Project Description

Project description

Human population growth drives food demand requiring additional land for its production. Consequent human encroachment into wildlife habitats, illegal poaching and increased human/wildlife contact are key drivers of biodiversity loss. Furthermore, this increased human/wildlife contact increases the likelihood of disease transfer between animals and humans e.g. Ebola and Sars-Cov-2, both of which are especially impactful in developing countries.  

The establishment and management of Protected Areas (PAs), such as the Great Fish River Nature Reserve (GFRNR) in the impoverished Eastern Cape region of South Africa offer a barrier between human and wildlife populations and a means of maintaining biodiversity. Importantly, PAs situated in developing countries often represent an important local commercial enterprise and employment opportunity, and boost the local economy through disposable income (e.g. ecotourism).  

As is the case for many PAs in Southern Africa, reserve income (and ultimately sustainability) for the GFRNR is augmented through the sale of game, such as African buffalo (Syncerus caffer). However, dense vegetation cover in GFRNR makes informed buffalo population estimates and sustainable utilisation difficult. As such, local researchers and park management have partnered to increase the ecological and demographic understanding of this population to facilitate the sustainable utilisation of the population. By fitting sensors to measure buffalo movements and behaviours, and setting trail cameras to document population characteristics, this project will form part of this examination by examining buffalo movements, energy costs and microhabitat use. Additionally, samples collected from buffalo will be screened for the presence of pathogens and parasites, identifying those which may be transferrable to humans and domestic livestock adjacent to the PA. Such information will ensure the viability of this and other reserves, ensuring the economic well-being of the surrounding communities and enhancing PA management practices, reducing wildlife exploitation and zoonotic disease.  

Within mammal guilds, certain species seem to be particularly vulnerable to energetic constraints and are consequently in rapid decline. Large mammals are a case-in-point. This can be because their distributions are limited and/or because biotic conditions restrict their food intake. Other concerns also highlight the effects of disease and climate change. To ensure future sustainable wildlife populations, we must understand the impact of individual stressors as well as the interactions between multiple stressors on wild animal ecology. 

Background and Rationale 

Energy has been termed the universal ‘currency’ of life (1). The balance between acquisition and energy expenditure (EE) is an essential link between the ability to control physiological processes at the individual level (e.g. reproductive success, mass-balance, immune function) and wider-scale geographic and environmental patterns within populations (trophic linkages, population distributions) (2,3). Consequently, energetic constraints are fundamental determinants of ecology (4,5) as organisms trade off different aspects, such as immune function and reproductive output, which require energy, in response to various environmental challenges such as habitat productivity and food accessibility which determine energy availability (1). When net energy gain of animals decreases, there may be reductions in survival, reproductive success and ultimately population viability (6). Knowledge of energy flow is, therefore, pivotal for understanding how species persist and how their survival might be affected by environmental change, particularly for vulnerable species for which changing conditions may have large impacts on their ability to survive. 

In Southern Africa, species persist across many different types of habitat ranging from desert sand dunes, semi-arid thornveld to moist woodland (7). Thus, large differences in water, vegetation and food availability can occur within sub-populations of the same species, which affects home-range size and habitat utilisation (8). Presumably, there are also marked differences in the costs of transport between different habitats – within each ‘energy landscape’ (9). Therefore, there is likely to be large variation in the proportions of energy allocated to different physiological processes and life history characteristics for animals from different locations or habitats, such as open versus forested/wooded areas. 

In the Eastern Cape, conservation agencies use live sales of species such as the African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) to supplement running costs. However, offtakes are conducted using limited information and would benefit hugely from being guided by scientifically robust data. Across Africa, buffalo are listed by IUCN as ‘near-threatened’ with hunting and trapping identified as emerging threats, and an identified need to understand harvest level trends as a key priority. We aim to utilise a local study site to enhance the science underpinning the sustainable utilisation of protected areas (PAs). However, we first need an improved understanding of how buffalo ecology and movement are related to energy expenditure within this landscape (dense thicket), which differs from savannah habitats where most buffalo research has been conducted and most knowledge is acquired (6). Findings will have relevance for local conservation agencies and for game utilisation across Africa. 

The primary objective is to exploit new technology-driven approaches to enhance game management to both protect the local resource-poor population and to provide economic resilience through improved employment opportunities. To do this, the project will exploit the latest technology in sensor- based management of buffalo populations with embedded horizon screening of wildlife diseases to identify emerging pathogens within a local PA in the Eastern Cape. The project will exploit development of applications for cutting-edge sensor technology to transform understanding of and maximise effectiveness and resilience of a PA (Great Fish River Nature Reserve, GFRNR). Reserve staff will use the data gathered to develop and inform a dynamic, future management policy. In enhancing the success of this local reserve, wildlife exploitation will be reduced with the knock-on effect of reducing the risk of zoonotic disease transfer. This project will provide a blueprint for how other PAs can improve resilience and impact. 

Essential & desirable candidate skills

Essential: We seek a highly motivated individual who must hold a first or upper second-class undergraduate degree in a biological discipline (e.g. zoology, biological sciences, parasitology). Applicants must be competent in data and statistical analysis. 

Desirable: Experience with fieldwork and laboratory skills are highly desirable. 


Michael Scantlebury

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Michael Scantlebury
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Catherine Hambly

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Catherine Hambly
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Nikki Marks

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Nikki Marks
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Additional Supervisor:

Dr Craig Tambling 

Senior Lecturer and Head of Department of Zoology and Entomology, University of Fort Hare, South Africa 


(1) Wikelski, M. & Ricklefs, R.E.  2001. TREE 16: 479-481 

(2) Buckley, L.E. 2008. Am. Nat. 171: E1-E19 

(3) Humphries, M.M. and McCann, K.S. 2014. J. Anim. Ecol. 83:7-19. 

(4) Yodzis, P. & Innes, S. 1992. Am. Nat. 139: 1151–1175 

(5) McNab, B.K. 2001. The physiological ecology of vertebrates. Cornell. 

(6) Humphries, M.M. et al. 2004. Integr. Comp. Biol. 44:152-162 

(7) Bauer, H., and S. Van Der Merwe. 2004. Oryx 38: 26-31 

(8) Tuqa, J.H. at al. 2014. Global Ecol. Conserv. 2: 1-10. 

(9) Shepard, E.L.C. et al. 2013. Am Nat. 182: 298-312 

Research Methods

Various methods will be involved with this project, which is designed to provide the student with a wide range of experience. Analysis of movement data (activity, GPS location) will be undertaken in collaboration with the South African partner. The software packages that have been developed over a period of several years are capable of visualising data in both 2D and 3D, including real-time plots of multiple channels of data such as dead-reckoning of animal tracks, 1, 2, and 3- dimensional histograms, and simple 1D/2D/3D plots of raw or processed data. The student will become trained in programming and analysis of data from animal-borne data loggers, expanding/complimenting what is already present. This will involve some fieldwork (tag deployments) which will result in a large amount of data (e.g. of behaviour, movement, energy use) being collected. Various analytical methods will be employed to investigate and predict effects of varying environmental circumstance (e.g. seasonal variation, human interference) on animal behaviour and physiology. In addition, the student will spend some time in Aberdeen where they will become familiar with the theory and analyses of energetics data. The student will also become familiar with methodologies involving analysis of disease and parasite load, obtained from samples collected in the field (blood, faeces etc.).  

Expected Training Provision

The student will be trained in analytical techniques used to measure activity and energy expenditure in wild animals as well as parasite recovery and infection. Valuable experience will be acquired through working with the South African partner on large mammal ecology. Existing datasets will be used to develop the skills required and then a research protocol will be designed to collect additional field data. The student will be required to travel to Aberdeen University for training as part of the QUADRAT scheme and have comprehensive training courses in data handling, statistics, presentation skills and career development. 

The student will acquire knowledge of and become familiar with analysis of activity and movement data using commercially available software packages, along with in-house software. Fieldwork (programming and deployment of animal-attached tags and tracking) will also be part of the training as will investigative statistics (various analytical tools, such as analyses of variance, generalised additive models, chronobiological models, dynamic state models e.g. in R, ArcGIS). The student will also be expected to become familiar with various aspects of laboratory analyses including assessment of disease and parasite load. 

The student will be expected to partake in the postgraduate research development programme ( where key elements will be taught, such as writing skills, presentation skills, analytical statistical skills etc.). In addition, as part of the QUADRAT scheme, the student will also be required to undertake ‘a mixture of core and generic training, both practical and classroom based’, see 


Why research is important: 

Many species are in rapid decline and efforts to conserve these species often rely on external funding. This research is important as it seeks to facilitate the sustainable use of wildlife such that protected areas can remain viable and ensure stable large mammal populations. One method of generating income from protected areas is to develop sustainable offtakes. Therefore, these results are transferrable to other areas where sustainable wildlife utilisation is desired. In order to understand this, we will measure intricate details of animals’ behaviours, movements, energy costs and parasite loads. This will be integrated with knowledge of their habitat in which there may be various stressors, such as limited space, increased ambient temperatures and anthropogenic interference. 

Contribution to impact: 

Anticipated achievements will consist of datasets produced, which will form the basis of several outputs:  

(a) Scientific publications and dissemination at national and international conferences 

(b) Policy modifications in wildlife management: Data generated from this work will be visible to people in the field and used for further conservation planning. It is anticipated that results will feed back to wildlife management bodies with potential to drive changes in conservation planning. 

(c) Outreach to lay audience: Further work will include public exhibitions and dissemination to lay audiences such as conservation groups and schools both in the UK and abroad. 

Proposed Supervision

This supervision team combines researchers with an extensive background in mammalian physiology, animal energetics, large mammal ecology, parasitology, pathogen biology and epidemiology. As well as weekly meetings with supervisors at QUB, there will be regular skype/Teams meetings and visits to the different Institutes.  


The student will be based in Queen’s University Belfast, under the supervision of Dr Scantlebury and Prof. Marks, and co-supervised by Dr Hambly in Aberdeen and Dr Tambling in South Africa. The student will be embedded within the Biological Sciences PhD programme at Queen’s and undertake the set basic PhD training offered there and be expected to attend required courses for PhD students (e.g. skills in writing, data analysis, communication etc.). The student will also be based within the current cohort of QUADRAT students, where they will be expected to undertake training specific to QUADRAT PhDs (see The usual PhD process is to have a 3- month initial review where there is a chance for the student to have feedback from an independent PhD review committee. Thereafter, at 6-9 months after starting the studentship, the student will be expected to undergo ‘differentiation’. This is a formal process, in which the student’s progress is assessed and, if satisfactory, the student is then able to continue with the PhD programme. Thereafter, the student will undergo regular ‘annual progress review’ meetings, with the PhD review committee. The purpose of these meetings is to provide continual and independent support to the student. In addition, regular meetings (e.g. monthly) will be held with the supervisory team during which the student’s progress is assessed, and advice/ assistance offered, these meetings are a requirement of the University. 

Proposed Timetable

The student will spend an initial period (e.g. 6-8 months) studying the relevant literature and generating research plans. Once a good grasp has been obtained of the background to the study, we would like the student to become acquainted with the necessary analysis and analytical techniques that the project will involve. Therefore, the student will spend time with the South African partner (Dr Tambling). Covid19 and fieldwork logistics permitting, the student will have the opportunity to travel to South Africa to assist with the data collection and interact and learn from Dr Tambling. Notwithstanding, regular meetings will take place with all partners (zoom/ teams etc.). We have historical tracking data that the student can use (including data on large mammals) which can be incorporated into the PhD. Both the above aspects (literature review and acquisition of data analysis techniques) can be undertaken alongside the necessary QUADRAT training. During years 2-3 we imagine that the student will become more involved with data collection and rigorous analysis of those data. This will involve elements of fieldwork (above) which will include deployment of data loggers onto animals and investigating the fine scale relationship between microclimate and habitat at sites in South Africa and potentially elsewhere (e.g. UK and Ireland). The remainder of the PhD (year 4) will be spent finishing data analysis and writing up. We expect that the PhD will be completed as a series of manuscripts that can be submitted for publication, and therefore we would encourage the student to prepare manuscripts during the PhD (starting from year 1 with a literature review).  


  • biodiversity


Non-CASE collaboration with Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA) in South Africa 

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