Student Projects
Prospective students may propose projects in agreement with a core team member or other supervisor. The project outlines below are simply guidelines to projects of particular interest to core team members. Please contact the responsible core team member for further details.
Click on a project title in the list below to view its details
# Project title Institution Level
1 An assessment of the extent of invasion and genetic structure of Eucalyptus camaldulensis in South Africa Stellenbosch University MSc
2 Ants as ecological status indicators at Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve University of Pretoria Honours
3 Biodiversity impacts of plant invasions — the role of mutualisms Stellenbosch University MSc, PhD or Post-doc
4 Determining a risk assessment for cultivars of alien plant invaders Stellenbosch University PhD
5 Disentangling the drivers of invasive alien trees in East Africa Stellenbosch University PhD
6 Do below-ground mutualistic networks fit expectations from their above-ground counterparts: the case of legumes and rhizobia Stellenbosch University PhD or Post-doc
7 Ecological impacts of the white garden snail (Theba pisana) University of Cape Town MSc or PhD
8 Effects of elevated temperature, rainfall and soil nutrients on three invasive alien plants University of Venda MSc
9 Fastidious frogs: does Xenopus laevis avoid ponds that contain fish? Stellenbosch University Honours
10 From snapshots of species distribution to landscape-scale dynamics of invasive plants Stellenbosch University MSc or Post-doc
11 Has dam construction facilitated the extra-limital range expansion of the African clawed frog? Stellenbosch University MSc or PhD
12 How big is our problem with invasive pigs? Stellenbosch University OR NMU MSc
13 Hybridisation ecology of African clawed frogs, Xenopus laevis and X. gilli Stellenbosch University Honours
14 Identifying priorities in the landscape for invasive species management and clearing University of Pretoria MSc
15 Impact assessment for alien species Stellenbosch University Honours
16 Impacts of guttural toads on Mauritian snails Stellenbosch University / Mauritius MSc
17 Impacts of invasive birds: assessing the incidence and extent of hybridization between invasive mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) and native yellow billed duck (Anas undulata) in South Africa Stellenbosch University Honours or MSc
18 Invasive rose-ringed parakeets Psittacula krameri in KwaZulu-Natal University of KwaZulu-Natal MSc
19 Linking dispersal and invasion dynamics of pest insects Stellenbosch University MSc or PhD
20 Linking thermal threshold with widely distributed populations of African clawed frogs over different altitudes Stellenbosch University Honours or MSc
21 More than the sum of its parts? Whole animal performance vs. muscle physiology in Xenopus laevis Stellenbosch University / Coventry University MSc
22 Propagule pressure: The role of forestry plantations Stellenbosch University MSc, PhD or Post-doc
23 Quantifying the extent of the problem: a case for future biological control of Paterson’s curse (Echium plantagineum) within South Africa Stellenbosch University PhD
24 Seed dispersal and spread potential of invasive Australian acacias Stellenbosch University PhD or Post-doc
25 Temporal niche partitioning in ants University of Pretoria Honours
26 The architecture of pollination and seed-dispersal networks of Australian acacias Stellenbosch University PhD or Post-doc
27 Using economic and ecological modelling to facilitate the eradication of the House Crow (Corvus splendens) in Cape Town Stellenbosch University MSc or PhD
28 What do toads eat & what eats toads? Stellenbosch University Honours
29 What makes for a successful alpine alien ascender? Identifying traits that enable species to establish at higher elevations University of Pretoria Honours

    Project details

    • 1. An assessment of the extent of invasion and genetic structure of Eucalyptus camaldulensis in South Africa
    • Academic level: MSc
    • Core team member: Dave Richardson
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: Good progress has been made towards understanding of the determinants of invasiveness of tree species. Such information is required to improve our ability to screen new introductions to determine the risks of invasiveness. Despite the advances in understanding, many questions remain unanswered in tree invasion ecology. One conundrum is why Eucalyptus species have fared so poorly as invasive species around the world.
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    • 2. Ants as ecological status indicators at Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve
    • Academic level: Honours
    • Core team member: Mark Robertson
    • Based at: University of Pretoria
    • Brief outline: Managers should undertake biodiversity monitoring to assess the impacts of their interventions on the ecosystems they manage. Invertebrates are often excluded from these monitoring programmes because of a lack of the skills needed or because of a lack of understanding of the importance of invertebrates in ecosystems. Ants have been shown to be good indicators of ecosystem status, they are relatively easy to sample and identify, and they are used in monitoring programmes worldwide.
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    • 3. Biodiversity impacts of plant invasions — the role of mutualisms
    • Academic level: MSc, PhD or Post-doc
    • Core team member: Jaco Le Roux
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: A major challenge to biodiversity conservation is quantifying and preventing the impacts of biological invasions. For example, how invasive species influence mutualistic interactions within communities they invade and its consequences for biodiversity remain essentially unknown. This research project aims to shed light on how, and to what extent, invasive legumes may alter the way native biodiversity interacts in the Cape Floristic Region (CFR).
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    • 4. Determining a risk assessment for cultivars of alien plant invaders
    • Academic level: PhD
    • Core team member: John Wilson
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: The movement of plants around the world by the horticultural trade has historically been one of the major proximate causes of biological invasions. Legislation is currently being amended in South Africa as part of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act to restrict the use of and trade in species that pose a high invasion risk to South Africa. One recommendation is that cultivars of species listed as invasive (or potentially invasive) that have an acceptable invasion risk (e.g. through sterility) are explicitly specified in and exempt from the regulations.
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    • 5. Disentangling the drivers of invasive alien trees in East Africa
    • Academic level: PhD
    • Core team member: Jaco Le Roux
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: The proposed project forms part of a multi-national research initiative between European and African partners. The overarching goal of the research project is to help to mitigate the effects of invasive alien trees on biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being in East Africa. We are seeking a creative and motivated student who wishes to carry out original research in the field of invasion biology, with a strong evolutionary focus.
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    • 6. Do below-ground mutualistic networks fit expectations from their above-ground counterparts: the case of legumes and rhizobia
    • Academic level: PhD or Post-doc
    • Core team member: Jaco Le Roux
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: Establishing beneficial mutualistic interactions in novel environments is important for the successful establishment of some non-native plant species; these may in turn impact native species interaction networks...
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    • 7. Ecological impacts of the white garden snail (Theba pisana)
    • Academic level: MSc or PhD
    • Core team member: Charles Griffiths
    • Based at: University of Cape Town
    • Brief outline: The invasive white garden snail occurs in a broad strip along the South African coastline from the northern Cape to about East London. The only local study to date (Odendall et al. 2008) examined its distribution and life history in the West Coast National Park, where densities reached 700 per m2 at some sites! Although these dense populations were observed to feed on a wide range of native plants no one has examined (1) impacts on plant diversity and standing biomass, (2) the wider implications of white garden snails as competitors to other herbivores, or (3) the implications of these snails as a food source for predators. Australian studies on Theba suggest that it can displace native snails, and Theba-infested plants are generally considered to be unpalatable to livestock.
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    • 8. Effects of elevated temperature, rainfall and soil nutrients on three invasive alien plants
    • Academic level: MSc
    • Core team member: Sheunesu Ruwanza
    • Based at: University of Venda
    • Brief outline: South Africa’s climate change predictions suggest that an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is likely to cause an increase in temperature, rainfall and soil nutrient availability. Such changes are likely to affect ecosystems and recent observation on shifting plant phenology (e.g. flowering time) are evidence that species are already responding to climate change. It remains uncertain whether climate change will favor invasive or native plant species, although it is generally accepted that future changes will strengthen the “enemy release theory” making invasive alien plants more invasive.
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    • 9. Fastidious frogs: does Xenopus laevis avoid ponds that contain fish?
    • Academic level: Honours
    • Core team member: John Measey
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: The African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, is now one of the world’s most widely distributed amphibians. Given its extensive use in pregnancy testing research, this anuran has been actively transported across the globe since the 1930’s...
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    • 10. From snapshots of species distribution to landscape-scale dynamics of invasive plants
    • Academic level: MSc or Post-doc
    • Core team member: Cang Hui
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: Early detection often records introduced plant species as snapshots of presence points through remote sensing or ground surveys. This provides valuable, but rather limited information on the current status of the focal species in a novel environment. However, point-based maps seldom provide sufficient evidence on which to base management decisions, especially in highly heterogeneous landscapes. It is of great value to elucidate the interrelationships between the spatial structure of founding populations, landscape heterogeneity, and the invasion potential of the focal species.
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    • 11. Has dam construction facilitated the extra-limital range expansion of the African clawed frog?
    • Academic level: MSc or PhD
    • Core team member: Cang Hui
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: The African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, is one of the world’s most widely distributed amphibians. Exported from the southwestern Cape for pregnancy testing in the 1930s...
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    • 12. How big is our problem with invasive pigs?
    • Academic level: MSc
    • Core team member: John Measey
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University OR NMU
    • Brief outline: Feral pigs (Sus scrofa) are a problem in many parts of the world (e.g. Hone, 2002; Kotanen, 1995). The impacts of populations of feral domestic pigs are particularly well known on islands, where they were introduced by seafarers. In South Africa, feral pigs (and wild boar) are recorded from nearly 20 sites in the southwestern Cape (Skead et al, 2011), but it is unclear how many of these populations are extant. In other parts of the country, the extent of feral populations is currently unknown. At least one invasive population is the subject of an ongoing eradication attempt in the northwestern Western Cape Province, in a response to the impacts this species has had in conservation areas. Pigs are known to alter native plant communities and can cause considerable economic impact to crops, particularly vineyards. However, feral pig impacts in South Africa have not formally been studied.
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    • 13. Hybridisation ecology of African clawed frogs, Xenopus laevis and X. gilli
    • Academic level: Honours
    • Core team member: John Measey
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: The Cape platanna, Xenopus gilli, is considered Endangered by the IUCN in part because of the threats from its Invasive congener, X. laevis. However, there have been few quantifications of this threat and preliminary data suggests that It might be different in different places. Moreover, we have little idea of the relative sizes of X. gilli and X. laevis populations, or their resulting hybrids.
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    • 14. Identifying priorities in the landscape for invasive species management and clearing
    • Academic level: MSc
    • Core team member: Mark Robertson
    • Based at: University of Pretoria
    • Brief outline: Conservation planners recognise the importance of natural habitat that forms corridors between important biodiversity areas. These corridors of natural habitat are of central importance for ensuring landscape connectivity as part of a climate change mitigation strategy. A key recommendation for climate change mitigation is to ensure landscape connectivity across elevation and other natural gradients. New approaches have recently been developed for identifying potentially important corridor habitat in the landscape using current flow models.
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    • 15. Impact assessment for alien species
    • Academic level: Honours
    • Core team member: Sabrina Kumschick
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: It is not only crucial to find out which species become a problem in a introduced range, but also to evaluate which species have highest impacts once introduced and established. An impact scoring system has been developed for this purpose. This system can be used for management prioritization and ranking of the worst alien species.
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    • 16. Impacts of guttural toads on Mauritian snails
    • Academic level: MSc
    • Core team member: John Measey
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University / Mauritius
    • Brief outline: Invasive amphibians are a relatively recent global phenomenon, but their impacts are only assessed in a handful of examples (Kraus 2015). However, a robust knowledge of impacts is required to be able to classify their invasive status (Measey et al 2016).
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    • 17. Impacts of invasive birds: assessing the incidence and extent of hybridization between invasive mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) and native yellow billed duck (Anas undulata) in South Africa
    • Academic level: Honours or MSc
    • Core team member: Jaco Le Roux
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: One of the best documented impacts of invasive nonnative species on native biodiversity is that of hybridization. Such genetic pollution occurs when native species interbreed with closely related introduced species, and has dire consequences for native biodiversity. Swamping of locally adapted gene pools can lead to outbreeding depression and the loss of genetically unique species.
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    • 18. Invasive rose-ringed parakeets Psittacula krameri in KwaZulu-Natal
    • Academic level: MSc
    • Core team member: Colleen Downs
    • Based at: University of KwaZulu-Natal
    • Brief outline: Globally, the rose-ringed parakeet Psittacula krameri is the most invasive parrot species and became established in South Africa in the 1970’s. They appear to be expanding their distribution in KwaZulu-Natal, particularly in the greater Durban Metropolitan area (Hart & Downs 2014). Rose-ringed parakeets are generalists, occurring in a range of habitats and feeding on a variety of food items...
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    • 19. Linking dispersal and invasion dynamics of pest insects
    • Academic level: MSc or PhD
    • Core team member: John Terblanche
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: Two fully-funded research projects (either PhD or MSc level studies) are available immediately for post-graduate students interested in studying invasion dynamics, dispersal, flight performance, evolutionary ecology and the environmental physiology of pest insects. The work seeks to better understand functional traits of dispersal under lab and field conditions and how these translate into recapture rates and relative population abundances.
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    • 20. Linking thermal threshold with widely distributed populations of African clawed frogs over different altitudes
    • Academic level: Honours or MSc
    • Core team member: John Measey
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: Animals from very hot or cold areas tend to be adapted to those conditions, but are these traits heritable, and how do the adaptations affect performance? This common garden experimental project attempts to answer these questions using tadpoles from different populations of a widespread frog, Xenopus laevis or the African clawed frog.
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    • 21. More than the sum of its parts? Whole animal performance vs. muscle physiology in Xenopus laevis
    • Academic level: MSc
    • Core team member: John Measey
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University / Coventry University
    • Brief outline: The African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, has become the model amphibian in many fields of biological sciences. Animals from Jonkershoek, in the Western Cape, have been bred and transported to laboratories the world over, becoming the mainstay of enquiries into embryology, biochemistry, cellular studies and genetics (see van Sittert & Measey 2016). The number of scientific fields that use X. laevis continues to grow, and with them laboratory colonies and invasive populations (e.g. Measey et al., 2012). Genetic studies of invasions suggest that (almost) all come from the south-western Cape (but see de Busschere et al., 2016). This species, is therefore reasonably well studied in terms of its physiology, both at the whole animal and whole muscle levels (Wilson et al., 2002).
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    • 22. Propagule pressure: The role of forestry plantations
    • Academic level: MSc, PhD or Post-doc
    • Core team member: Jaco Le Roux
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: Understanding whether existing stands of commercially-important trees act as sources of invasive propagule pools is crucial for their effective management. Moreover, such information will promote the active involvement of forestry companies in seeking solutions to problems associated with invasive species. A project is envisaged to determine the importance of such commercial stands of Acacia and/or Pinus species in facilitating invasions. This project will use population genetics as a tool for improving our understanding of source-invasion dynamics and invasive spread at different spatial scales.
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    • 23. Quantifying the extent of the problem: a case for future biological control of Paterson’s curse (Echium plantagineum) within South Africa
    • Academic level: PhD
    • Core team member: Karen Esler
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: Echium plantagineum, also known as Paterson’s Curse or Salvation Jane, is an internationally recognised invader of disturbed areas and cultivated agricultural lands. This species is categorised as a Category 1 invader by the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) of 2014. As such, it is a species which requires appropriate management, control practises or removal. Paterson’s Curse originates from the Mediterranean regions of Europe and North Africa, and has invaded large parts of Australia, South and North America, and New Zealand.
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    • 24. Seed dispersal and spread potential of invasive Australian acacias
    • Academic level: PhD or Post-doc
    • Core team member: Cang Hui
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: Understanding species ranges and dynamics is among the main pursuits in ecology and biogeography. Spread of invasive species, while posing real and escalating threats to biodiversity conservation and ecosystem functioning, provides a superb natural experiment for unraveling the mechanisms and factors behind the dynamics of species’ geographic ranges. Generally, a species’ dispersal strategy can be depicted by its dispersal kernel. It is evident that dispersal strategy is an important determinant of both the range and dynamics of invasive species. Better to monitor the distribution and assess the risk of invasive plants, it is crucial to estimate the capacity of seed dispersal capacities of focal species, from which spread potential can be estimated. Many Australian acacias have evolved multiple dispersal strategies and polymorphic seeds.
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    • 25. Temporal niche partitioning in ants
    • Academic level: Honours
    • Core team member: Mark Robertson
    • Based at: University of Pretoria
    • Brief outline: Altitudinal gradient studies have been used to investigate the role of biotic and abiotic factors in determining species richness patterns and structuring assemblages. Long term studies on ant assemblages are underway at several sites in South Africa, including a transect in the Sani Pass region of the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains. Ants have been sampled twice a year for the past six years across the Sani Pass transect, allowing us to quantify the species richness patterns and assemblages across the gradient in two different seasons. What is not known is how these assemblages are structured at different altitudes.
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    • 26. The architecture of pollination and seed-dispersal networks of Australian acacias
    • Academic level: PhD or Post-doc
    • Core team member: Cang Hui
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: The reciprocal dependence of plants on their pollinators and seed dispersers is widespread in nature. This mutualistic dependence can enhance seed production and establishment and reduce inbreeding genetic load of the plants, with only limited carbohydrate loss as nectar and seed to the pollinators and consumers. It is thus an efficient way to improve the fitness and survival potential of both partners. These mutualistic interactions further contribute to weaving a complex web in ecosystems, and are important for maintaining ecosystem stability, resilience and functioning. Invasion of Australian acacia species can cause important effects on the native mutualistic communities in South African ecosystems.
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    • 27. Using economic and ecological modelling to facilitate the eradication of the House Crow (Corvus splendens) in Cape Town
    • Academic level: MSc or PhD
    • Core team member: John Measey
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: The House Crow (Corvus splendens) originates on the Indian subcontinent and is one of the world’s most invasive bird species (Suliman et al. 2011), with invasive populations in Africa, Asia and Australia (Nyári et al 2006). These crows are highly intelligent, with reported impacts including reduction of native bird diversity through predation, competition and disease. The bird also has economic impacts on grain crops and livestock, and on humans as it readily attacks to defend nests or steal food (Evans et al 2014). Commensurate with the severe impacts, C. splendens was listed as Category 1a in NEMBA (2014) as a species which needs to be controlled.
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    • 28. What do toads eat & what eats toads?
    • Academic level: Honours
    • Core team member: John Measey
    • Based at: Stellenbosch University
    • Brief outline: The evolution of frogs (Amphibia: Anura) has resulted in a massive diversity of species covering many ecological niches and geographical areas, resulting in generalists and specialists. The toads (Anura: Bufonidae) have been particularly successful radiating across the world in 10 million years (Pramuk et al 2008), and it has been proposed that they have evolved key traits of a range expansion phenotype (van Bocxlaer et al 2010). One of these traits (the parotid gland) makes toads unpalatable to many would be predators, and it has been proposed that frogs do not eat toads.
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    • 29. What makes for a successful alpine alien ascender? Identifying traits that enable species to establish at higher elevations
    • Academic level: Honours
    • Core team member: Mark Robertson
    • Based at: University of Pretoria
    • Brief outline: In temperate mountain systems the richness of alien species tends to be inversely related to altitude (Pauchard et al. 2009). Various mechanisms have been suggested to explain this pattern, including maladaption to severe abiotic conditions and dispersal limitation (Becker et al. 2005). However, few studies have yet explicitly attempted to identify which mechanisms contribute to this trend.
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