Other projects

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

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 reserves 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.