“Interdisciplinary research is a key competency for research-intensive universities such as the University of Pretoria (UP), and we need to enable and amplify interdisciplinary research programmes so that we develop the capacity to respond meaningfully to global change challenges.” These were the words of UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe at the recent official opening of the new home of the Endocrine Research Laboratory (ERL) at UP’s Mammal Research Institute (MRI).
The ERL was created ten years ago as part of a collaborative initiative by the Faculty of Veterinary Science and the MRI, with the vision of providing a basis for behavioural/wildlife endocrine research in South Africa, Southern Africa, and beyond. Since then, the ERL has become a well-respected platform for conducting endocrine research on wildlife, remaining the only entity of its kind in Southern Africa.
In 2017 the founder of the ERL, Professor André Ganswindt, became the Director of the MRI, and to allow for an even better interaction with the departments of Animal Sciences, Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology, and Zoology and Entomology, in particular, the decision was made to physically move the ERL from the Faculty of Veterinary Science to the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (NAS).
According to Professor Edward Webb, NAS Deputy Dean: Research and Postgraduate Education, “the relocation of the ERL to NAS is the Faculty’s first step in the shared laboratories project and a flagship project for it”.
“This research laboratory will provide space for the articulation of several renowned centres and departments in the Faculty. Most breakthroughs in the natural and agricultural sciences occur at the intersectional areas of science. If it contributes to policy and quality of human life, it invariably also contributes to society and often to more sustainable and responsible resource utilisation,” Prof Webb said.
“We find ourselves in a peculiar situation in Southern Africa, with its resource-constrained environment, changing climate and increase in extreme environmental conditions, which necessitates a greater focus on the underlying physiological principles of animal adaptation. To this end, the ERL stands to make a huge contribution in the years to come,” he said..
Professor Barend Erasmus, Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, emphasised the significant contribution this shared laboratory would make to enhancing interdisciplinary research and underlined that by using it in novel ways the University can increase its global competitive edge. He also referred to the many other state-of-the-art laboratories in the Faculty that play a pivotal role in its status as a major contributor to the University’s research-intensive profile.
Prof Ganswindt explained that ”endocrinology is vital in understanding many aspects of animal physiology, behaviour and fitness”.
“However, for the majority of species, including some of the most intelligent, important to the world economy, and iconic species currently roaming the planet, large gaps of missing knowledge exist. More and more momentum has been gained, with over 50 postgraduate studies being supported by the ERL thus far,” he said.
Integrating the ERL into the MRI made perfect sense given the MRI’s unique strategic location, as well as its long history of excellent training and research output. It has established itself as one of the premier institutes for conducting African mammal research globally. Established in 1966, its mission remains to maintain international recognition for research and postgraduate training in mammalogy with a focus that is relevant to Africa, and to Southern Africa in particular, with regard to understanding and conserving the diversity of our indigenous mammal fauna in the context of sustainable human development. Over the last five decades, the MRI has made significant contributions to a better understanding of the biology and ecology of African mammals, with a growing focus on the indigenous mammal fauna of South Africa. It has recently re-emphasised its research themes, namely: Terrestrial ecology, Ecophysiology, Wildlife management, Human dimension of wildlife, and Marine mammal ecology.
The MRI currently hosts the Austin Roberts Chair of Mammalogy, the SARChI Chair for Behavioural Ecology and Physiology, and the Eugène Marais Chair of Wildlife Management. In 2018, its 35 academic members published a total of 140 peer-reviewed scientific articles, five book chapters and nine articles in journals with an impact factor of nine or higher.