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Go bos and stop the rot: Cape citizen scientists needed

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Go bos and stop the rot: Cape citizen scientists needed

PhD student calls on Capetonians to help save fynbos from a root-rotting microbe

Jacqueline Flynn

Capetonians are being asked to get involved as citizen scientists in an effort to detect and prevent the spread of invasive microbes that are threatening fynbos.
Among a group of “biological bulldozers” that has been recorded in fynbos is Phytophthora, which causes diseases in plant species around the world.
In Australia it is regarded as a major threat, and there are fears that the drought might make plants in the Cape more vulnerable to attack.
The twin threats to fynbos – the plants that have earned the region recognition as a Unesco world heritage site – have prompted a call for ordinary citizens to report on plants in trouble in their own neighbourhoods.
Through what he calls the Cape Citizen Science project, University of Pretoria PhD student Joey Hulbert hopes to track the invaders.
His project aims to flag changes in the health of plants that might signal the spread of the microbes and, in what he  is calling the Cape Town Hypothesis Test, Hulbert is asking Capetonians to report on dying fynbos plants.“We need to be on the watch for new introductions of plant-killing microbes, especially now, because the plants are already stressed and may have reduced defences,” he said.
It would be easy to assume that die-offs were the result of the water shortages, but this may not be the only cause.
People who sign up to participate in the project will be asked to collect soil samples from around the roots of sickly plants that are showing signs of leaf dieback, or lesions on the stems or leaves.
Phytophthora causes root rot and, in a drought, the lack of water and stressed roots make plants more vulnerable to the invaders.
Hulbert wants to involve ordinary people because they are in a position to report on plant changes in areas that scientists don’t regularly visit, such as their own gardens and neighbourhoods.
He suspects the microbe, which occurs in soil, is spread in urban settings through the movement of people, equipment and plants – often unintentionally or accidentally.
“Studying Phytophthora species in the urban areas of Cape Town is our best chance to detect the new arrival of an invasive Phytophthora species before it spreads into the natural environment, into areas like Table Mountain,” Hulbert said.
To sign up for the project, go to http://citsci.co.za/capetown.
- Jacqueline Flynn is on an SIT Study Abroad programme with Round Earth Media.

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