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Palaeozoological insights into management options for a threatened mammal: southern Africa’s Cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra zebra)


J. Tyler Faith, Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology, Department of Anthropology, The George Washington University, 2110 G Street NW, Washington, DC 20052, USA.


Aim  Promoting population growth of genetically distinct subpopulations of Cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra zebra) is crucial to the survival of the subspecies. Several important Cape mountain zebra reserves are dominated by fynbos vegetation, and population growth is limited by a lack of grassland habitat. A fossil ungulate sequence spanning the last c. 18,000 years is examined to understand the long-term history of this conservation challenge.

Location  Boomplaas Cave (BPA), South Africa.

Methods  The fossil sequence from BPA is examined to reconstruct ungulate community dynamics in relation to climate and vegetation change over the last 18,000 years.

Results  Ungulates from 18,000 to 12,000 years ago suggest an expansion of open grasslands that supported a grazing ecosystem dominated by an extinct caprine antelope and equid remains attributed to E. zebra and E. quagga. At the onset of the Holocene, the grazing ungulate community disappears and small browsers and mixed feeders dominate the assemblage, indicating the loss of open grassland vegetation. Several open-habitat grazers go extinct at this time, and Equus persists at much lower abundances. This shift can be explained by global climate change across the Pleistocene–Holocene transition.

Main conclusions  The fossil sequence supports contemporary observations indicating that access to open grassland is crucial to maintaining large Cape mountain zebra subpopulations. Although fynbos is abundant throughout the historic range of the Cape mountain zebra, fossil evidence suggests that such vegetation is unlikely to support dense populations. It has been suggested that the acquisition of agricultural lands that were historically converted to open grasslands for livestock could promote Cape mountain zebra population growth. Results presented here support this management option, as the open grasslands in these converted landscapes likely approximate the vegetation structure during latest Pleistocene, when grasslands were widespread and grazing ungulates abundant.