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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

Giraffe, impala and boomslang - our South Africa field trip

Lecturer Dr Dave Hone shares his experience of our recent field trip to South Africa, open to undergraduate students on our biology, genetics and zoology programmes. 

Impala attack! Photo thanks to Dr Rob Knell

Impala attack! Photo thanks to Dr Rob Knell

The autumn saw the first trip to South Africa for the newly revised 3rd year undergraduate module Tropical Ecology and Conservation. Organised and led by Dr Rob Knell, the course was also taught by Professor Andrew Leitch, Dr Joanne Littlefair and myself on site in the Wits Rural Facility. This is owned by one of the Johannesburg universities and is stationed just a few miles from the famous Kruger Park.

 The Wits facility lacks the largest carnivores and herbivores and thus it is a safe locality to work in, and students and staff were free to explore and work in this amazing savannah environment where giraffe, impala and many other charismatic species roam. It is quite something to have giraffe feeding mere yards from the classroom and for breakfast to be interrupted by foraging vervet monkeys as well as by plenty of smaller fauna like local frogs, lizards and insects appearing in the dining hall.

In addition to lectures taught on site, the module emphasises practical field ecology with various groups taking part in exercises assessing the local diversity of plants, behaviour of ants, ungulate feeding patterns, parasite numbers and especially a camera trapping program. The latter recorded numerous otherwise hard to spot species with an obvious highlight being a young leopard who was caught on camera playing with the traps themselves and chewing on the straps that had been used to secure the cameras to the trees.

The location of the site so close to Kruger is too good an opportunity to waste and so students were also taken out to the park giving both an opportunity to see some of the more spectacular fauna, but also see a very different environment as the park is far more open than Wits and less cover from trees and shrubs. Trips were also taken to the nearby Blyde River Canyon where a wetter environment and changing altitude gives another set of alternate flora.

Over the last two days of the 10 day trip the students were able to create their own miniature research projects. These showed a great deal of creativity and impressive dedication with projects taking in antlion burrowing, impala latrine use, animal diversity as assessed from footprints and the generation of galls by plants attacked by insect herbivores among others.

Juvenile boomslang. Photo thanks to Dr Rob Knell
Juvenile boomslang. Photo thanks to Dr Rob Knell

Although there were some inevitable teething issues with this being the first trip to a new location the course was a success with staff and students enjoying the amazing location. The Wits facility promises to be the new home of this module for many years to come and as staff and students build up an ever better picture of the area and the opportunities afforded, the breadth and depth of our studies are only likely to grow.

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