Botany & Zoology
Welcome to Stellenbosch University

Honours guide for prospective students

Choice modules

​2. Theoretical Topics in Biodiversity Sciences (12249-796):
​<< back | next >>​​​

Members of the academic staff present focused, integrated, interactive modules in their fields of expertise designed to provide in-depth exposure to theory and/or relevant techniques in the Biodiversity Sciences. Students choose 3 of the 4 broad subject areas listed below. The range of material covered under each topic will provide students with the requisite breadth of exposure to key concepts in ecology and evolution.

Each module meets for a three hour session once a week and students are expected to do all the requisite reading/assignments between each meeting. Each course should occupy 25% of your time, allowing you to work in parallel on your research projects. It is essential that students manage their time accordingly. In some instances (e.g. extended fieldtrips or Marion island trip) it may be necessary to miss module contact sessions – if this is necessary it is essential that students clear this with their supervisor and the Honours co-ordinator timeously, so that alternative plans can be made.

Each course will be evaluated by means of a written exam and an assignment. In addition students will receive a mark for their participation in the contact sessions. Student must attain a subminimum of 45% for each choice module and 50 % overall average for the three modules. The module choices are listed below:

(1) Biodiversity and Systematics

Co-ordinator: Conrad Matthee
Teachers: Victor Rambau, Conrad Matthee, Savel Daniels, Leanne Dreyer

Have you ever wondered why we now believe that humans share more similarity to mushrooms than to plants?  The Biodiversity and Systematics module aims to provide answers to questions such as this.  Moreover, it will give you an up to date thorough understanding of the mechanisms responsible for the origin of the approximately 8 million extant species on earth.  Some recent indications are that 86% terrestrial and 91% marine species have yet to be discovered and described.  Modern species descriptions (documentation of biodiversity) take into account evolutionary history and in this module we focus on such a systematic approach.  In our quest to understand the mechanisms responsible for generating biodiversity we will expose you to various relevant topics.

The first two weeks of the course will deal with aspects of chromosomal evolution (presented by Victor Rambau: 2 April, 9 April).  We will then move on to Molecular systematics (presented by Conrad Matthee: 16 April and 23 April) and Phylogeography (presented by Savel Daniels: 30 April, 7 May, 14 May) and finish the module with a section on Cape biodiversity and evolution presented by Leanne Dreyer: 21 May, 28 May, 4 June).  The course will be assessed by written assignments that will cover various topics dealt with in the module and class discussions/presentations and one written exam on the 11th of June. Contact sessions will be in room 1010 and will start at 10 am (unless otherwise arranged).

(2) Evolutionary Ecology of Plants and Animals

Co-ordinator: Michael Cherry,
Teachers: Bruce Anderson, Theresa Wossler, Michael Cherry, Alan Ellis

How do everyday events create the wonderful diversity of species, form and behaviour that we see around us today?  Can we, through observing the lives of animals and plants around us, make sense of the long tails of sugarbirds, the scent of flowers, and the asexuality of the worker bee. The answers often come by studying natural selection acting on the trait of interest – this is how ecology translates into evolutionary change, or even speciation.

The 12 week module runs from 28 March to 14 June and has two main components: the first, focussing on behavioural ecology, taught by Michael Cherry and Theresa Wossler and the second focussing on animal-plant interactions, covering topics such as seed dispersal, herbivory and pollination. Behavioural ecology will run in the first six weeks; Animal-plant interactions will run in the last six weeks. There will be field work during Theresa Wossler’s section of the module (28 March – 5 April) to Jonkershoek and/or Helderberg Nature Reserve. For the rest of the course there will typically be a weekly discussion group on Fridays from 10:00 to 13:00 (this time period may change), where cutting edge research in Evolutionary Ecology will be discussed. The assignment involves writing a scientific essay for the behavioural ecology component of the module.

(3) Functional Ecology and Environmental Stress

Co-ordinator: Hannes van Wyk
Teachers: Susana Clusella-Trullas, Valdon Smith, Hannes van Wyk, LeFras Mouton

What is environmental stress and how do organisms respond to it?  Do they avoid it, do they tolerate it, or do they adapt to it?  Do organisms living in the desert, at high altitudes, at great depths under water or Antarctica perceive their environments as stressful or within their optimal performance range? This module will combine aspects of physiology and ecology to answer these questions.  The module includes four sub-modules, each focusing on plants, invertebrates and vertebrates, respectively, and animals will include marine and terrestrial examples.

Sub-module 1: plant ecological strategies – functional responses and functional types. Plant adaptations and responses to stressful environments

Sub-module 2:  Life History strategies include several covariable traits which enable animals to maximise reproductive fitness according to their environments.  These traits then also afford the animals with different abilities to respond to different stresses.  This submodule will address how LHS can change according to temperature changes on a latitudinal gradient, and how LHS influence large scale patterns, distribution & invasion potential and extinction

Submodule 3: Life history strategies in arid environments – birds, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals

Sub-module 4: the physiology/endocrinology of the stress response – how do vertebrates respond to changes/stressors in their environments?

(4) Biological invasions and utilization of natural resources

Co-ordinator: Alex Valentine, Teachers: Dave Richardson, Jon Wilson, Jaco Le Roux, Cang Hui, Nox Makhunga, Alex Valentine

The module focuses on the interactions of plants, humans and the natural environment. There are three sections:  The first section covers how humans have used natural plant products for medicines, food and beverages for millennia. These uses form the mainstay of the modern biotechnological industry, but the plants in their natural environments are under serious threat from invasive species. The second section dealing with plant invasions, will cover the general theories of invasion, explore the molecular and evolutionary processes underlying invasion and how they can be modelled mathematically. Their impacts on policy and management will also be covered. The third section covers the physiological and biochemical adaptations of invasive plants to efficiently utilise the natural resources from the soil and air which are essential to their successful survival in new environments.​​