Aspects of the population biology, life history and threats to Aloe ortholopha Christian and Milne-Redh.: A serpentine endemic from the northern Great Dyke of Zimbabwe
Keywords:Aloe ortholopha, Great Dyke, serpentine, population size structure, germination, reproductive output
Background: Aloe ortholopha is a rare endemic confined to serpentine soils of the Great Dyke of Zimbabwe. Its International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) status is listed as Vulnerable; however, its population biology and life history are poorly documented.
Objectives: The aim of this article is to provide information on the population biology and life history of A. ortholopha through assessment of its size-class distribution, population size and density, reproductive output and fitness, and threats related to fire and mining.
Method: Circumference of A. ortholopha leaf rosette was used to ascertain size-class distribution. Population size and density were determined by enumerating flowering individuals. Per-capita reproductive output was determined as mean number of flowers per plant, fruit set and mean number of seeds per fruit. Fitness was determined from seed germination capacity. Impact of fire and mining were recorded photographically.
Results: Determination of size-class distribution of A. ortholopha from three study sites (southern region [SR], central region [CR] and northern region [NR]) revealed a bell-shaped curve dominated by intermediate size classes. Population size (number of flowering individuals) ranged from 36 to 66 per site. This translated to a density of 4.0–7.3 flowering plants per hectare. Per-capita reproductive output, measured as mean number of flowers per plant, was significantly different in SR and CR compared to that in the NR region. Mean number of fruits per plant did not significantly differ across the three regions. Mean seed set per plant in CR and NR was significantly different to that in the SR region. Species fitness, as determined from in vitro germination assays, showed that seeds harvested from fire-damaged capsules have the lowest cumulative germination percentage. It was also observed that leaf rosettes curled up to form a ball that protects the apical centre of plants from fire damage.
Conclusion: A. ortholopha occurs in small population clusters of low density. The species has a low per-capita reproductive output characterised by production of many flowers, but with very low percentage fruit and seed set. The species has low fitness as evidenced by nominal recruitment of saplings and juveniles. Conspecific mates are frequently lost owing to fire and mining activities.