Moo-sic to the ears

Take a look at what happened behind the scenes to help a University of Pretoria researcher figure out that cows love classical moo-sic.

Behind the scenes at Innovation Africa @UP

  • Lize Erasmus

Animal welfare researcher Lize Erasmus completed two undergraduate degrees, BMus and BSc (Agric), at the University of Pretoria (UP), and has been doing research at UP for the past four years.

“UP prioritises research, and has state-of-the-art facilities and award-winning researchers who are at the top of their respective fields,” she says.

Her PhD research will focus on livestock genetics. She believes her research will contribute to the betterment of the world because there is a global move towards improving the living conditions of livestock. Erasmus’s field of research will allow for enhanced animal welfare without the need for drastic alterations or incurring expenses.

“Improved animal welfare will not only better the lives of animals, but will also promote a more positive image of livestock production, improve the quality of produce and assist sustainability endeavours,” she explains.

Her academic role model is her MSc supervisor, Professor Este van Marle-Köster, who Erasmus says is an award-winning researcher and “a fantastic lecturer”. Prof Van Marle-Köster is a pioneer in the field of animal breeding and genetics. “She has a heart aimed at helping both humans and animals,” Erasmus says.

Her advice to school learners or undergraduates who are interested in her field is to believe in themselves and their mission. “There will always be people who tell you it can’t be done, but the world needs innovators and risk takers,” she says.

Erasmus loves outdoor activities such as hiking, running and kayaking, but will never say no to a good book on a rainy day.

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  • Professor Esté van Marle-Köster

Professor Esté van Marle-Köster graduated with a degree in Animal Science from the University of Pretoria (UP) in 1986. She also holds an honours in Animal Science and an MSc (Agric), having conducted her postgraduate studies part-time while working full-time in the industry.

Prof Van Marle-Köster returned to UP to do her PhD, and joined the University as a lecturer in July 1995. She has been doing research at UP for the past 27 years.

“I’ve always believed that I joined the best Animal Science Department in South Africa when I came back to UP,” she says. “I was given the opportunity to do the first molecular genetics work applied to livestock as an animal scientist. Our department was the first in the country to teach a module in applied molecular genetics. We hosted the first livestock genomic workshop in South Africa, which led to the establishment of a genomic livestock consortium for beef cattle.” It also led to the SA Beef genomic programme (BGP), where Prof Van Marle-Köster coordinated the research committee. 

Animal science is all about responsible and sustainable food production, she says. In her research, Prof Van Marle-Köster focuses on traits related not only to production, but to the welfare of animals too. Sound animal husbandry results in longevity in animals and increases the overall efficiency of the system, she adds; it also improves sustainability.

“I am interested in what we refer to as ‘new’ traits/phenomes. They are not really new, but difficult to measure, so we are searching for new ways to measure. For example, we search for ways to measure claw traits in dairy cattle, which is difficult to do, but if we could measure using precision livestock farming techniques, I can have access to large datasets to apply in research. That way, we can select cattle with ‘good’ claws and manage the environment of these cows for improved claw quality.”

As to how her research contributes to the betterment of the world, she says: “The answer to a better world with regard to livestock production and feeding the human population lies in multidisciplinary projects, where we can share resources and find solutions to improve the whole value chain.”        

Within her department, she leads applied genetic research in beef and dairy cattle. She is project leader for the African Genomics Project, for which she and her research team are collaborating with the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and Queen Mary University of London to sequence local beef cattle genomes. The aim is to investigate underlying genetic mechanisms for adaption in these breeds.

In terms of cross-faculty research at UP, she is collaborating with Prof André Ganswindt, Director of UP’s Mammal Research Institute (MRI), on studies about animal behaviour and physiology. Prof Van Marle-Köster is also involved in the PLF project with Prof Herman Myburgh of the Department of Electrical Engineering; this project aims to automate body condition scoring and detect lameness in dairy cows.

Her latest project is to do with monitoring the behaviour and water intake of commercial feedlot cattle, and measuring their stress. This is another collaboration with Prof Ganswindt and the MRI.

Prof Van Marle-Köster’s father was also an animal scientist, who inspired her to think beyond the “basic science” to see that what is done in livestock production has consequences.

“You cannot do animal science in isolation,” she says. “Our research will contribute only if there is context.”   

She hopes to inspire young animal scientists with her research, which matters, she says, because it provides a good base for postgraduate students and will hopefully lead to more opportunities for them. Her advice to school learners or undergraduates who are interested in her field is to read widely for a better understanding of the world before narrowing their interests down.

In her spare time, Prof Van Marle-Köster enjoys listening to music, reading and going for long walks.

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  • Professor André Ganswindt
Professor André Ganswindt has been involved in research at the University of Pretoria (UP) for the past 15 years, since completing his PhD at the University of Münster in Germany.

He says he chose to do research at a university in South Africa because the country has great potential and easy access to rich fauna, and that he chose UP because it supported his idea of establishing a specialised lab to support his field of expertise. To date, the Endocrine Research Laboratory is the only facility of its kind in Southern Africa. Prof Ganswindt regularly collaborates with colleagues in the Departments of Zoology and Entomology and Animal Science, as well as in the Health and Veterinary Science faculties.

He studies behavioural endocrinology in mammals, reptiles and birds to address questions concerning regulative endocrine mechanisms, which in combination with other factors, like social or ecological changes, influence and control animal behaviour.

Prof Ganswindt and his research group of postgraduate students are developing and validating non-invasive tools for monitoring reproductive function and responses to stressors in captive and free-ranging animals, and interlinking these approaches with studies on animal conservation, climate change, human-wildlife conflict, land transformation and urbanisation. It often leads to a cross-disciplinary approach of physiological-endocrine research, behavioural biology and wildlife ecology to improve the management and welfare of animals in zoological institutions as well as in the wild.

This field of research contributes meaningfully to efforts to conserve wildlife, and in so doing, helps to protect ecological health on Earth. “Research, including mine, does not matter per se,” says Prof Ganswindt. “It only starts to matter if the findings contribute to a better understanding and (social) interaction with ourselves, our peer-group, related society and the world as a whole.”

Prof Ganswindt says his research group has created a collaborative network of locally and globally recognised experts that focus on many aspects of mammal-oriented research, with several opportunities for basic and applied science, professional development, and relevant theoretical and practical training for undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Having a large group of research students, about 10 PhD and 10 MSc students at any given time, means new research projects are continuously being initiated. Prof Ganswindt says a recent highlight was the inclusion of marine mammals in their research portfolio. Another recent PhD project non-invasively assessed trace elements to evaluate African savannah ecosystem health.

The professor’s passion for his field of research stems from his fascination as a young child with the wildlife documentaries produced by Heinz Sielmann and marine conservation pioneer Jacques Cousteau. “I wanted to become a biologist ever since.”

His academic role model is British evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins. “In my opinion, he is an awesome thinker with fantastic discussion skills. Within UP, I would refer to Prof Nigel Bennett as my mentor, as he is not only a brilliant scientist, but also a very kind and supportive colleague.

Prof Ganswindt advises school learners or undergraduates who are interested in his field to follow their heart if they know what they want to do. “Where there is will, there is a way. If you are not exactly sure what you want to do, try to create a list of what you don’t want – it narrows down the path.”

As for recreation, he is interested in philosophy and is a keen CrossFitter.
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