Love for animals led to research career

Posted on August 22, 2018

Prof Mary-Cathrine Madekurozwa’s love for animals developed from an early age, having grown up on a farm in Zambia.

Her childhood with animals inspired her to study for  a veterinary science degree at the University of Zimbabwe and thereafter, she went on to do her postgraduate studies abroad, studying in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

In 2002, she joined the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Veterinary Science and has been contributing to avian research since. This emanated out of her PhD in avian research from the Department of Anatomy at the University of Glasgow.

Today she is regarded as a leading expert internationally in the field of avian anatomy and physiology. One of her focuses has been on ostriches, the largest flightless bird, and one of the drivers of the South African economy.

In 2002, Prof Madekurozwa’s research led to the first ever report on seasonal, precocious testicular activity in immature male ostriches. The research was published in Reproduction, which is a leading international journal focusing on novel research in reproduction.

After working on ostriches for over 10 years, Prof Madekurozwa decided to broaden her research to include other avian species. It was during this transition that she started to work on something that was so new, it had not caught the world’s attention yet: the devastating effects of plastic on the environment.

Her research is looking at the effects of plastics on the fertility of avian species.

Prof Mary-Cathrine Madekurozwa

This is not only novel research, but important work for the preservation of bird species on the planet. She is looking at the effects of phthalates ( a chemical that is   added to plastics to make them flexible and soft) on birds. Over time, and from exposure to the elements, these chemicals leach out of the polluted plastics into the environment, rivers and open water systems. Animals ingest these chemicals known as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which interfere with hormone balance, particularly of the male reproductive system because they are oestrogen-like or anti-androgenic compounds.

“Since phthalates are ubiquitous environmental pollutants it is most likely that birds are continuously being exposed to these chemicals in food sources and water,” says Prof Madekurozwa.

Because of the novelty of her work, Prof Madekurozwa has to do the baseline research herself. She intends  looking at the effects of phthalates on all stages of the Japanese quail’s lifespan, from egg, to hatchling to adult.

However, she has already taken a snapshot of the pre-pubertal bird’s exposure to phthalates. Results are not good – showing abnormalities and poor development of the testes. Testosterone levels were also affected, implying the fertility of these birds are affected by phthalates.

Prof Madekurozwa hopes her research will influence South African legislation – currently, no legislation exists to specifically regulate the production, use and disposal of phthalates. She also hopes to create more awareness through her research about the toxicity of phthalates. Her research will inform both government departments responsible for South Africa’s agriculture, water and environment, as well as organisations working to conserve water systems and birdlife. “As the general public, we should also become more mindful of how we dispose of our plastics,” she says.


- Author Louise de Bruin

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