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  • Tasneem Johnson-Dollie

All you need to know about field guiding and biomes of South Africa

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

BY: Tasneem Johnson-Dollie

A biome is a particular community of fauna and flora that are adapted to their specific natural environment. As a field guide, you’ll be learning about South Africa’s fascinating biomes and sharing your knowledge with guests. 

Let’s take a trip through the different types of biomes in South Africa to get a taste for the terrain, climate, and everything in between. 

What is a biome?

The biosphere refers to all living things on Earth. It’s split into different biomes. Areas with a similar climate and geography are categorised as a biome, and the conditions in a biome determine the types of animals and plants (fauna and flora) that can live there. 

In South Africa there are seven types of biome. These biomes are the perfect setting for indigenous South African animals. In fact, the biomes of South Africa give rise to some of the largest animals in the world. So what are these biomes, and how do they support South Africa’s creatures great and small?

1) Savannah

A tree in the African Savannah.

Original photo: “Tree nature landscape” by negahuk is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The savannah is the largest of the different types of biome in South Africa. 

Looking out over its sandy plains, scattered with thorn trees and spiky bushes, you may think of the savannah as a quiet place. 

But you’d better keep your wits about you, since the savannah is home to most of the big African animals like lions, elephants, buffalos, and kudus.

These beasts are built for this bushveld terrain – where the vegetation consists mainly of low-growing thorn trees and bushes. 

And the fact that each of these animals can reach a speedy pace also helps in this savannah biome, where the hot and dry climate sets the scene for regular fires.

And the reason that the savannah is home to these spiky bushes and thorn trees is because low annual rainfall means less water for plants. While grasses and bushes can efficiently absorb the minimal amount of water available, most trees find this terrain too thirst-inducing.

Savannah biomes are found in the western parts of Limpopo, northern parts of the Northern Cape and Free State, and KwaZulu Natal.

2) Thicket

Two field guides looking out over a thicket from a rocky outcrop.

If you find yourself thrust into a thicket biome, you’d see groupings of short trees peeking out of tangles of low-growing shrubs and vines.

Thickets refer to dense groups of bushes or trees, and thicket biomes are most common in areas with high levels of rainfall, accompanied by dry spells that prevent the thickets from developing into forests.

And there are some types of animals that love to tuck away in thickets. Take for example the kudus, monkeys and bushbuck that call this type of terrain home.

And if the thought of a thicket biome makes it hard to keep your claustrophobia in check, then there are other types of biome in South Africa that may tickle your fancy – or even your feet.

3) Grasslands

A rhino standing in a grassland.

A grassland biome is one where the vegetation is mainly grasses, with trees growing on hills or along river beds.

The South African highveld – parts of the uncultivated countryside that lies at a higher altitude – is home to the South African grasslands. 

This area experiences summer rainfall and winters cold enough for frost to form.

And grass-eating herbivores couldn’t be happier with the dinner that this type of biome in South Africa serves up. 

Black wildebeest, blesbok and eland feed in these pastures. And with rodents rustling through the long grass, this type of South African biome becomes the perfect hunting ground for birds of prey. 

4) Forest

A field guide squatting at near a pool in a forest.

Patches of forest occur throughout South Africa. 

Some forests make do with rainfall that comes only during winter, while others are spoilt with showers throughout the year.

If you find yourself in a forest, your first thought may be “well, this place is filled with trees”, and this is what forests are all about. 

Yellowwood trees are the biggest trees found in South African forests, but there are more than 1,700 species that take root here too. 

And this tree-top setting is the perfect place for birds – like loeries, eagles and pigeons – to nest. 

Small mammals – like bushpig, bushbuck and monkeys – also find this forest biome a fantastic place to settle down. They don’t even mind being bugged by the many insects that also forage in these forests.

But while forests and grasslands contribute to South Africa’s terrain, there are some biomes that give South Africa its distinct flavour, like the flowering fields of Fynbos.

5) Fynbos

A sunbird sitting on top of a protea.

Original photo: “Sunbird protea” by Free-Photos is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Fynbos is the natural vegetation found in the Western Cape. The cold wet winters, and hot dry summers in this area provide the perfect place for fynbos to put down roots.

And fynbos is really a flurry of floral species, with the WWF stating that the Western Cape is more botanically diverse than the richest tropical rainforests in South America, including the Amazon, because of its fynbos.

This type of South African biome has nutrient-poor soils and can’t grow the type of vegetation that could support big herds of animals or very large animals. But small mammals do well in this biome and you’d probably run into chacma baboons, klipspringers, grysbok, dassies, mongooses, and even the striped mouse. 

You’ll also see many different species of butterfly and even some reptiles and amphibians – including the geometric tortoise, the world’s second rarest tortoise.

6) Nama Karoo

A Nama Karoo landscape.

Original photo: “Karoo Landscape …” by berniedup is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Nama Karoo is the second largest biome in South Africa and it’s classified as a semi-desert area, receiving very little rain.

This arid terrain allows for little more than grassy dwarf shrubs to grow.

But insects dig this type of biome. In fact, brown locusts and Karoo caterpillars are the main residents of the Nama Karoo. 

These critters are happy in this dry desert-region, but there are booms in their numbers when the rains come along – which isn’t very often.

7) Succulent Karoo and desert

Succulent plants in the desert.

Original photo: “Succulents desert” by TambraNicole is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

And if you’re wondering if proteas are the only flowers you’ll find in the biomes of South Africa, the answer is no.

Just take a trip down to Namaqualand to see the flowering region of the Succulent Karoo and desert.

Namaqualand is famous for its flowers. You can soak up the true colours of the South African outdoors with a trip to the flowering fields. 

You see, the flowering season is rather short – just over a month – and the flowers don’t stay out all day. In fact, after opening up in the morning, these desert divas close up in the afternoon (at around 4pm).

Fields of yellow and orange wild flowers in the karoo.

Original photo: “Namaqualand Wild Flowers” by titoh44 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

But there are other things for your eyes to feast on in the Succulent Karoo and desert.

Succulents – plants with parts that are abnormally thickened and fleshy – are the less temperamental neighbours of the Namaqualand wild flowers. 

This tough type of plant can stick out the hot dry summers and cold winters of the Karoo because they can store water and wait it out until the next rains – which in the Succulent Karoo are few and far between.

And because the Succulent Karoo and desert isn’t the most hospitable biome, the fauna consists of goats and sheep who graze on the vegetation, and insects that scurry in between.

So taking a trip through the different biomes in South Africa can be a real journey. And this can be an epic learning experience for any field guide.

Take a look at our Bushwise Field Guides programs that can get you learning more about some of these biomes of South Africa, and spreading the knowledge.


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