Marine Biologists Focus on Global ChangeGeneral

UKZN Marine Biology PhD student Mr Christopher Waspe and post-doctoral fellow Dr Morgana Tagliarolo discuss their research in preparation for the 3rd National Conference on Global Change.UKZN Marine Biology PhD student Mr Christopher Waspe and post-doctoral fellow Dr Morgana Tagliarolo discuss their research in preparation for the 3rd National Conference on Global Change.

Work by several researchers from UKZN’s Marine Biology Department involving the understanding of key challenges facing the earth was featured at the 3rd National Conference on Global Change hosted by the University.

UKZN is the only university in the country to offer a BSc degree programme in Marine Biology, and has been highly successful in its multidisciplinary marine research and training and equipping young researchers to tackle threats facing South Africa’s marine systems.

Research presented at this national conference aimed at the South African postgraduate community, included investigations of how coral, a marine fauna extremely vulnerable to the effects of global change due to its tolerance for only very narrow ranges of temperature, is persisting in intertidal pools in KwaZulu-Natal despite adverse conditions. This could help predict future population trajectories and plan conservation strategies.

UKZN’s Marine Biologists have also set themselves apart in the arena of estuarine health. Estuaries are arguably the most threatened of all South African marine ecosystems as they cover a small surface area but are subject to extreme levels of utilisation. They have important ecological and economical functions, including the cycling of nutrients, enhancing coastal production, are nursery and breeding sites for aquatic organisms and sources of food and sites for recreation and tourism.

Research presented by UKZN students on estuaries included the development of frameworks and management strategies for understanding complex estuarine food web functioning and flow rates (impacted by stressors like dams), essential in these highly dynamic, productive systems that are under stress from human-induced disruptions and increasing extreme climatic events and climate variability.  Estuarine habitats have naturally high variable natural conditions which are being intensified by human activities, leading to unpredictable, extreme disturbances.

UKZN postgraduate students also presented research on zooplankton, which is an indicator of ecosystem health as well as research on the fauna living in disturbed environments such as the Durban Bay, which, before the construction of a harbour, was a sheltered lagoon with exposed sandbanks and mangrove and swamp areas and two vegetated islands near the centre. The Bay is still ecologically important despite losses to development, but habitat loss and sea level rise - two major components of global change - could further degrade the ecological integrity of the Bay.

‘By conducting innovative research into vital marine systems under threat, marine biologists hope to better understand how these systems are changing and minimise the damage these threats could cause,’ said UKZN Marine Biologist, Dr David Glassom.

The Global Change Conference, funded by the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation, is part of the Global Change Grand Challenge (GCGC), now in its 6th year of implementation.

The GCGC encourages the production of new knowledge and information in South Africa to cope with key grand challenges, including understanding a changing planet, reducing the human footprint, adapting the way we live, and innovation for sustainability.

Christine Cuénod