Ecology projects

Giraffe projects

The IUCN categorizes the giraffe as “least concern”. However, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) estimates the current population at fewer than 80 000 individuals across all sub-species, with less than 12 000 South African giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis). Numbers dropped considerably in the last decade, indicating that poaching, human population growth, and habitat degradation, fragmentation and loss have impacted on the giraffe’s status across the African continent.

Since 2006, the MRC has monitored the population demographics, spatial ecology, feeding ecology and social behaviour of the giraffe population on the Mogalakwena River Reserve. The giraffe population is semi-habituated and relatively easy to approach. An identikit with photographs was developed, which allows identification of individuals based on their unique pelage patterns. Students can assist the MRC with continuing this data collection to establish a long-term ecological data-set for giraffe in this arid-savannah landscape.

 

Giraffe feeding ecology

Giraffes browse on trees for leaves and flowers at different heights, depending on their size and status. Students will have the opportunity to collect data on the feeding ecology of our giraffe population by looking at foraging activity, diet, and feeding heights. Variation in foraging behaviour can be associated with seasons, weather conditions, habitats and sexes. Students can also study aspects of spatial ecology, habitat use, and water consumption of the giraffes on the Mogalakwena River Reserve. Observations are done on foot to observe individual foraging behaviour and/or to make activity scans of the herd.

 

Giraffe social behaviour

Giraffes are social animals and often move around in herds. Students have the opportunity to study the social behaviour within and between herds. By identifying the individuals, students can determine the group composition and quantify the interactions between individuals. Students may choose one (or a combination) of the following topics for their giraffe research project on behaviour: vigilance behaviour, interactions between individuals and/or herds, composition and consistency of herds, and mating behaviour of the giraffe on the Mogalakwena River Reserve. Observations will be done on foot and methods include behavioural and scan sampling.

 

Vervet monkey projects

The vervet monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops) is the most widely distributed monkey in Africa, only absent from desert, high forest and open grassland. They live in troops of about 20 individuals and are common in savannah, riverine woodland and coastal scrub forest. Vervet monkeys are endemic to Africa, but not of conservation concern (classified as “least concern” by IUCN). However, their natural habitat is rapidly decreasing due to cultivation, resulting in increased incidents of crop raiding by the monkeys. Consequently, these primates are chased or even killed by humans.

The Vervet Monkey Research Project investigates the feeding, daily movements, population demographics, and behaviour of a troop residing near the Mogalakwena River Lodge. Students participating in this project need to be patient and dedicated. Monkeys are early risers, requiring the student to be out at the monkeys’ sleeping site before dawn (around 4:30 AM in summer and 6:00 AM in winter). Our monkeys are not collared with GPS devices, and therefore students need to learn tracking skills to locate the troop each day. Due to the nature of the project and the study animals, we do not allow more than two people out with the monkeys, so students will often work unsupervised.

 

Vervet monkey feeding ecology

Vervet monkeys are omnivorous and opportunistic animals that feed during the day. They forage both on the ground and in trees. Their diet consists of a variety of fruits, flowers, leaves, and seeds. However, they may also prey on insects and small vertebrates (lizards, eggs, nestling birds) or mammals like rodents. Vervet monkeys are also known to raid gardens, kitchens, and waste bins in human settlements. During this project students have the opportunity to study the feeding ecology of the troop, investigating diet, habitat preference, differences between sexes and seasonal differences. Additionally, students could look at the home range and movement patterns of the monkeys.

 

Vervet monkey troop demographics and social behaviour

The MRC is currently developing an identification kit for the individuals of the River Lodge Troop, which will be the responsibility of the student to learn and keep up to date. Once the student knows how to approach the troop, and individuals can be identified, social interactions within the troop can be studied. The student could investigate group dynamics, vigilance behaviour, communication within the troop, dominance hierarchy, and/or sexual behaviour. There is also the possibility to study human-animal conflict by looking at how often conflicts occur and which individuals

 

Carnivore distribution and diet

The primary objective of the Carnivore Project is to collect data on carnivore activity on the Mogalakwena River Reserve. The secondary objective is to look into the diet of all species through collecting scat and analyzing these in the lab. The MRC is particularly interested in larger species like leopard (Panthera pardus) and brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea). However, smaller species like black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas), small and large-spotted genet (Genetta sp.) and caracal (Caracal caracal) are included in the study. Carnivore sign detection surveys are done by walking roads and popular game trails to detect carnivore activity, focusing on tracks, faeces, latrines, scratch marks, scent markings, den sites and kills. Scat is collected, processed and catalogued for future dietary analysis. In conjunction with other research organisations we are also compiling a hair sample reference system of potential prey animals.

 

Competition between African civet and black-backed jackal

The African civet (Civettictis civetta) and the black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) are widely distributed through Africa. Both species are very adaptable and opportunistic omnivores and they consume considerable amounts of fruit depending on seasonal availability. Civets also eat millipedes, rodents, scorpions, insects and carrion. Jackals show a great overlap in diet, but might additionally consume birds and small mammals. The primary objective of the civet and jackal project is to collect data on behaviour, diet, and distribution in order to look at competition between these two species. Data will be collected through sign detection surveys done by walking roads and popular game trails to detect activity, focusing on tracks, faeces, latrines and scent markings. Dietary analyses will involve the collection of scat from known latrine sites or found during sign surveys. The collected faeces are analysed in the laboratory to determine prey types and quantity. Food availability could be quantified to investigate how these two competitors manage to partition their resources.

 

African civet latrine use

Little to nothing is known about the behaviour and ecology of African civets (Civettictis civetta), because of their secretive and nocturnal lifestyle. At the MRC we study their distribution and diet since 2014. An exciting new aspect of our project is to look at the behaviour of civets at their latrine sites. Civets use communal latrines to defecate and these so called civetries are used for territory marking and information exchange, and are a valuable source of information for researchers. Not only do civetries supply us with scat that can be analyzed for diet, but by placing camera traps at civetries, we learn a lot about the behaviour of civets. We are interested in knowing how many civets use one latrine, which other species utilize these sites and what sort of behaviour the civets show while visiting the latrines. Furthermore, because civets can be identified individually, we can also study the movement patterns of individuals. This project has many opportunities for students that are interested in behaviour of nocturnal creatures.

 

Herbivore water usage

The savannah has a wide range of highly specialized plants and animals that are in balance with each other. More than 40 different species of herbivores utilize the savannas of Africa. Each species has its own food preference and foraging strategy, which enables up to 16 different species of browsers and grazers to coexist in one area. For example, different species browse or graze at different heights, during different times of the day, or from different tree and grass species, thereby minimising competition for the same food source.

Water is important for all living species and is the single limiting factor in many environments. In the savannah biome, species have adapted to the dry climate. The wet season (November till April) supplies a variable amount of rain, but during the dry season little to no rain falls, resulting in the land drying up quickly. Normally animals need to anticipate these changes in water supply and often migrate to wetter areas, but how do herbivores utilize water in a small reserve where migration is not an option? The Mogalakwena River Reserve has several water bodies and students will investigate how these are being utilized. Study options include studying the differences between species, seasons, and time of the day.

 

Large herbivore counts

The reliable counting of game on a reserve is one of the cornerstones of effective wildlife management.
This project aims to gather information on the density and distribution of large herbivore species on the Mogalakwena River Reserve. The challenge is to find a method that is reliable in the densely vegetated bushveld on the reserve. The most common methods do not seem to work for all species and alternatives are required. The project compares data across seasons to monitor the relative abundance of all the species on the reserves, and also to monitor any changes in population numbers of the different species.

There is no single comprehensive counting technique that is suitable for all the possible types of animals and their habitats. Students will be involved in the development and implementation of counting techniques suitable for the local landscape.

 

Small mammal trapping

South Africa is in the top 25 most biodiverse countries in the world, with lots of endemic flora and fauna. Nevertheless, only about 5% of the country is under official protection. Management of natural resources is important and there is a need to monitor the health of ecosystems. As it is unfeasible to monitor all species on a reserve, indicator species (or eco-indicators) are used to determine the status of the system. The assumption is that the population health of the indicator species reflects the ecosystem health. Small mammals are ideal eco-indicators; this group accounts for almost half of all mammal species, they are relatively easy to catch and they are known to respond quickly to changes in the environment. For example, a survey in 2014 resulted in a high trapping success with a rich diversity of species. A year later, the same traps resulted in small trapping success and only two species were caught. These results were likely caused by poor rains and little grass cover. By constantly monitoring the small mammal populations in a set grid, we can concomitantly monitor the ecosystem health. At the same time, this project also offers the ability to compare different sites for their diversity in relation to micro-habitats. This ongoing project will help the MRC to document and anticipate on changes in the natural resources of the Mogalakwena Reserves.

 

Bird distribution surveys (only for birders)

Bird biodiversity surveys are used to monitor ecosystem changes due to the impacts of game carrying capacity levels, exotic species, climate change, bush encroachment, and/or fire management practices. Birds are good indicator species, because they are reasonably conspicuous and diverse, and they have diagnostic calls that can be identified easily in the field. Well tested survey methods are established to estimate densities in a range of habitats and can be applied by students. The student will be using standardised methods to gather information on density and distribution of bird species on the Mogalakwena River Reserve. Students could investigate differences in bird species variety and presence between habitats, seasons and time of the day. A large database of bird counts for the Mogalakwena Reserves already exists and can be included in the analyses.

 

Invasive plant species identification, distribution and control

The Mogalakwena River Reserve is a landscape under transition from past cattle and crop farming to present-day game farming. Invasive alien plants (IAP) became a problem in some areas due to past agricultural activities, disturbance to the landscape and the introduction of non-endemic plant species. Globally, alien invasive species are one of the largest threats to biodiversity and some introduced exotic species have major economic, environmental, ecological and agricultural impacts. In South Africa, some invasive species are already seriously threatening the indigenous ecology, biodiversity and productivity of land. Invasive species on the Mogalakwena reserves are for example rubber vine, prickly pear, and queen of the night. All these species need to be mapped and mitigated.

 

Marula and baobab tree projects

Using the baobab and marula tree as a study species to design a workable research methodology and use this as a study template for other iconic, rare and medicinal plant species on the Mogalakwena Reserves and in surrounding areas. The aim of these projects is to successfully utilise and market products from these trees on a sustainable basis. The first stage and focus will involve the collection of data to determine the ecological importance of marula and baobab trees; the current occurrence of the tree species on the reserves, including base line data on each individual. This will enable us to understand how these species fit into the landscape, to establish ecological importance values and to model future growth patterns for potential sustainable utilisation. This project will ask for an interdisciplinary approach of the student.

 

Distribution, ecology and use of the baobab

This iconic tree of the northern areas of South Africa is one which is steeped in mystique, superstition and legend. Baobab trees can grow for thousands of years and the oldest baobab in Limpopo Province is estimated to be over 6000 years! A tree with many stories to tell. The massive cylindrical trunk gives rise to thick tapering branches resembling a root-system, which is why it is often referred to as the upside-down tree. It is a tree that can provide food, water, shelter and relief from sickness. The leaves are rich in vitamin C, sugars, potassium tartrate, and calcium. The seeds are edible and can be roasted for use as a coffee substitute. Caterpillars which feed on the leaves are collected and eaten by African people as an important source of protein. Wild animals eat the fallen leaves (not many animals can reach the leaves of these gigantic trees) and the fresh leaves are said to be good fodder for domestic animals. The fallen flowers are relished by wild animals and cattle alike. The fibrous bark is much liked by elephants, but also used to make various useful items such as mats and ropes, fishing nets, fishing lines, sacks and clothing.

More information about baobabs at www.plantzafrica.com/plantab/adansondigit.htm.

 

Distribution, ecology and use of the marula

The marula tree is widespread in Africa; from Ethiopia in the north to KwaZulu-Natal in the south. In South Africa it is more dominant in areas of Limpopo, occurring naturally in various types of woodland, on sandy soil or occasionally on sandy loam. It is a medium to large deciduous tree with an erect trunk and rounded crown. The edible fruits and the multiple uses associated with almost all parts of this tree, make it one of southern Africa’s most valued species. It has a variety of medicinal, traditional and cultural uses; from using the bark to treats dysentery, diarrhoea, and rheumatism, to using the wood for furniture, panelling, flooring, carvings and household utensils like spoons. The marula is one of the plants that played a role in feeding people in ancient times. The white nut is highly nutritious and is eaten as it is, or mixed with vegetables. The fruit is edible, eaten either fresh

 

GIS projects

Spatial analyses and remote sensing is becoming increasingly important in the field of ecology. A geographical information system (GIS) is ‘a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of spatial or geographical data’. Here at Mogalakwena we are starting to explore the possibilities of these new techniques. Examples for projects would be the classification of vegetation types on the Mogalakwena reserves from layered aerial images, investigation of animals distributions associated with habitats, looking at temporal changes in species distributions, and looking at several possible differences between the wet and dry seasons. Students are expected to have a basic knowledge of GIS analyses, preferably in QGIS. For this project we need students that are willing to explore the possibilities of GIS together with the staff of the research centre.

 

Seasonal projects

Invertebrate inventory and update of collection

This study aims to collect data on the invertebrate life occurring on the Mogalakwena reserves. Species inventories are lacking for the arid sweet bushveld and these surveys would not only contribute towards our own understanding of the invertebrate diversity, but also contribute towards the provincial species data base. The project objectives are to compile an inventory of Arachnids (spiders, scorpions and ticks) and insects (per order: Coleoptera, Diptera, Lepidoptera, etc) for the three properties. Specific studies of a particular species are also possible, looking for example at diet, habitat preference and requirements, and distribution. Students involved in these projects need to be resourceful in their abilities to develop methods to catch/survey invertebrates. This project is most suited for our summer months when invertebrates are active (September – April). Students must in some cases (eg: with some insects and scorpions) work in the field at night.

 

Monitoring of reptile diversity and micro-habitat use

The main objective of this project is to make an inventory of the squamata taxus on the Mogalakwena reserve in the Limpopo Valley. Several habitat types occur on the reserves (bushveld, mountain and riverine) and potentially this allows for differences in species distributions. We are interested in the micro-habitat use of the different reptiles, as well as their abundance. The reserves are part of the arid sweet bushveld of the Savanna biome and an inventory could potentially indicate the presence of the found squamate taxus in other areas of this vegetation type. A comprehensive inventory of this understudied taxus on the reserve would answer several questions, including which squamata species are present and potentially elsewhere in the arid sweet bushveld, what is the relative contribution of species and with which micro-habitat are the different species associated?

Answering these questions would increase our understanding of the Mogalakwena reserve’s squamate biodiversity and how to better manage it for species that are present. For this study we are looking for students that are passionate about squamata and at the same time resourceful in finding ways of catching reptiles.

 

Competition for nest cavities

Many invertebrates and vertebrates rely on tree cavities for shelter, protection from predators, roosting and nesting sites, and these cavities are often a limiting resource. In many ecosystems, cavity-nesting species create a structured community that interacts through the creation of, and competition for, cavities for roosting or nesting purposes. At Mogalakwena, we distributed 80 nestboxes in different habitats over the reserve. These boxes will allow us to study in detail the competition for nesting cavities. Birds are the most likely candidates to occupy boxes, but other animals like bushbabies, squirrels and bees are also likely candidates. We are especially interested in the three hornbill species that occur on the reserve: the African grey, southern yellow-billed and southern red-billed hornbills are very similar in size and behaviour and we would like to know how they coexist in the same area. This project has the potential of collecting observational data on the behaviour of parents, e.g. looking at provisioning behaviour, but also on the consequences for the chicks by looking at their growth and survival.

 

Woodland kingfisher vocalisation and territoriality

This behavioural ecology project is aimed at associating vocal parameters of woodland kingfishers with territory size during their breeding season in southern Africa. Do birds with larger territories advertise this with their calls?

As part of an on-going project, individual birds will be trapped within their established territories at the Mogalakwena Reserves,
measured, colour ringed (for field identification) and released. The student is then expected to return to the different territories and observe focal individuals. Data collection will include mapping movement and display perches on a map (territory mapping), as well as making focal recordings of vocalisations and providing additional metadata about recording distance and bird behaviour. Vocalisations will be analysed using acoustic software to identify parameters most frequently displayed in calls. The data will then be analysed for variance across territories and possibly sex.

This project is expected to commence in mid-November with the trapping and re-trapping, as well as colour ringing of individual woodland kingfishers. It is expected for the project to last about three to four months. One set of optical equipment (binoculars and telescope) will be provided, however, if the student prefers to use his/her own optics, this is perfectly acceptable. A basic GPS will also be provided, as well as digital recording equipment. It would be preferred if the student possesses an affinity for birds and bird related research.