Imperial College London

Biology undergraduates return from tenth year of African field biology course

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A group of people near a forest

The 2019 African Field Biology Course in the Knysna Montane Forest. Credit: Vincent Savolainen

Third-year Biological Sciences students get hands on with the flora and fauna of South Africa.

There is always a sense of excitement when embarking on a trip abroad, but to experience South Africa alongside your peers who share your curiosity and fascination in the natural world was a fantastic opportunity granted to Imperial’s South African Field Biology course students.

As the Autumn term began and the Imperial College London campuses revived with student activity, 23 third-year Biological Sciences students and three academic staff travelled to the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa.

Overlooking the Brandvlei dam, the students settled in at the Klipbokkop Mountain Reserve, a picturesque family-run establishment nestled in the sandstone cliffs of the Cape Fold Mountains. Out in the field and surrounded by the unique sclerophyllous vegetation characteristic to the Western Cape’s fynbos (a small belt of natural shrubland or heathland vegetation), the students could not have found themselves a better setting for a field biology course.

Daily-like flowers on a hillside
The Cape Floristic Region is a global biodiversity hotspot with approximately 9,000 plant species, 69% of which are endemic to the region. Pictured are Asteraceae (daisy family), one of the plant families the 2019 South African Field Biology students were expected to identify. Credit: Celina Chien

In the two weeks on location, not a moment was wasted. The students were thrown into an action-packed field biology bootcamp: one day spent mist-netting and ringing birds with local ornithologist Dieter Oschadleus and Imperial senior lecturer Dr Julia Schroeder, another day spent implementing four separate invertebrate sampling techniques simultaneously with Imperial’s Dr Richard Gill, and finally a day spent sampling the astonishing plant diversity with local Fynbos extraordinaire Dr Anso le Roux and Imperial Professor Vincent Savolainen, who organises this course each year.

These first few days not only shaped the students’ future research project ideas, but also revealed much about the group’s composition of passions. What was particularly wonderful about this was how some students’ lifelong interests could draw in other students and inspire them. Cristian, the brilliant birder with his binoculars and field guide always in hand; Miguel, the resident invertebrate aficionado leaving no stone unturned; Veronika’s admiration for plants always shining through; Tom’s philosophical contemplations on conservation and nature itself; and Celina’s inexhaustible delight at the sight of any organism she had the opportunity to learn from.

  • tyudents gather around a woman holding a bird

    A group of students watch Dr Julia Schroeder ring and take measurements of a Southern Double Collared Sunbird with Dr Dieter Oschadleus, a South African ornithologist. Credit: Celina Chien

  • Someone holding a bird while writing in a notebook

    South African ornithologist Dr Dieter Oschadleus recording morphometrics of an endemic Cape Sugarbird mist-netted with the 2019 South Africa Field Biology course students. Credit: Celina Chien

  • Man holding a bird and pointing to its beak

    South African ornithologist Dr Dieter Oschadleus holding an endemic Cape Sugarbird. Credit: Celina Chen

After an intense day of coursework submission following our rapid field training, the group was rewarded with an eventful weekend trip starting with a safari at a private game reserve. After marvelling at the statuesque kudu, regal lions and endangered white rhinoceros, the group was whisked off to yet another one of the Cape’s unique ecoregions, the Knysna Montane Forest.

  • Lion

    Credit: Vincent Savolainen

  • Elephant and calf

    Credit: Vincent Savolainen

  • Elephant

    Credit: Vincent Savolainen

  • Zebras

    Credit: Vincent Savolainen

  • Rhino

    Credit: Vincent Savolainen

There, they were introduced to a South African large mammal relocation expert and black rhinoceros conservationist who accompanied them on an in situ lecture through the forest as well as providing an account of his first-hand experience working in wildlife management in South Africa. On their way back to Klipbokkop, they even stopped at the seaside town of Hermanus, where the students huddled together like penguins on beachside boulders, with their binoculars pointed avidly toward the horizon, roaring with delight at the sight of breaching southern right whales.

Woman crouching in a field grasping flowers
Dr Anso Le Roux, a South African fynbos and karoo specialist collects a species of Asteraceae in the Klipbokkop Mountain Reserve. Her depth of knowledge of local vegetation was astounding to witness and her contribution toward student mini-projects proved invaluable. Credit: Celina Chien

Upon their return to Klipbokkop, the students embarked on their ambitious and creative mini-projects. Some mirrored a previous publication of our professor’s, looking at phylogenetic distances of invasive plant species in the fynbos; some investigated macro-invertebrate scavenging rates in recently burnt and historically burnt vegetation; some explored the miraculous and mysterious nature of weaver bird nests, and many more.

A small mammal on a rock
A Rock Hyrax or Dassie approaches the student group at Klipbokkop Mountain Reserve. The closest living relative to the elephant, these small mammals left students baffled and smiling as they sunbathed on the rocks every morning. Credit: Celina Chien

Students have returned to London exhausted, intrigued, inspired, excited, and most importantly, with a deeper admiration for the living world. Experiencing field work, working alongside those who have dedicated their academic careers to research in the field, and sharing the excitement of having learnt all this with peers has all provoked and reinforced the passion needed to motivate biology undergraduates to pursue further aspirations in ecology and conservation.

Group of people surround a woman holding an insect
A group of students and Dr Richard Gill pose with an interesting mantis

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Words by Celina Chen and Miguel Bailey Santiago Perez.

Unless otherwise stated, photos provided are taken by Imperial biology student and conservation photojournalist Celina Chien. For more work or further distribution please visit celinachien.com

Reporter

Celina Chien

Celina Chien
Department of Life Sciences

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