is most prevalent. Despite the fact that the terrain is largely level and rolling, there is a real escarpment. The vegetation cover is primarily determined by the amount of rainfall and the degree of disturbances, such as fire and grazing, which also result in the absence of trees.

Fynbos

The Cape Floral Kingdom, one of the six plant kingdoms on Earth, is known as the Fynbos biome, which is located in the westernmost part of South Africa. Of the six kingdoms in existence, the Cape Floral Kingdom is the smallest and is wholly contained within a single country. It is distinguished by its high endemicity, with 68% of plants only found in the Cape Floral Kingdom, and high species richness (8,700 species). Fynbos and renosterveld are the two main types of vegetation found in the biome. Fynbos needs to be burned frequently to survive, however, fires started at the incorrect season or too frequently will cause the species to go extinct. The renosterveld is dominated by members of the daisy family, notably the renosterbos.

Forest

A game drive vehicle holding Bushwise students makes its way through a special pocket of forest ecosystem near Kruger National Park.

The smallest biome, with less than 0,25% of South Africa’s land area covered by forests. Only frost-free regions with significant winter or summer rainfall can support forests. They can be found up to 2,100 metres above sea level. Forests are typically fragmented and can be found everywhere from the high-altitude Drakensberg to the coastal plains. 

Desert

The desert biome receives a low annual rainfall and is found in hot and arid regions. The flora does not grow very tall, and the soil layer might be either stony, gravelly or sandy. Desert species have evolved to the highly dry climate, and day and night temperatures can differ significantly. 

Albany thicket

The Albany thickets is primarily located in the Albany area of the Eastern Cape. The term subtropical thicket refers to a closed shrubland to low forest where evergreen, sclerophyllous, or succulent trees, shrubs and vines predominate, many of which have stem spines. There is typically little herbaceous cover, it is often nearly impenetrable, and there are typically no layers. The vegetation types found in the thicket biome have been referred to as transitional thicket since they exhibit floristic similarities to many other phytochoria and are found in almost all of the formal biomes. 

Coastal dune

An image of ocean surf, dunes and beach, this scene dominates much of the KwaZulu-Natal coastal landscape.

The KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape’s Ocean Coastal Belt is a zone of coastal dunes and grassy plains that extends from sea level to around 600 metres above sea level. The amount of rain that falls on average each year varies from 819 to 1,272 mm and peaks in the summer.

Nama Karoo

In the central plateau of South Africa’s western half is the nama Karoo biome. Being the second-largest biome, with a landscape that includes both flat-topped mesas and vast sandy plains. In general, the summers and winters in this region are windy, hot and very cold. This area is home to a wide range of different life forms, with dwarf shrub vegetation predominating.

Succulent karoo

The 116,000 km squared succulent Karoo biome is located in southern Namibia and stretches from the southwest through parts of the Western Cape’s northwestern region. There are around 6,400 plant species of which 40% are endemic. This biome’s diverse habitat types are what contribute to its tremendous biodiversity. The plants are subjected to below-average winter rainfall and excessively hot summers. Over time, succulent plants have developed unusual coping mechanisms to maximise their survival in this tough environment.

For a single country, South Africa has relatively diversified vegetation. It is fascinating how each biome differs from the others by having a distinctive characteristic that makes it stand out. Given that each biome is distinct, travellers can experience a variety of wildlife.

Don’t miss the opportunity to join Bushwise in South Africa on an unforgettable safari course and immerse yourself in the wonders of nature across the country’s distinctive biomes. Join Bushwise!

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