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National Science Week Celebrated with Lecture on Wildlife and Urbanisation

2017/09/06 01:52:59 PM

Professor Colleen Downs presented a public lecture about the persistence of wildlife in urban areas in KwaZulu-Natal.

Professor Colleen Downs

Professor Colleen Downs presented a public lecture about the persistence of wildlife in urban areas in KwaZulu-Natal. The lecture which was part of the National Science Week celebrations was presented at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus on 11 August.

Downs spoke in the context of the current Anthropocene era, wherein humans manage three quarters of the land mass, and increasing urbanisation is causing loss of natural habitats for animals. Extinctions and losses characterise this era, as well as changes in animals’ past and current distribution.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) sponsored the event, which was attended by guests from the University and wider public. Geoff Nichols, who was instrumental in setting up the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (D’MOSS), was among the notable guests at the event.

Downs is the South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, and is consistently rated the top-published female researcher at UKZN.

Downs and her postgraduate students have worked on about 20 bird, herp and mammal species that despite the generally negative impacts of urbanisation, appear to be thriving in suburbia. The effects of changing land use her research dips into, explained Downs, are not well documented in South Africa. Many cities have relatively few green areas, but some species have been able to thrive nonetheless.

Downs spoke particularly about the research of five of her postgraduate students, Manqoba Zungu, Craig Widdows, Preshnee Singh, Shane McPherson and Vuyisile Thabethe. They work on forest habitat fragmentation, large-spotted genets, hadedas, crowned eagles and woolly-necked storks respectively.

She addressed the issue of urbanisation making it difficult for mammals to move, the pressure on green forest areas, the range of species found in urban areas, and whether they avoid or exploit urban environments.

Downs spoke about animals changing their behaviour, especially breeding and feeding habits in adapting to the urban environment. Some species’ numbers have increased with urban development, as some have made use of the mosaic urban landscape, and the anthropogenic structures and food sources there.

Negative consequences for those animals include changing diets resulting in deficiencies, human-wildlife conflicts, and threats from power lines and pets.

‘Many of these urban exploiter species could decline quite quickly if we removed either the food or breeding sites they have successfully used in urban areas,’ said Downs.

‘Green corridors and gardens are important, but with increasing pressure people do away with gardens, build closer houses and chop down the large trees often important for nesting or hiding away,’

Downs emphasised the importance of citizen science for long-term monitoring benefits.

‘A lot of our data is collected by people like you; each of you can make a contribution in understanding how these animals are surviving this Anthropocene, particularly in urban areas.’

Additional research is needed on topics like genetic adaptations in urban explorers, the effects of climate change, and of invasive species and animals’ use of environment.

Downs closed by thanking her postgraduate students, family and collaborators for their support.

‘Keep your curiosity going, work hard and keep persevering, and you will discover exciting things,’ she advised. 

Photograph: Sally Frost

Christine Cuénod


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