UP postdoctoral fellow wins British Ecological Society photography competition

Posted on December 04, 2018

Dr Chris Oosthuizen of the University of Pretoria’s Department of Zoology and Entomology recently won the British Ecological Society’s annual photography competition, Capturing Ecology, which celebrates the diversity of ecology around the world.

The independent judging panel comprised six eminent ecologists and award-winning wildlife photographers. Dr Oosthuizen, a postdoctoral fellow at the department’s Mammal Research Institute, was chosen as the overall winner with his image of a lone adult king penguin standing among a crowd of chicks on the remote sub-Antarctic Marion Island, which is part of the Prince Edward Islands. The islands are the most southerly part of South Africa’s official territory.

“Some images have the power to say much more than words,” says Professor Richard Bardgett, President of the British Ecological Society, which was founded in 1913 and is the oldest ecological society in the world. “Chris’s image, which showcases the remarkable colony life of an iconic bird species, raises awareness of their uncertain future due to climate change.”

Dr Oosthuizen took the winning photograph while conducting research on seals and killer whales as a member of the 68th overwintering team (2011 to 2012) for the Marion Island Marine Mammal Programme.

He also won the competition’s Dynamic Ecosystems category for his image of a southern giant petrel preying on a king penguin chick.

“Photography is a key science engagement tool that can convey important conservation messages,” says Dr Oosthuizen, who is also a previous winner of the SA Science Lens competition, held by the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement. “Although the global population of king penguins is large, populations inhabiting islands around the Antarctic face an uncertain future. Global climate change may shift the oceanic fronts where they feed further away from breeding sites, forcing penguins to travel further to reach their foraging grounds.”

Recent evidence of the collapse of the world’s biggest colony of king penguins, the Morne du Tamaris colony at Ile aux Cochons in the Crozet archipelago, has highlighted the plight of this species. This colony declined by nearly 90% since the early 1980s, from about 500 000 pairs to 60 000 pairs in 2017.

“Many seabirds are more endangered than elephants and rhinos, and deserve the same attention that these conservation icons receive,” he says. “Whereas king penguins are mostly threatened by future oceanic environmental change, introduced mammals such as mice pose a more significant and immediate threat to many other seabird species cohabiting Southern Ocean islands. Such invasive species can wreak devastation on seabird colonies.”

Dr Oosthuizen has been working with the Marion Island Marine Mammal Programme since 2007, when he first overwintered on Marion Island as a seal biologist. He subsequently completed his MSc and PhD degrees, and gained extensive field experience by participating in several national and international research expeditions, including a second expedition to Marion Island and summer expeditions to Antarctica and other sub-Antarctic islands such as Macquarie, Bouvet, King George and Gough. His PhD considered how among-individual variation and trade-offs shape the life histories of female southern elephant seals. He continues to carry out research into individual variability in the survival and reproduction of elephant seals during his postdoctoral fellowship.

In 2017, Dr Oosthuizen and Professor Nico de Bruyn, of UP’s Zoology and Entomology Department, compiled and edited the book Pain Forms the Character. The book is a striking narrative of photographs and stories that capture the adventures of the “cat hunters” and “sealers” of Marion Island – the legacy of those who worked within the sphere of influence of “Doc” Marthán Bester, now extraordinary professor at the Mammal Research Institute.

The winning images will be exhibited in Birmingham in December at The British Ecological Society’s annual conference. They will also be displayed at a week-long public exhibition in London, from 21 to 27 January 2019.

Pain Forms the Character is available at www.marionseals.com

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