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statement, the research currently
undertaken by members of the Fitztitute can be broadly placed within the
themes of Characterising Biodiversity, Evolutionary Ecology and Maintaining
Biodiversity. Several research programmes are co-ordinated by staff members
and include the research projects of the Institute's postgraduate students.
conservation of biodiversity depends critically on knowledge of the following:
- the processes responsible for generating biodiversity,
- the present composition of biodiversity,
- how complex relationships between organisms and their environment influence the form and functioning of biological systems,
- how human activities impact upon these systems,
- how these impacts can best be assessed, predicted and managed to ensure the long-term maintenance of biodiversity.
theme the composition and structure of biodiversity, the processes responsible
for its generation, and how relationships between organisms and their
environments influence the form and functioning of biological systems is
focus provides a theoretical and empirical foundation for biodiversity
conservation and management. It comprises three interrelated components which
together investigate the relationships and interactions between organisms and
their environments across a range of spatial and temporal scales:
- Inferring process from pattern
- Investigating the process of speciation
- Applied population genetics
process from pattern
large-scale patterns of biodiversity, primarily among birds, to detect
overlooked units of biodiversity (‘cryptic’ species), and to test whether
there are consistent evolutionary patterns among diverse lineages that might
indicate common vicariance or dispersal events. We also generate phylogenetic
hypotheses (trees), against which the occurrence of particular phenotypic
traits can be compared.
consistent evolutionary patterns across the arid-mesic interface in southern
Africa? Within southern Africa, the strong east-west aridity gradient results
in many taxa having parapatric forms in the arid west and more mesic east.
Taxa in the arid west typically extend from south-western Angola through
Namibia and Botswana to western South Africa (their ranges crudely shaped like
a ‘6’). Taxa in the more mesic east often extend broadly from central Africa
through Zimbabwe and Mozambique to eastern South Africa (with ranges shaped
like a ‘9’). We are testing for consistent genetic differences across this
‘69’ arid-mesic divide to gain insights into the evolution of the arid zone
fauna (which is characterised by high levels of endemism, and infer what
processes (e.g. vicariance, dispersal) might have generated these patterns.
vicariance events evident between the south-western and north-eastern African
arid zones? The arid zones of Africa are thought to be ancient, stable
regions, with resultant high biodiversity and endemism. The south-western arid
zone shares many species or species-pairs with the currently disjunct
north-eastern arid zone (Kenya, northern Tanzania, southern Ethiopia and
Somalia), suggesting that, historically, the two regions were repeatedly
connected by an ‘arid corridor’. We will infer the history of these regions
using a suite of birds, insects and plants, and relate the patterns we detect
to palaeoclimatic hypotheses and models.
common patterns of phylogeography among taxa in Africa’s montane forests?
Afromontane forests comprise a highly fragmented chain of small, threatened
habitats extending from near sea level in southern South Africa along the
mountain chains of eastern South Africa and Zimbabwe, north through central
and east Africa to the highlands of Ethiopia, with outliers in western Angola
and southwest Cameroon. There is considerable phylogeographic structure among
the bird populations of these forests, resulting in a hypothesis that the
latter are species ‘pumps', responsible for generating much diversity among
African forest birds.
morphometric-cladistic approaches provide robust phylogenetic hypotheses for
fossils? There is a pressing need for quantitative approaches to assigning
fossils to the correct taxon, and placing them within robust phylogenies, to
understand both their age and biogeography. Crowe and Dyke have devised a
novel approach to this problem; assuming it works, it should go some way
towards settling the apparent conflict between dates assigned to fossils and
dating inferred from molecular evidence.
Investigating the process of speciation
speciation continue to be among the most hotly debated subjects in
evolutionary biology. Understanding speciation and hybridisation, the
processes responsible for the origin and maintenance of species-level
diversity, are crucial because climatic change and introduced species
constantly alter the spectrum of species that meet and potentially interact.
Birds have proved to be pivotal in developing and testing speciation theories.
research into population structure and phylogeny has already identified
numerous examples of contact zones between taxa. These zones provide natural
laboratories for further testing and developing these ideas. Many contact
zones run along steep biophysical gradients. They may be maintained by (1)
ecological segregation (habitat choice); (2) a dynamic equilibrium between
random dispersal and selection against hybrids because of reduced reproductive
fitness, or (3) bounded hybrid superiority, where selection favours hybrid
phenotypes along the environmental ecotone between habitats occupied by the
two parental phenotypes. Others are less clearly linked to environmental
gradients, and may either be maintained by a dynamic tension between random
dispersal and selection, or may be unstable.
whether there are consistent, predictable patterns of gene flow (and hence
hybrid zone stability) linked to particular types of contact zones, we are
exploring the individual-level interactions that take place between taxa
within contact zones, in relation to the spread of genes (tracked using
nuclear and mitochondrial markers) into adjacent populations.
Studies of speciation and hybrid zones will focus on documenting the extent of
overlap (using both morphological and molecular evidence of hybridisation, as
well as investigating the processes mediating the dynamics of the hybrid zone
(e.g. mate recognition systems, assortative mating, fitness of hybrids,
physiological tolerance, etc.). In this arena, the team’s biodiversity
scientists will interact closely with behavioural ecologists and physiologists
to address the following key questions:
- how stable are the contact zones?
- how closely do morphological and genetic markers
of hybridisation across contact zones concur?
- what are the key biological attributes (e.g.
vocalisations, plumage, displays) that help to maintain barriers between, or
promote intergradation of species?
- to what extent has anthropogenic habitat
transformation (including climate change and introduced species) influenced the
dynamics of hybrid zones?
studies have been identified. We propose to test the hybrid superiority
hypothesis in at least one of these cases by evaluating the physiological
performance of hybrids and parental species.
genetics provides valuable insight into population structure and, at least in
theory, provides estimates of effective dispersal across populations.
Effective dispersal distances and frequencies remain perhaps the greatest
unknown in avian ecology. Knowledge of dispersal is crucial for conservation
management, because of the need, firstly, to understand the extent to which
dispersal connects populations, and subsequently, to predict how this is
likely to change in response to habitat loss and fragmentation.
Phylogeography and landscape-level genetics provide powerful tools with which
to investigate this issue. We intend to capitalise on extensive studies of
bird movements that currently lack a genetic component. For example, our
studies of Cape Gannets and African Black Oystercatchers allow comparisons of
genetic evidence for movements versus known movement patterns obtained from
band recoveries/resightings. Other applications of population genetics at the
landscape level include assessing impacts of ‘sustainable’ hunting on
phylogeographic structures and population level processes within, e.g.
gamebirds, and to test hypotheses about factors driving differential dispersal
patterns in species, such as oystercatchers.
The study of
geographical variation in genetic diversity within species (phylogeography)
can also have direct forensic applications in conservation management. If
regional or local differences in combinations of genes are distinctive, they
can be used to trace the origin of individual organisms. For example, in South
Africa enforcement agencies struggled to prosecute poachers of Perlemoen
(abalone) Haliotis midae, a valuable marine mollusc poached heavily for
export to East Asian markets. Once the shell is removed, it is no longer
possible to assign it correctly even to species, creating a loophole that
allowed accused poachers to claim that the abalone in their possession
originated from another species. The development of a molecular DNA
identification technique provided the necessary tool to close this loophole.
Similarly, highly variable genes can be used to confirm parentage if there is
dispute about the origin of particular individuals (e.g. challenging claims
that birds were bred in captivity). This research seeks to facilitate the
interaction between biodiversity scientists and law enforcement agencies
through genetic studies of a series of plants and animals collected for
- Ecological and evolutionary physiology
- Life history strategies
- Breeding strategies
- Migration and dispersal strategies
- Population biology and rarity
Ecological and evolutionary physiology
the gaps between physics, chemistry, ecology and evolution, the fields of
ecological and evolutionary physiology reveal how internal and external
environments affect the interactions between an organism’s genotype,
phenotype, short-term performance and long-term performance, which in turn
determine its evolutionary fitness.
Physiological research within the CoE currently falls into two areas:
- Physiology and life-history: patterns and processes
- Avian responses to climate change: physiological mechanisms
challenge in evolutionary biology is to explain why life-history traits vary
among species along a slow-fast continuum. Species at the slow end of the
spectrum are characterised by slow metabolism and development, delayed
reproduction, low reproductive investment, long life, and long-term pair
bonds, with the opposite expression at the fast end. The South African
south-temperate avifauna comprises species with life-history strategies that
span much of the slow-fast continuum, making it an ideal region in which to
study environmental influences on life-history strategies.
focus in life-history evolution uses four broad approaches:
Roberts VII database to conduct broad-scale comparisons of
life-history traits of southern African birds with published data
for north temperate taxa to clarify patterns of differences, while
controlling for phylogeny.
Intensive studies of individual species at single sites to examine
the proximate influences of environmental factors and the degree
of phenotypic plasticity.
Studies of breeding bird communities at single sites to compare
life-history traits across taxa, using paired comparisons in
Studies of individual species or closely related species pairs
across multiple sites along environmental gradients.
sub-theme, we focus on developing a better understanding of how environmental
factors have shaped the evolution of different reproductive strategies, with a
particular emphasis on sociality, cooperative breeding, and adaptive responses
to habitat saturation. Cooperative breeding is a social system in which more
than two individuals combine to rear a single brood of young, generating the
paradox that ‘extra’ individuals, called helpers, care for young that are not
their own. Studies of cooperative breeding are guided by a two-question
framework: (1) why do birds remain philopatric instead of dispersing to breed
independently, and (2) why do philopatric birds provide care to offspring
raised on the territory? The incidence of group living and cooperative
breeding is greatest in south-temperate regions, particularly southern Africa
and Australia. High adult survival, and extended post-fledging care (result in
retention of juveniles on the natal territory for periods exceeding a year),
have together been implicated as a major proximate cause of cooperative
breeding. A further correlation is the higher incidence of obligate siblicide
among long-lived, southern hemisphere species, which may arise from the need
for high quality offspring under conditions of habitat saturation.
and dispersal strategies
of birds are repeated seasonal movements, predictable in time and space,
usually on an annual cycle, but sometimes deferred by juveniles of taxa with
delayed sexual maturity. Nomadic movements, by contrast, are responses to
unpredictable resource peaks and troughs. Dispersive movements, undertaken
primarily by juvenile birds moving away from their natal site, are
short-distance and exploratory, with little directional predictability.
Migration: Bird migration is a global phenomenon, but a global
research perspective on migration is conspicuously lacking. Southern
Hemisphere migration patterns mirror those of the north (from tropical to
temperate areas to breed), but occur over shorter distances and between sites
that are more climatically and structurally similar. In an evolutionary sense,
therefore, these movements are closer to the putative ancestral condition of
partial or short-distance migration. Our research on migration focuses on the
relative importance of evolutionary history (ultimate factors) and
environmental pressures (proximate factors) in shaping migration patterns, and
addresses the following key questions:
Do the functional attributes (diet, foraging mode, etc.) of
short-distance, low-latitude migrants differ across the three
How do the functional attributes of short-distance migrants
(ancestral) compare with those of longer-distance migrants
Can the similarities or differences detected in 1 & 2 above be
explained by seasonal variations in resource availability?
What is the most parsimonious functional classification of
migrants and, given that migration has undoubtedly evolved
independently on many occasions, does this provide insight into
these evolutionary processes?
Can density-dependence drive the evolution of migratory
Dispersal: Dispersal of individuals between sites or habitable patches
is a major, but relatively neglected component of life-history. The proximate
and ultimate factors influencing natal dispersal strategies, and how these
might differ between north-temperate birds on the one hand, and tropical or
south-temperate birds on the other hand, are particularly poorly known. We
study proximate and ultimate factors influencing both natal and breeding
dispersal as a component of life-history variation in two other research
Population biology and rarity
biology strives to understand the processes that regulate the distribution and
abundance of organisms as a consequence of environmental heterogeneity or
change. Within this theme, we use a strong focus on understanding the causes
and consequences of spatial and temporal variation in fecundity and survival
to diagnose the causes of population-level problems. Our expertise in linking
life-history studies with remedial action for threatened taxa has been applied
in locations as disparate as sub-Antarctic Islands, tropical islands in
central America and the Indian Ocean, forests of the Albertine Rift, and
highland wetlands of Ethiopia. We are also developing strong theoretical
frameworks for understanding the causes and consequences of rarity, and the
relative importance of life-history variables for population growth rate among
This theme builds on the strong
theoretical and empirical foundation provided by the first two themes to
assess, predict and manage human impact, with emphasis on understanding the
dynamic links that lead to biodiversity loss, developing effective strategies
to stem that loss, and discovering ways to use components of biodiversity
sustainably to the benefit of South Africa.
The maintaining biodiversity
theme involves applied research which includes:
- spatial resilience of protected areas,
- birds as disease vectors
- island conservation,
- seabird research,
- climate change vulnerability and adaptation, and
- rarity and the conservation of African birds.
Using birds to conserve
biodiversity is the central vision of the CoE. Mainland Africa is the only
continent with an intact megafauna. Despite having more than 20% of the
world’s birds, it is the only continent apart from Antarctica not to have lost
a single bird species in the past 400 years. Despite this apparent state of
wellbeing, however, much of Africa’s biodiversity is now under threat.
A key challenge of the 21st Century is to balance human needs and aspirations
with the conservation of biodiversity and the maintenance of robust,
functioning ecosystems. Our mission is to promote and undertake scientific
studies involving birds, and contribute to the theory and practice of
maintaining biological diversity and the sustained use of biological
Birds are arguably the best known group of organisms. Studies of birds have
been pivotal in developing much biological theory, and it is scientific
research and its publication that form the Institute’s core business. Because
of their mobility and conspicuousness, birds have been used successfully as
indicators of environmental change. Their high public profile makes them
excellent vehicles for increasing awareness among politicians, decision makers
and the public on environmental issues.
Much of our field research is carried out in southern Africa, but we also work
on islands in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans and the Subantarctic, and
elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, from rain forests to deserts. Our study
species have been equally diverse. A cross-section of recent southern African
study species include the Black Harrier, African Black Oystercatcher, Southern
Ground-Hornbill, Blue Swallow, Ludwig’s Bustard, Cape Parrot, Southern Pied
Babbler and Bearded Vulture. Study species from elsewhere in Africa include
Crab Plover, Aldabra Rail, Souimanga Sunbird, Chaplin’s Barbet, Papyrus
Gonolek and Sharpe’s Longclaw. Many species have also been studied on southern
ocean islands, including several albatross and penguin species, Spectacled
Petrel, Inaccessible Island Flightless Rail and the buntings of the Tristan
If you would like to know more or would like to participate in any of the
research programmes or projects, please contact the Coordinator of the
research programme in question. For general enquiries please contact the
Copyright: Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology 2013
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