Department of Botany and Zoology
The Department teaches and conducts research at postgraduate level in a variety of internationally competitive research programmes. It is a leader in the field of evolutionary biology, with a specific focus on the unique opportunities offered by Africa's biodiversity.
It is also home to the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology (CIB). The CIB aims to improve the ability, through scientific knowledge, to understand, control and manage invasive species to improve the quality of life of all South Africans. It also houses the newly
launched School for Climate Studies, which will create transdisciplinary
capacity for research combining climate-related knowledge systems across
faculties and the public sector's climate policies and initiatives.
FIELDS OF RESEARCH
This research uses an integrative approach, spanning molecular to community level perspectives, to address two broad themes:
- the evolution and ecology of interactions between plants and their symbionts;
- the diversification of the Cape biota and its consequences for coexistence.
Specific topics include evolution of specialisation, floral diversification, plant breeding systems, community assembly, coevolution, plant-insect diversity relationships, insect/bird behaviour, seed dispersal, speciation, hybridisation, polyploidy, plant-insect-fungus-bacteria interactions, plant growth form diversity, plant systematics and taxonomy.
Animal plant interactions
This research covers a variety of topics and uses an integrative approach to study floral diversification, plant-insect interactions, plant-insect diversity relationships, insect behaviour and how it relates to floral evolution, colour of flowers, dispersal evolution, the origin and maintenance of species, the coexistence of species and the diversification of the Cape flora and fauna. Animal-plant interactions
have also seen a more applied approach, with a focus on pollination ecosystem
services in South African agricultural systems.
Here the focus is largely on animal communication, in particular the evolution of animal signals, whether they are olfactory, acoustic or visual. One aspect of the research is the analysis and identification of the signalling systems used by social insects in maintaining colony co-ordination and functioning which is integral to untangling the evolution of sociality in the animal kingdom. Another focus is on various communication strategies used by birds and mammals in relation to mimicry, mate choice, mate guarding, territoriality and helping behaviour.
Cape flora research group
This research focus mainly on phylogenetic reconstruction and the general biology of the organism (e.g., morphology, palynology, karyology and breeding systems) to reconstruct the evolution of several Cape lineages. It is focused on the evolution of alternative growth forms, the evolution and breakdown of the tristylous breeding system, the evolution of recalcitrance and varied seedling recruitment strategies and the role of hybridization in driving the observed diversity.
Members undertake research on the biodiversity consequences of biological invasions. The principal aims of the Centre's work are to reduce the rates and impacts of biological invasions by furthering scientific understanding and predictive capability, and by developing research capacity.
evolutionary and Eco-physiology
Research focuses in
understanding the causes and consequences of fine and broad-scale variation in
the physiology of animals, with a strong emphasis on ectotherms, such as
reptiles and insects. We study a range of whole-organism traits, including
metabolic rate, water loss, temperature tolerance and sensitivity of
performance and fitness. We employ a range of approaches to examine these
traits (comparative studies, experimental evolution, mesocosms and field
studies) in order to depict plastic and adaptive responses of these organisms
in an ecological relevant framework.
Members of the Evolutionary Genomics Group combine diverse expertise in molecular analyses to study the evolutionary history of terrestrial, freshwater and marine fauna and flora. Our research is not taxon-specific and is aimed at strengthening conceptual, experimental, analytical and computational expertise in molecular ecology, conservation genetics, comparative cytogenetics, population genetics, phylogeography, comparative genomics and molecular phylogenetics.
The research group has
several focal areas including polychaete taxonomy, systematicsand reproduction,
invertebrate ecology and diversity, marine invasion ecology, molecular marine
ecology, climate change and human coastal ecology. This group utilises modern
research techniques to better understand southern Africa's dynamic marine
realm. Much of the marine group's varied research is applied to solving
challenges that affect marine biodiversity and human well-being.
Global change ecology
The focus is primarily on climate change and related impacts on unique and often high-biodiversity southern African terrestrial ecosystems, including sub-Antarctic islands. Experimental eco-physiological and systems ecological approaches are applied to develop the mechanistic understanding behind biodiversity responses to climate change trends and to other global change drivers, and the ecosystem structural and functional impacts. This understanding is combined with bioclimatic niche-based modelling (NBM) approaches, hybrid NBM/demographic approaches, and dynamic global vegetation modelling (DGVM) approaches in collaboration with leading groups globally. Predictive application covers a wide range of spatial scales from sub-landscape to continental. The work is cognisant of potential policy value and biodiversity and ecosystem management implications.
Medicinal plant biotechnology
This group focuses on the use of plants for medicinal purposes by local people. The aim is to gain a better understanding of the influences of the environment on medicinal plants and associated secondary metabolites specifically in the regulatory mechanisms involved in secondary metabolite production. Biotechnology is applied to a conservation and commercialization strategy. The group largely focuses on medicinal plants that are important in the Greater Cape region.
Plant molecular ecology
This research is mainly focussed around the evolutionary biology and molecular ecology of both native and invasive plant species. The main focus areas of the research include:
- understanding the demographic processes underlying invasive plant populations;
- the historical biogeography of native plant populations and the processes that shaped them;
- landscape genetics of invasive plant populations; and
- the effects of extreme long-distance dispersal in explaining historically-disjunct plant species distributions.