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Serpentine soils are derived from the weathering of serpentine and ultramafic rocks, which have a high content of ferromagnesian minerals. The high content of heavy metals in serpentine soils alter their physical and chemical properties making them unsuitable for plant growth. There are six serpentine sites in Sri Lanka and the Ussangoda site is on the southern coast in Hambantota. The moisture content, organic matter and cation exchange capacity (CEC) are low in serpentine soils. The available calcium (Ca) content is low and the magnesium (Mg) content is relatively high. The Ca to Mg ratio is 0.60, which is typical for serpentine soils. Two distinct forms of vegetation grow on the Ussangoda serpentine soil. The large plain is covered by stunted, prostrate species with an extensive root system. Patches of shrubs and trees occur on the plains as small islands. The serpentine flora is sharply demarcated from the surrounding non-serpentine flora by their growth habit. The number of plant families and species is lower in the serpentine soil than in the adjacent non-serpentine areas. Four families comprising six species grew only on the serpentine soil. Five species growing in the serpentine soil contained 560 - 830 ppm of nickel (Ni) in their tissues. Hybanthus enneaspermus had 1800 ppm of nickel. Two species, Vernonia zeylanica and Scolopia acuminata, are endemic to Sri Lanka.
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RESEARCH ARTICLE
Plant diversity and soil characteristics of the Ussangoda
serpentine site
J.Natn.Sci.Foundation Sri Lanka 2011 39 (4): 355-363
H.A.S. Weerasinghe and M.C.M. Iqbal*
Plant Biology, Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hantana Road, Kandy.
Revised: 03 May 2011 ; Accepted: 20 May 2011
* Corresponding author (mcmif2003@yahoo.com)
Abstract: Serpentine soils are derived from the weathering of
serpentine and ultramafic rocks, which have a high content of
ferromagnesian minerals. The high content of heavy metals in
serpentine soils alter their physical and chemical properties
making them unsuitable for plant growth. There are six
serpentine sites in Sri Lanka and the Ussangoda site is on the
southern coast in Hambantota. The moisture content, organic
matter and cation exchange capacity (CEC) are low in serpentine
soils. The available calcium (Ca) content is low and the
magnesium (Mg) content is relatively high. The Ca to Mg ratio
is 0.60, which is typical for serpentine soils. Two distinct forms
of vegetation grow on the Ussangoda serpentine soil. The large
plain is covered by stunted, prostrate species with an extensive
root system. Patches of shrubs and trees occur on the plains as
small islands. The serpentine flora is sharply demarcated from
the surrounding non-serpentine flora by their growth habit. The
number of plant families and species is lower in the serpentine
soil than in the adjacent non-serpentine areas. Four families
comprising six species grew only on the serpentine soil. Five
species growing in the serpentine soil contained 560 – 830
ppm of nickel (Ni) in their tissues. Hybanthus enneaspermus
had 1800 ppm of nickel. Two species, Vernonia zeylanica and
Scolopia acuminata, are endemic to Sri Lanka.
Keywords: Biodiversity, Evolvulus alsinoides, heavy metals,
Hybanthus enneaspermus, serpentine, Ussangoda.
INTRODUCTION
Serpentine soils occur in isolated patches all over the
world, particularly along continental margins. They are
derived from serpentine rocks composed of serpentine
minerals and ultramafic rocks, which have a high
content of ferromagnesian minerals (Brooks, 1987). The
weathering of these rock types enriches the soil with
Mg, Fe and other heavy metals such as Ni and Co. These
metals change the physical and chemical properties of
the soil to form an unfavourable and hostile environment
for plant growth. Over time, plant species have adapted
to these unusual soil conditions producing unique
associations between the soil and plants. They can be
regarded as living laboratories for studying evolutionary
biology and adaptations by the plant species to the
extreme environments peculiar to serpentine soils.
Very little is known of the geology and flora of
serpentine sites in Southeast Asia. In India, an ultramafic
site was reported in the State of Orissa (Brooks, 1987).
The serpentine areas in the Malay Archipelago are
well documented and many endemic species have
been identified (Brooks, 1987; Proctor 2003). The
soil characteristics of the ultramafic sites in Malaysia,
Indonesia and Philippines have been compared by
Brearley (2005). Geological studies in Sri Lanka have
shown six serpentinite sites at Ussangoda, Indikolapelessa,
Ginigalpelessa, Katupota, Yodhagannawa and Rupaha.
These sites lie close to a Precambrian suture zone
between the lithotectonic units, the Vijayan and Highland
series (Dissanayake & Van Riel, 1978; Munasinghe &
Dissanayake, 1979; Munasinghe & Dissanayake, 1980).
Of these sites the geochemistry of the Uda-Walawe
serpentine site has been described (Dissanayake & Van
Riel, 1978; Dissanayake, 1982).
Ultramafic soils are generally shallow with a high
Mg to Ca ratio, deficient in essential plant nutrients and
contain potentially toxic concentrations of heavy metals
(Proctor & Woodell, 1975; Brooks 1987). The rocky
nature of the soil and low clay and organic matter content
provide a highly permeable soil with low water holding
capacity. The exchangeable Mg concentrations are high
and exchangeable Ca concentrations are low in the soil,
which is deficient in essential plant nutrients N, P and
K (Kruckeberg,1984). The vegetation on serpentine soils
December 2011 Journal of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka 39 (4)
356
H.A.S. Weerasinghe & M.C.M.Iqbal
have adapted morphologically and physiologically to this
environment. Morphologically plants are dwarfed with
narrow, glaucescent thick leaves, strong sclerenchyma
development and enlarged root system (Kruckeberg,
1984). Physiologically they are able to tolerate the heavy
metal presence in the soil by absorption and sequestration
or exclusion. Thus serpentine soils are a unique ecological
niche, which is poor in diversity of plant species.
The flora of Ussangoda was first described by
Brooks (1987), who on a visit to the island referred to
the Ussangoda serpentine site: “At Welipatanwila, the
heavily laterised ultramafics are almost completely
devoid of vegetation except for a scattering of a small
blue-flowered herb, Evolvulus alsinoides. The boundary
of the serpentine is marked by low thorn bushes
interspersed with Opuntia species”. In a subsequent
study (Seneviratne et al., 2000), 14 plant species were
identified all of which accumulated over 100 ppm of Ni.
Rajakaruna and Bohm (2002) studied nine plant species
growing on the Ussangoda serpentine soil and the soil
chemistry from their root zones. Their study found three
species, which hyperaccumulated over 1000 ppm of Ni
from the soil. In a recent study (Iqbal et al., 2006) 29
species of flowering plants, which included trees, shrubs,
vines and prostate plants growing within the Ussangoda
serpentine site were identified. Cassia kleinii was
identified as a Ni hyper-accumulator. In the last 20 years,
few studies were devoted to study this unique habitat and
much work remains to be done.
For a comprehensive study of the Ussangoda
serpentine site, it is necessary to determine the diversity
of plant species, their physiological adaptations to the
adverse soil environment and the soil characteristics
contributing to their adaptations. This would subsequently
assist in the study of the other serpentine sites in Sri Lanka
and potentially contribute towards identifying heavy
metal hyper-accumulating species. The objective of this
study is to determine the important physical and chemical
characteristics of the Ussangoda soil, its consequence
on the flora and diversity of the flora in relation to the
surrounding non-serpentine areas.
METHODS AND MATERIALS
Site description: The serpentine study site at Ussangoda
(Figure 1) is a flat plain (approximately 1 km2) located
close to the Nonagama junction on the Matara –
Hambantota highway (latitude 06º 05’ N, longitude 80º
59’ E). The southern boundary of the plain is a cliff,
approximately 30 m amsl, overlooking the Indian Ocean.
The highest point on the plain is 34.5 m amsl.
Climate: The mean annual temperature is 27.9 ºC with
a mean range of 31.1 – 24.6 ºC. Daytime temperature
during field visits reached 35.8 ºC. The annual rainfall is
less than 1250 mm (mainly from October – January) with
more than 5 dry months with less than 50 mm rainfall
(IUCN, 2004).
Soil analysis: Soil samples were collected according to
the stratified random sampling technique to represent the
10 , 20 and 30 m contours. Each sample was collected
from below the soil surface to a depth of 10 cm and
stored in labelled polythene bags. All the samples were
analysed separately. The samples were air-dried for
1 wk at room temperature and passed through a 2 mm
sieve. Soil moisture was determined by drying 5 g of soil
to a constant mass in an oven at 105 °C for 24 h and
cooling it in a desiccator for 30 min. To determine the
pH, 20 mL of de-ionized water or calcium chloride was
added to 10 g of soil and stirred 4-5 times within 30 min.
The suspension was allowed to settle for 30 min and
the pH of the supernatant determined. Soil conductivity
was measured in a suspension from mixing 40 g of soil
and 80 mL de-ionized water. The above methods are
described in Kalra & Maynard (1991).
Cation exchange capacity (CEC) of the soil was
determined according to Anderson & Ingram (1993). Air-
dried soil was shaken with 1M potassium chloride for 5
min and repeatedly centrifuged until the supernatant was
clear. Ethanol was added to the filtrate and centrifuged
until the supernatant to be discarded was clear. To this
1M ammonium acetate was added, and the mixture
shaken and centrifuged until the supernatant was clear.
The supernatant volume was made up to 100 mL with
ammonium acetate. The potassium concentration was
measured by the atomic absorption spectrophotometer
(AAS). Soil organic matter was determined by percentage
loss-on-ignition (LOI) after heating 5 g of oven-dried soil
in a crucible to 375 0C in a muffle furnace for 16 h (Kalra
& Maynard, 1991). Soil exchangeable cations (Ca, Mg,
Na & K) were extracted by shaking 5 g of air-dried soil
with 25 mL of neutral 1N ammonium acetate for 30 min,
filtered (Whatman no.42) and the filtrate analysed by
AAS (AESL, 1999). Soil micronutrients were extracted
by adding 50 mL of diethylene triamine penta acetic acid
(DTPA) to 2.5 g of air dried soil in 250 mL open conical
flasks and filtered. The micronutrients in the filtrate were
measured by AAS (Amacher, 1996).
Plant material: Plants with their reproductive structures
were identified after comparison with specimens in the
National Herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens,
Peradeniya. Herbarium sheets were prepared of the
Journal of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka 39 (4) December 2011
Plant diversity and soil of Ussangoda serpentine site
357
collected species. Plant samples for analysis were bagged
and labelled in polythene bags.
Plant analysis: Plant samples were cleaned with a nylon
brush under running tap water to remove adhered soil
and then washed with ethylene diamine tetra-acetic acid
(EDTA) for 1min and rinsed thrice with de-ionized water
to remove any surface bound metals. The samples were
dried at 80 °C for 24 h in a forced air oven and ground
in a plant grinder and stored in airtight bags. Samples
of 500 mg were ashed in a muffle furnace at 550 °C for
8 h and the ash dissolved in 5mL of concentrated HCl
and volume made up to 50 mL with distilled water. The
macro and micro nutrients were determined by AAS.
Statistical analysis: Statistical analysis was carried out
using the Minitab 14 statistical software package. One-
way ANOVA along with multiple comparison of means
using Tukey’s test was performed.
RESULTS
The serpentine plain has isolated patches of dense shrubs
and trees, and rocky outcrops. The plants on the plains
are prostrate, stunted with an extensive root system. The
plain is clearly demarcated from the surrounding non-
serpentine area by large shrubs and trees. The surface
soil is a fine reddish dust with small lateritic stones.
Soil characteristics
The serpentine and non-serpentine soils showed
significant differences in their physical and chemical
properties. Within the serpentine site there are two
contrasting vegetation types, the prostrate stunted
species and the patches of shrubs and trees. The available
moisture was low in the serpentine soil while the shrub
patches had significantly higher moisture approaching
that of the non-serpentine soil. This was not associated
Figure 1: Map of Sri Lanka showing the serpentine sites and an enlarged view of the Ussangoda serpentine
site. (S = Serpentine, NS = Non-serpentine, W = Water hole).
December 2011 Journal of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka 39 (4)
358
H.A.S. Weerasinghe & M.C.M.Iqbal
with the organic matter content of the soils (Table 1). The
CEC of the serpentine soils was also significantly lower.
The pH of the serpentine soil tended towards acidity
and the non-serpentine soil was significantly neutral
(Table 1). The conductivity of the non-serpentine soil
was significantly higher than that of the serpentine soil
and the soil of the shrub patches.
The chemical properties of the serpentine soil
showed highly significant differences from the non-
serpentine soil. The Ca content of the non-serpentine soil
was 3 to 15 times higher than that in the shrub patches and
the serpentine soil respectively. Although Mg content of
the different soils were comparably similar, the difference
in Ca was reflected in the Ca:Mg ratio (Table 1). The
serpentine soil has a characteristic value of 0.60. The
shrub patches with a higher Ca content of 3 to 4 times
that of the serpentine soil have a Ca:Mg ratio higher than
that of the serpentine soils. Similarly the Ni content was
much higher than in the non-serpentine soils. Fe does not
show a significant difference between the soil types and
Mn was high in the serpentine soil (Table 1).
Flora
In this study the diversity of plant families and
species in Ussangoda is based on a field survey of
the flora on the serpentine soil and a previous survey
conducted by the International Union for Conservation
of Nature (IUCN, 2004) on all the species in the
Ussangoda region.
This study identified 26 plant families on the
serpentine soil. Of these, nine families with 12 species
occur on the serpentine plain (Table 2). These species
are prostrate, dwarfed or stunted, with small leaves, thick
sclerenchymatous stems and extensive root systems. The
prostrate species E. alsinoides, had three colour morphs:
white, pale purple and dark blue. They occurred either
in close proximity or spread apart on the plains. The
dominant family on the serpentine plains was Fabaceae
with three species. The other families occur in patches of
shrubs and trees on the serpentine plain.
Table 1: Physical and chemical properties of the serpentine soil in Ussangoda and the adjacent non-serpentine soil
(mean values ± SE)
Soil parameter Serpentine Island1 1 Island1 2 Non-serpentine
(Area = 1km2) (Area = 2141m2) (Area = 764 m2)
n 14 9 7 6
Moisture (%) 4.4 ± 0.26 a 7.01 ± 0.64 b 8.92 ± 0.42 b,c 10.61 ± 1.6 c
Organic matter (%) 2.96 ± 0.26 a 5.46 ± 0.42 b 5.84 ± 0.23 b,c 4.31 ± 0.24 a,b
CEC 6.76 ± 0.85 a 6.29 ± 1.59 a 9.72 ± 1.57 a,b 13.44 ± 1.23 b
(cmol(+)/kg of
dry soil)
n 6 4 4 5
pH 5.32 ± 0.21 a 5.95 ± 0.13 a,b 6.23 ± 0.21 b 7.3 ± 0.19 c
Conductivity 61 ± 6.54 a 55.8 ± 9.54 a 130 ± 28 b 162.4 ± 10.9 b
(micro-siemens)
Exchangeable cations
n 29 9 7 8
Ca (µg/g) 187 ± 27.5 a 645 ± 84.8 b 905 ± 135 b 2911 ± 650 c
Mg (µg/g) 311 ± 48.3 a 352 ± 50.3 a 456 ± 35.7 a 519 ± 53.2 a
Ca/Mg 0.601 1.832 1.984 5.608
K (µg/g) 140 ± 12.2 a 321 ± 38.3 b 314 ± 21.7 b 338 ± 93.9 b
Na (µg/g) 67 ± 16.8 a 50 ± 9.44 a 67 ± 10.1 a 636 ± 207 b
Available micro-elements
n 31 9 7 8
Ni (µg/g) 101 ± 12.1 a 137 ± 12.14 a 151 ± 7.8 a 4 ± 1.13 b
Fe (µg/g) 65 ± 4.61 a 56 ± 3.19 a 46 ± 3.35 a 62 ± 15.2 a
Mn (µg/g) 42 ± 6.96 a 15 ± 1.73 b 10 ± 0.94 b 19 ± 4.18 a,b
1 Island refers to the patches of shrubs and trees on the serpentine plains. n = number of samples.
Figures followed by different letters in the same row are significantly different at p<0.05.
Journal of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka 39 (4) December 2011
Plant diversity and soil of Ussangoda serpentine site
359
The species recorded in the IUCN plant survey were
compared with the species identified in this study. Five
families with seven species growing only on the serpentine
soil were recorded, which were not recorded by the IUCN
study (IUCN 2004) in the Ussangoda region (Table 3).
Of these Violaceae occurs on the plains and species of
the other four families occur as shrubs or trees on the
serpentine site. The diversity of families and their species
was low on the serpentine soil. The survey of species has
identified 16 species growing only on the serpentine soil
and 44 species growing on serpentine and non-serpentine
soil in Ussangoda (Table 3). The habits of these species
were climbers, herbs, shrubs and trees. Monocotyledons
were confined to Cyperaceae and Poaceae with four
species. Of the 31 families on serpentine soil, Fabaceae
included six species, Capparaceae and Malvaceae five
species each and the rest had three species or less. In
contrast, the diversity of species within the families
was greater on the non-serpentine region of Ussangoda.
Fabaceae had the most with 14 species while 10 families
had three or more species.
Five species growing on the serpentine soil showed
Ni accumulation. The species E. alsinoides, Euphorbia
thymifolia, C. kleinii, and Vernonia cinerea accumulated
560 – 830 µg/g (dry weight) of nickel in their tissues
while Hybanthus enneaspermus was a hyperaccumulator
(Table 2). Although Fimbristylis ovata showed low
nickel accumulation on the serpentine soil, under
experimental hydroponic conditions with Ni, levels of
2000 µg/g (dry weight) were detected (unpublished data,
M.C.M. Iqbal).
Name of the plant Family Plant Nickel (µg/g
part dry weight)
Hybanthus enneaspermus Violaceae Lvs+sh 1828 ± 106
Evolvulus alsinoides Convolvulaceae Lvs+sh 828 ± 36
Euphorbia thymifolia Euphorbiaceae Lvs+sh 745 ± 67
Cassia kleinii Fabaceae Lvs+sh 652 ± 23
Desmodium triflorum Fabaceae not determined
Crotolaria sp. Fabaceae not determined
Vernonia cinerea Asteraceae Lvs+sh 561 ± 14
Eragrostis sp. Poaceae Lvs 233 ± 8
Frimbristylis ovata Cyperaceae Lvs 220 ± 2
Frimbristylis falcata Cyperaceae Lvs 73 ± 19
Lvs = Leaves, sh = shoots
Table 2: Nickel (Ni) content (mean ± SE) in some prostrate plants on the Ussangoda
serpentine plain
Families Habit Species Only on On Source
serpentine serpentinite (Ref no.)
soil and non- P =
serpentinite present
soils survey
Apocynaceae H Carissa spinarum X P
Asclepiadaceae S Calotropis gigantea X P
Asparagaceae C Asparagus racemosus X P
Asteraceae H Eupatorium odoratum X P
H Vernonia cinerea X P
Boraginaceae S Ehretia laevis X P
Cactaceae H Opuntia sp. X 1, P
Continued on page 362...
Table 3: Plant species and their families found on serpentine soil and non-serpentine regions in Ussangoda (habit: H – herb,
S – shrub, C – climber, T – tree).
December 2011 Journal of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka 39 (4)
360
H.A.S. Weerasinghe & M.C.M.Iqbal
Capparaceae S Capparis pedunculosa X P
S Capparis rotundifolia X P
S Capparis sepiaria X P
S Capparis zeylanica X P
S Maerua arenaria X P
Celastraceae S Maytenus emarginata X P
Convolvulaceae H Evolvulus alsinoides X 1,10,11, P
H Ipomoea pes-caprae X P
Cyperaceae H Fimbristylis falcata X 10, 11, P
H Fimbristylis monticola X P
H Frimbistylis ovata X P
Euphorbiaceae H Euphorbia hirta X P
H Euphorbia thymifolia X P
S Flueggea leucopyrus X P
Fabaceae C Acacia caesia X P
T Cassia auriculata X 11, P
H Cassia kleinii X P
H Crotolaria tecta X P
H Desmodium sp. X 11, P
S Dichrostachys cinerea X P
Flacourtiaceae Casearia zeylanica X P
S Flacourtia indica X P
T Scolopia acuminata X P
Linaceae T Hugonia mystax X P
Loranthaceae S Dendrophthoe falcata X P
Malvaceae H Abutilon indicum X P
H Pavonia odorata X P
H Sida acuta X P
H Sida cordifolia X P
H Sida rhombifolia X P
Melastomataceae S Memecylon umbellatum X P
Melliaceae T Azadirachta indica X P
Menispermaceae C Pachygone ovata X P
Olacaceae S Olax imbricata X P
Oleaceae C Jusminum angustifolium X P
Poaceae H Eragrostis tenella X P
Rhamnaceae S Ziziphus oenoplia X P
Rhizophoraceae H Cassiopourea ceylanica X P
Rubiaceae T Canthium dicoccum X P
T Morinda tinctoria X P
T Tarenna asiatica X 11, P
Rutaceae S Glycosmis mauritiana X P
T Limonia acidissima X P
C Toddalia asiatica X 11, P
Salvadoraceae T Azima tetracantha X P
T Salvadora persica X P
Sapindaceae T Allophylus cobbe X P
T Lepisanthes tetraphylla X P
T Sapindus emarginatus X P
Verbenaceae S Lantana camara X P
H Stachytarpheta jamaicensis X P
Violaceae H Hybanthus enneaspermus X 10, 11, P
Vitaceae H Cissus quadrangularis X P
The plant species on the Ussangoda serpentine site include those identified from this and other cited studies. The species on the non-
serpentine regions in Ussangoda are based on the IUCN (2004) survey.
Journal of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka 39 (4) December 2011
Plant diversity and soil of Ussangoda serpentine site
361
DISCUSSION
A defining characteristic of a serpentine soil is a Ca: Mg
ratio of less than 0.6 (Brooks, 1987). The Ussangoda
serpentine soil on the plains showed a ratio of 0.6, and soil
under the shrubs and trees a ratio of 1.8 to 1.9. This was
significantly below than that of the non-serpentine soil.
Although the Mg content was not significantly different
between the serpentine and non-serpentine soils, the Ca
content was almost 15 times less on the serpentine plains.
In a previous study on the soil chemistry of Ussangoda
(Rajakaruna & Bohm, 2002), the Ca concentration
determined in the root zones of six species ranged from
112 – 210 µg/g (dry weight), which compares well with
a mean value of 187 µg/g (dry weight) in this study.
However, the Mg content determined in this study was
3–5 times of that was determined by Rajakaruna and
Bohm (2002). In their study of four serpentine soils in
Sri Lanka, Ussangoda showed the highest Ca:Mg ratio
of 1.3 – 2.4 while the other three sites had Ca:Mg as low
as 0.07 (in Ginigalpelessa) due to a high Mg content.
A serpentine site in Malaysia has shown a similar ratio
of 0.6 (Brearley, 2005) and a serpentine site in Portugal
(Lázaro et al., 2006) showed similar high values of
exchangeable Mg over Ca in the soil to give a Ca:Mg
ratio of 0.7 whereas ratios of the non-serpentine sites
were 2.4 to 6.9. In a serpentine site in Italy similarly low
values of 0.3 were found (Chiarucci et al., 1998) due to
the high Mg content in the soil. The Ussangoda site falls
within the basic definition for a serpentine soil based on
Ca:Mg ratio.
The CEC determined in this study is similar to that
obtained previously on the same site (Rajakaruna &
Bohm, 2002). The other serpentine sites in Sri Lanka in
Indikolapelessa and Ginigalpelessa had a higher CEC
(Rajakaruna & Bohm, 2002) of 25-50 cmol(+)/kg of soil.
Higher CEC values of 16 cmol(+)/kg was also shown by a
temperate serpentine soil (Lázaro et al., 2006). The soil pH
values in Ussangoda determined previously (Rajakaruna
& Bohm 2002) were more acidic (4.3 – 4.9) than that
was determined in this study, which could be due to time
of sampling and determination of the pH. In Malaysia,
a pH value of 5.3 similar to Ussangoda was determined
(Brearley, 2005). Acidic pH values were also obtained in
serpentine soils in temperate conditions (Lázaro et al.,
2006). The loss-of-ignition determined in a serpentine
site in Italy of 10.8 – 23.7% (Chiarucci et al., 1998) was
much higher than the 2.9 recorded in Ussangoda. This
could be accounted for by the cooler temperate climate
while Ussangoda is exposed to continuously warm
temperatures. However, high loss-of- ignition values of
12.6% were determined in a Malaysian serpentine soil
(Brearley 2005). The physical and chemical properties
of the Ussangoda serpentine soil are similar to that are
found elsewhere. However, there is a wide range of
values depending on the time and location of sampling
within the site.
Brooks (1987) first identified three species on
the Ussangoda (E. alsinoides) and Uda-Walawe
(Cymbopogon flexuosus and Morinda tinctoria)
serpentine sites in Sri Lanka. He concluded that the
serpentine flora was impoverished in species number
and endemism without further potential for botanical
research. Further studies (Seneviratne et al., 2000) on
the flora of Ussangoda identified 14 species confined
to specific areas on the serpentine plain and of limited
distribution. In a preliminary survey of four serpentine
sites in Sri Lanka Rajakaruna and Bohm (2002) reported
on the flora, soil characteristics and heavy metal uptake
by the plants.
Flora on serpentine soils are generally poor in
species diversity and show a high degree of endemism.
While the flora on the Ussangoda soil is poor in species
and families compared to the surrounding non-serpentine
region, attention has been drawn to the fact that although
Sri Lanka has a greater degree of biodiversity per unit
area than other Asian countries, endemic species were
not found on the serpentine soils (Rajakaruna & Bohm,
2002).
From a previous study of the flora of four serpentine
sites in Sri Lanka, Rajakaruna & Bohm (2002) concluded
that the floristic composition was typical of tropical
serpentine habitats. Their study added at least 23 new
genera from Sri Lanka to the list of plants known to
occur on serpentine soils. Of the 51 species identified
in this study, upto now, growing on the plains and as
patches of shrubs and trees on the Ussangoda serpentine
soil, two species, Vernonia zeylanica (Grierson, 1980)
and Scolopia acuminate (Verdcourt, 1996) were found
endemic to Sri Lanka while C. kleinii (Rudd, 1991) is
apparently endemic to Sri Lanka and Southwest India.
Colour polymorphism of the flowers of E. alsinoides
growing on the serpentine soil was previously reported
(Seneviratne et al., 2000; Rajakaruna & Bohm, 2002).
Both studies refer to two colours, while this study
identified three colour morphs. The non-serpentine
species is also known to have two colours (Austin, 1980).
Rajakaruna and Baker (2004) speculate if the colour
morphs could be due to edaphic differences in their
micro-habitat. However, in this study, the three flower
types were observed in plants growing very close to
December 2011 Journal of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka 39 (4)
362
H.A.S. Weerasinghe & M.C.M.Iqbal
each other as well as far apart. Seneviratne et al. (2000)
found distinct flavonoid profiles and suggested they are
“flavonoid races”.
The plant tissue concentration of heavy metals (Ni,
Fe, Mn) growing on the serpentine soil were above the
amount considered to be normal for non-serpentine plants
(Greger, 2004). Such accumulation of heavy metals is
characteristic of serpentine adapted plants (Brooks, 1987).
Plants capable of accumulating over 1000 µg metal/g dry
leaf tissue are considered as hyperaccumulators (Baker &
Brooks, 1989). H. enneaspermus accumulated over 1000
ppm Ni and three other species accumulated 500 – 800
ppm Ni (Table 2). The different Ni contents in the different
species suggest that the plants have varied mechanisms
of overcoming Ni toxicity in the soil by increased uptake
and sequestering of the Ni (hyperaccumulators) or by
excluding from uptake (species with low Ni). Previous
studies (Seneviratne et al., 2000) found four other
species in addition to H. enneaspermus, that were able
to hyperaccumulate Ni. Rajakaruna and Bohm (2002)
had found H. enneaspermus as a Ni hyperaccumulator
besides E. alsinoides and Crotolaria biflora. While
the status of H. enneaspermus is unequivocal as a
Ni hyperaccumulator, the differences in the other
species could be due to time and location of sampling
or analytical methods. Since surface contamination of
the plant tissue with the metal rich soil is a problem,
in this study plant tissues were washed with EDTA to
remove surface bound metals, which may account for
the lower values determined. According to Rajakaruna
and Bohm (2002), H. enneaspermus and E. alsinoides
occur in serpentine sites in Queensland, Australia but
are not Ni hyperaccumulators. They suggest that since
many varieties of both species are known, the Sri Lankan
species may represent a physiologically distinct form,
perhaps an edaphic race.
After the primary mineralization of the serpentine
rock, the elemental composition of the soil is also altered
by the colonization of vegetation, which along with
climate determines the present mineral composition
(Chiarucci et al., 1998). There is a dynamic interaction
between the soil and the vegetation determining the
physical and chemical characters of the soil at a given
time. Tropical serpentine soils are different from
temperate soils, primarily due to the cooler climate and
vegetation. However, more studies on tropical serpentine
sites are necessary to better understand the tropical
serpentine soils and their interaction with the flora that is
established on these soils. The Ussangoda serpentine site
has the basic soil attributes of a typical serpentine soil
and has a particularly low Ca content. The floral diversity
is restricted and shows adaptation to the soil conditions
morphologically and physiologically. Amongst the
species are hyperaccumulators as well as excluders of
Ni.
Acknowledgement
We thank the Director, Department. of Archaeology for
permission to collect field samples from the Ussangoda
serpentine site, Dr. D.S.A. Wijesundera, Director
General of the National Botanic Gardens, Peradeniya
for permitting the use of the Herbarium for identification
of the species. Dr. G.W.A.R. Fernando, Department of
Physics, The Open University of Sri Lanka, Ms. Y.A.S.
Samithri in the preparation of this manuscript and
Mr. R.B. Hapukotuwa for field assistance. Financial
assistance provided by the British Ecological Society,
the Institute of Fundamental Studies, and the National
Science Foundation of Sri Lanka (RG/2006/EB/08) is
gratefully acknowledged.
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... In contrast to the breadth and depth of knowledge on European ultramafic ecosystems (Teptina et al., 2018), knowledge of these ecosystems in India and Sri Lanka is very rudimentary. To date, the entire literature on Sri Lankan ultramafic floras comprises two reviews (Galey et al., 2017;Rajakaruna & Baker, 2004) and six empirical studies (Chathuranga et al., 2015;Rajakaruna & Bohm, 2002;Samithri, 2015;Tennakone et al., 2007;Weerasinghe & Iqbal, 2011). Of the latter group, one provides preliminary floristic and leaf chemical data for 19 plants from Ginigalpellessa, 11 from Indikolapellessa, two from Yodhaganawa, and seven from Ussangoda (Rajakaruna & Bohm, 2002). ...
... Of the latter group, one provides preliminary floristic and leaf chemical data for 19 plants from Ginigalpellessa, 11 from Indikolapellessa, two from Yodhaganawa, and seven from Ussangoda (Rajakaruna & Bohm, 2002). Two additional studies detail floristic and plant chemical data for Ussangoda, the most significant of Sri Lankan ultramafic sites (Samithri, 2015;Weerasinghe & Iqbal, 2011), one examines Ni uptake by Fimbristylis ovata populations from Ussangoda (Chathuranga et al., 2015), while the others are about prospective Ni phytomining from Ussangoda via Hybanthus enneaspermus (now Afrohybanthus enneaspermus; Tennakone et al., 2007), and antimicrobial properties of 3-17 plant species each from Ginigalpellessa, Indikolapellessa, Yodhaganawa, and Ussangoda . Sri Lankan ultramafic flora originally came to attention in 1977 (Brooks, Lee, et al., 1977;Brooks, Wither, et al., 1977), when extreme Ni hyperaccumulation by the island's R. bengalensis (10,000 μg g À1 Ni) was reported after analysis of a herbarium specimen sourced from the central region, its exact location is still unknown despite subsequent efforts (Rajakaruna & Baker, 2004). ...
... Plant collection for chemical analysis was made in triplicate per species, and once individually processed to the dry powdered state, pooled to a single sample representative of each species collected. We added published plant data for Ussangoda (U) (6 5 0 56 00 N 80 59 0 12 00 E; outcrop size 100 ha) (Rajakaruna & Bohm, 2002;Samithri, 2015;Weerasinghe & Iqbal, 2011) into the analysis. Katupotha, the sixth ultramafic outcrop we intended to study (Hewawasam et al., 2014), could not be located despite concerted efforts, suggesting it may have originally been incorrectly documented or has since been destroyed by land clearing. ...
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Some of the largest expanses of ultramafic soils occur in South Asia, but knowledge of the plant diversity and biogeochemistry of these systems in Sri Lanka is very limited. This study aimed to assess the plant diversity and bedrock and foliar chemistry of all known Sri Lankan ultramafic outcrops. The field survey yielded a total of 132 plant taxa from 44 families. The enigmatic nickel hyperaccumulator Rinorea bengalensis (Violaceae), first reported in Sri Lanka over four decades ago, was rediscovered at a newly surveyed ultramafic site, however, it did not hyperaccumulate nickel. No new metal hyperaccumulator plants were identified, suggesting that R. bengalensis is a facultative nickel hyperaccumulator. This study is the first to highlight the floristic diversity of all known Sri Lankan ultramafic outcrops while revealing the facultative nature of nickel and copper hyperaccumulation among some of Sri Lanka's ultramafic plants.
... In serpentinite soil, exchangeable Mg concentrations are high and exchangeable Ca concentrations are low resulting in deficiencies in plant nutrients such as N, P and K. With the presence of low amounts of essential plant nutrients, plants have been adapted morphologically and physiologically to this harsh environment resulting in high endemism and poor diversity of plants (Weerasinghe and Iqbal, 2011). It is reported that unusual plants such as carnivorous cobralily (Darlingtonia californica) grow on this unfavorable and hostile environment (Oze et al., 2008). ...
... SOM concentration of serpentinite in temperate regains is quite high compared to that in tropical regions (Oze et al., 2004b). Due to relatively low clay and organic matter content and the rocky nature of the serpentinite soil, low water holding capacity results in the high permeability (Weerasinghe and Iqbal, 2011). Further, it is reported that toxic metals such Cr, Ni and Co release from serpentinite outcrops due to the oxalic and citric acids which are produced by SOM (Schreier et al., 1987). ...
... The extent of this deposit is recorded as 3 km 2 and soils mainly consist of hematite with fine-grained clayey sand leading to lateritic reddish hue (Rajakaruna and Bohm, 2002). Plant diversity with respect to the soil characteristics for the Ussangoda serpentinite deposit was investigated and a remarkable difference in plant diversity between serpentinite and non-serpentinite soil which has high plant families and species was observed (Weerasinghe and Iqbal, 2011). Additionally, high concentration of Ni (560-830 ppm) had been recorded in five plant species growing on Ussangoda serpentinite soil. ...
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Even though serpentinite outcrops cover approximately 1% of total terrestrial land in the world, they have gained significant importance due to the high level of heavy metals such as Cr, Ni, Mn and Co leading to surface and groundwater contamination in addition to the dispersion via wind as particulate matter. Accordingly, both fauna and flora in the surrounding environment may be seriously affected via hyper accumulation. This paper is a brief overview of the geochemistry of serpentinite soils in a global context followed by findings from Sri Lanka. The geochemistry of serpentinite surroundings may differ from site to site as a result of different climatic conditions, in addition to the nature of the parent material. Serpentinite soil in Niquelandia, Brazil reported high amounts of Ni (73786 mg / kg) while approximately 60000 mg / kg of Cr has been reported in the New Caledonia serpentinite soils. In addition, reported Mn and Co concentration of Haut Limousin, France and Niquelandia, Brazil were 5886 and 980 mg / kg, respectively. Further, the distribution of heavy metals and other major elements along the weathering profile of serpentinite soil differs globally. Therefore, it is a timely need to investigate the relationship of pedology on heavy metal and major element distribution along the serpentinite soil profiles.
... In serpentinite soil, exchangeable Mg concentrations are high and exchangeable Ca concentrations are low resulting in deficiencies in plant nutrients such as N, P and K. With the presence of low amounts of essential plant nutrients, plants have been adapted morphologically and physiologically to this harsh environment resulting in high endemism and poor diversity of plants (Weerasinghe and Iqbal, 2011). It is reported that unusual plants such as carnivorous cobralily (Darlingtonia californica) grow on this unfavorable and hostile environment (Oze et al., 2008). ...
... SOM concentration of serpentinite in temperate regains is quite high compared to that in tropical regions (Oze et al., 2004b). Due to relatively low clay and organic matter content and the rocky nature of the serpentinite soil, low water holding capacity results in the high permeability (Weerasinghe and Iqbal, 2011). Further, it is reported that toxic metals such Cr, Ni and Co release from serpentinite outcrops due to the oxalic and citric acids which are produced by SOM (Schreier et al., 1987). ...
... The extent of this deposit is recorded as 3 km 2 and soils mainly consist of hematite with fine-grained clayey sand leading to lateritic reddish hue (Rajakaruna and Bohm, 2002). Plant diversity with respect to the soil characteristics for the Ussangoda serpentinite deposit was investigated and a remarkable difference in plant diversity between serpentinite and non-serpentinite soil which has high plant families and species was observed (Weerasinghe and Iqbal, 2011). Additionally, high concentration of Ni (560-830 ppm) had been recorded in five plant species growing on Ussangoda serpentinite soil. ...
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Even though serpentinite outcrops cover approximately 1% of total terrestrial land in the world, they have gained significant importance due to the high level of heavy metals such as Cr, Ni, Mn and Co leading to surface and groundwater contamination in addition to the dispersion via wind as particulate matter. Accordingly, both fauna and flora in the surrounding environment may be seriously affected via hyper accumulation. This paper is a brief overview of the geochemistry of serpentinite soils in a global context followed by findings from Sri Lanka. The geochemistry of serpentinite surroundings may differ from site to site as a result of different climatic conditions, in addition to the nature of the parent material. Serpentinite soil in Niquelandia, Brazil reported high amounts of Ni (73786 mg / kg) while approximately 60000 mg / kg of Cr has been reported in the New Caledonia serpentinite soils. In addition, reported Mn and Co concentration of Haut Limousin, France and Niquelandia, Brazil were 5886 and 980 mg / kg, respectively. Further, the distribution of heavy metals and other major elements along the weathering profile of serpentinite soil differs globally. Therefore, it is a timely need to investigate the relationship of pedology on heavy metal and major element distribution along the serpentinite soil profiles.
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... Among these, two plants are endemic to Sri Lanka: Vernonia zeylanica and Scolopia acuminate (Weerasinghe and Iqbal 2011). Similar types of serpentinite sites are found elsewhere locally and in other Asian countries such as India (Brooks 1987) and Malaysia (Brooks 1987;Proctor 2003). ...
... further notable are its prostrate plant species producing very low biomass per unit area, and small isolated patches of thorny shrubs of higher biomass encompassing locally restricted and endemic taxa such as nickel hyperaccumulator plants. Systems with serpentine ecology attract the interests of plant ecologists, evolutionaty biologists and environmental physiologists alike (e.g., Weerasinghe and Iqbal 2011;Chiarucci and Baker 2007). Historically, significant folk stories are connected to the Ussangoda area. ...
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... Despite recent extensive field explorations (Fernando et al., 2022), the sixth outcrop (Katupotha) has not been located, suggesting it may have been erroneously documented in previous reports or has since been altered beyond recognition by intense anthropogenic activity. The floristic diversity and plant-soil ionic relations of Sri Lanka's ultramafic outcrops, especially Ussangoda along the southern coast ( Fig. 5f-h), have received some attention (Chathuranga et al., 2015;Samithri, 2015;Weerasinghe & Iqbal, 2011). To date, less than 100 species have been reported (Galey et al., 2017), compared to the many-fold more documented from other sites in Southeast Asia (van der Ent et al., 2015a). ...
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... The uniqueness of the Ussangoda National park is the visitors can experience the dark red soil, small rocks and see sporadic vegetation due to the high amount of Ni and Cr in the soil by the weathering of the serpentine rock. 29 species of flowering plants, which included trees, shrubs, vines, and prostate plants growing within the Ussangoda serpentine site were identified (Weerasinghe and Iqbal, 2011). Cassia kleinii was identified as a Ni hyper-accumulator. ...
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... Serpentine rock is basically a magnesium iron silicate, from metamorphosis of peridotite and usually contains chromite, FeCr O and significant doi: 10.48031/msunjear.2016.04.05 portion of Ni and Mg (Whittaker, 1954). After the primary mineralization of the serpentine rock, the chemical composition and physical characteristics of the weathered material is also changed by vegetation (Chiarucci, et al., 1998 andWeerasinghe, et al., 2011). Climate also plays a significant role in physico-chemical condition of these rocks (Chiarucci, et al., 1998). ...
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This study explored the soils and vegetation of four of the five known ultramafic sites in Sri Lanka. Soil chemical and physical features were typical of ultramafic substrates. A preliminary taxonomic survey identified 45 species of angiosperms, none of which is endemic to the island or restricted to ultramafic soils. However, populations of several taxa may represent distinct races or ecotypes specific to the substrate. A thorough taxonomic survey of specimens from on and off this substrate may expose features unique to these ultramafic populations. Plant tissue concentrations of various elements were typical of species growing on ultramafic substrates. Evolvulus alsinoides (Convolvulaceae), Hybanthus enneaspermus (Violaceae), and Crotalaria biflora (Fabaceae) were shown to hyperaccumulate nickel (>1000 μg/g dry tissue). An unusual finding was the discovery of five hyperaccumulators of copper: Geniosporum tenuiflorum (Lamiaceae), Clerodendrum infortunatum (Verbenaceae), Croton bonplandianus (Euphorbiaceae), Waltheria indica (Sterculiaceae), and Tephrosia villosa (Fabaceae). Copper hyperaccumulation (>1000 μg/g dry tissue) in ultramafic substrates is a little known phenomenon and requires further study. Calotropis gigantea (Asclepiadaceae) accumulated sodium to levels often seen in halophytic plants. Sodium accumulation in plants growing on ultramafic substrates is also a rare phenomenon.
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Heavy metals are natural elements that are found at various high background levels (Table 1.1) at different places throughout the world, due to various concentrations in the bedrock. Thus, for example, Ni, Cr and Co are abundant in serpentine soils, whereas Zn, Pb and Cd are high in calamine soils. Heavy metals are persistent and cannot be deleted from the environment. Thus, a problem arises when their availability is high due to high background levels or to human activity.
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Publisher Summary The chapter provides details of the chemistry of the minerals frequently present in ultramafic rocks, and discusses the ecology of serpentine soil. Serpentine is used by biologists to describe a group of ultramafic rocks and the soils derived from them. Three principal polymorphic forms of serpentine are recognized: chrysotile, antigorite, and lizardite. The processes by which serpentine rocks develop into soils depend on climate, time, relief, and biotic factors along with the chemical composition of the parent material. As a result many types of soil occur on serpentines. The characteristics of serpentine are briefly discussed. Serpentine vegetation has two major characteristics: Physiognomic differences from the vegetation of surrounding rocks, and rare species and combinations of species. The vegetation of serpentines presents a wide range of appearances. Biologists have concentrated on the situations where serpentine vegetation is in sharp contrast with that of the surroundings. Such contrasts do not always occur and when this happens the serpentine vegetation is often not documented. The more closely studied serpentines have many vegetation features in common but the causes of these similarities can be very different. There is much scope for further work in many fields on serpentines.