Ecology and Biodiversity

The research conducted within the Ecology and Biodiversity section of the Department of Plant and Soil Science spans a broad range of topics, including the ecological impacts of global environmental change, patterns of and processes explaining biological diversity and the management of socio-ecological forestry systems. Our research is conducted in many different sites, including sub-Antarctic Marion Island, the Drakensberg, the Cape, the Angolan highlands, and various national and provincial parks.


The staff members working with this section are:

  • Prof. Nigel Barker
    • Nigel has a wide range of biodiversity-related interests, including molecular systematics, phylogeography and population genetics, plant genomics, and floristic diversity  of southern Africa's mountains, including the Angolan highlands. Current projects include a whole genome sequencing study of a charismatic plant species, and the systematics, population diversity and agricultural potential  of Tylosema (Fabaceae), an indigenous orphan crop.
  • Prof. Paxie Chirwa
    • Paxie is a forest scientist and specialises in socio-ecological systems in forests; agroforestry; and social or community forestry. His research group works on a range of projects in remote regions of South Africa and other forest ecosystem in Africa including the miombo dry forest and woodlands of southern Africa. The research aims to understand the link between people and natural resource governance, the use of resources, and interventions that will successfully promote sustainable forest management.
  • Dr Michelle Greve
    • Michelle has an interest in exploring patterns and drivers of diversity and distribution at macroecological scales. Furthermore, some of her research focuses on invasion ecology, especially that of Southern Ocean Islands. Other research interests include savanna ecology and trait ecology.
  • Dr Peter le Roux
    • Peter is a community ecologist with a specific interest in the role of biotic interactions in determining species distributions and the ecological impacts of climate change. He is currently leading an inter-disciplinary project examining the ecological impacts of wind in the sub-Antarctic.
  • Dr Kenneth Oberlander
    • Kenneth is a phylogeneticist with a keen interest in the unique Cape Flora of South Africa, particularly the processes generating this uniqueness. Other fields of interest include the evolution of polyploidy and its impact on plant lineages, as well as in the phylogenomics of African plants. Kenneth is also the curator of the university's Schweickerdt Herbarium.


While the main research focus of the department is on plants, the staff within the Ecology and Biodiversity section collaborate with mycologists, microbiologists, geomorphologists and zoologists. Collaborators are based both within South Africa and internationally. National collaborators are from institutions such as the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University, the University of Free State. Rhodes University and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. International collaborators are from institutions including the University of Amsterdam, Charles University and the University of Helsinki.

Our research also feeds into our teaching. Students get exposed to South Africa’s biomes in their natural and in degraded states, principles of ecology, and methods and techniques widely used in ecology. Students are also taught the evolution of plant diversity as an outcome of these ecological processes, and the classification systems devised to make sense of our immensely diverse plant heritage.



An example of some of the research involving the staff members of the Ecology and Biodiversity section - here a patch of Moot grassland (a once widespread vegetation type that is now rare) on the Experimental Farm is subjected for a controlled burn to simulate a natural fire. The biodiversity of this grassland is being documented by our section. Video courtesy of Prof Wynand Steyn (Department of Civil Engineering, University of Pretoria).

- Author PCLR

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