The University of Pretoria’s (UP) Department of Zoology and Entomology has been ranked 32nd in the world for its research impact by the University Ranking by Academic Performance (URAP) for 2021 – 2022.
Professor Armanda Bastos, who heads the department in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, noted that the department has improved both the quality and quantity of outputs year on year. “This is an incredible achievement and a testament to the high standard of research in the department,” she said.
This is the third consecutive upward climb for UP’s Zoology ranking. It moved from 54th in 2019 to 50th in 2020, then 45th the following year, and now a leap of 13 places to position 32.
Zoology was one of 78 subjects at 3 000 higher education institutions assessed for URAP’s 2021 – 2022 rankings, with first place going to the University of São Paulo in Brazil. The subject rankings are based on six academic performance indicators that are primarily focused on the quality and quantity of publications, sourced from databases such as Scopus and the Web of Science, and on international research collaborations.
For each subject, URAP calculates the number of articles over the past five years, then its ratio to the total number of articles in that subject worldwide over the same period. Chris Weldon, Associate Professor of Applied and Physiological Entomology at UP, said the department values the ranking. “[The URAP ranking] reflects how well an institution is doing relative to the rest of the world, rather than just who is the best,” he said.
UP Zoology scored the highest for its current research output and number of citations, that is, how often its research has been quoted. This was followed by the impact of its articles over the past five years and its international collaborations. Essentially, the department was recognised for its scientific productivity, research impact and quality, and its international acceptance.
Prof Weldon said one of the biggest changes in the department’s research patterns over the past 10 years was that it was publishing more in higher-impact journals. “We’re being cited more often because of that,” he said. “We’re also forming many more international collaborations so that the work we’re doing is not just relevant and important for South Africa, but also globally.”
On 1 October 2022 the Department’s Mammal Research Institute Whale Unit commenced its 53rd annual aerial survey of southern right whales to monitor the health of the population.
Prof Bastos attributed the success to the department’s three main strengths: “The diversity of research; strong national, regional and international networks; and the dedication of staff, students and affiliates,” she said. “Zoology at UP covers everything from tiny viruses infecting wildlife all the way up to the largest land and marine mammals. We have 13 academic programmes, having recently added three postgraduate Wildlife Management programmes.”
She said the department’s close association with three research institutes – the Mammal Research Institute, the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute and the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology – and the high proportion of its research chairs contributed to its strong performance in the ranking.
The department’s research covers a broad range of subjects, including social insects – through the Social Insects Research Group – amphibians; reptiles; birds; subterranean, terrestrial, aquatic and marine mammals; and diverse ecologies, from deserts to polar geographical areas.
“It also includes basic and applied research that spans the management of pest species (invertebrate and vertebrate), the impact of climate change and other anthropogenic drivers, wildlife diseases (inclusive of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases) as well as carnivore, elephant and restoration ecology,” Prof Bastos explained.
“We sit inland and are land-locked, but we have two highly successful marine mammal programmes,” she added. “One is the Whale Unit at Hermanus, and the other is based on sub-Antarctic Marion Island and monitors seal populations. Both are long-term programmes that contribute to international monitoring.”
In addition to monitoring whales and seals, the department has a long-term monitoring project on the Sani Pass in the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains. “Third-year students contribute annually to this project, which investigates the effects of altitude and climate on species, with a focus on ant diversity,” Prof Bastos said. “This programme has been running for more than 16 years.”
The department’s specialised laboratories include a stable isotope facility, which can reconstruct past environmental and climatic conditions and explain past and modern human and animal diets; the only endocrine research laboratory in southern Africa, which conducts interdisciplinary research on free-roaming and captive animals; an ancient DNA laboratory; and a chemical ecology laboratory. “Our international networks have really grown in the past few years,” Prof Bastos said.
She sings the praises of her staff, students and collaborators associated with the department. “People really have an incredible work ethic in this department. Our extraordinary staff members, some based in governmental and international institutions, contribute to the outputs of the department. They’re motivated to do the research, build capacity and transfer skills in the teaching and learning environment – and the students follow their example.”
UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe congratulated Prof Bastos and her team. “Our academics continue to produce high-quality research, despite the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, showing that they are resilient,” he said. “I am pleased with this. As a future-focused university, we need to keep improving our research outputs as well as the quality of our research, not to push our international ranking but to help transform our country, continent and world with high-impact research and innovations. We can achieve this through all your research and commitment.”