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Meet the Grantee: Corli Coetsee

How Field Observations from South Africa and Modelling Skills from Bayreuth Come Together to Predict Future Plant Growth

Our grantee Dr Corli Coetsee and her team have been studying cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena such as leaf growth, flower and fruit production in Krueger National Park for seven years. She came to Bayreuth in October 2022 to try and match those field observations with the dynamic model of plant growth developed by her host, Professor Steven Higgins – and to finally experience Bayreuth in person.

Dr. Corli Wigley Coetsee

What are the foci of your joint research funded by the Short Term Grant?

Corli Coetsee: Myself and a team from the Kruger National Park have been monitoring phenology (e.g., leaf flush, flowering, fruiting) for seven years in the park. The park is mostly open woodland with a full extant suite of animals present. We are interested in phenology and the possible influences of climate change because animals which include invertebrates to elephants, depend on and interact with the phenological cycles of resource availability. Prof Higgins has developed a dynamic model of plant growth that can use climate reanalysis data (ERA5-Land; a product that provides data for climate variables including solar radiation, soil moisture, air temperature, soil temperature at 10 x 10 km resolution) to predict the field observations of phenological stages such as leaf growth, flower and fruit production. Initial results generated during my stay are promising and suggest that the model can predict the field observations. This gives us confidence to use the model to see if current phenology patterns have changed over time by predicting phenology patterns of past climates. Changes in the length of available resources will have profound consequences for animals.

In what way is your work interdisciplinary, and what does interdisciplinarity mean to you in academic work and life?

CC: This work is not interdisciplinary in the way that my host and myself are in different fields. However, Prof. Higgins and myself have very different skills. I am a field biologist and spend a lot of time in the field measuring phenomena on the ground. Prof. Higgins on the other hand, although also doing much experimental work, has significant modeling skills. We are combining a model that predicts plant growth with actual ground-based observations of phenology for this work. We are also hoping to establish a citizen science project where tourists to the Kruger National Park will be able to document phenological stages on specific well-marked trees using an app. In a world where science is increasingly ignored and information is gained through social media, it has become important to involve the public in different ways in the science that it produced and citizen science is one such tool.

What is in your opinion the future of your field, and in what way can research on ecology contribute to meeting the urgent challenges of our time?

Professor Steven Higgins: The climate emergency is of course the major challenge of our time, it brings into sharp focus how we depend on our Earth system. As ecologists we study the dependency of biological life on the environment, but also how organisms impact their environment. That is, ecology is central to predicting the future impacts of climate change, understanding the current impacts of climate change and proposing options for mitigating climate change.

What does international research mobility mean to you?

CC: International research mobility is very important to me. First, there is the reality of being physically present in a place. For instance, as an ecologist, it is impossible to observe a new ecosystem if you cannot be present and walk around and hear the birds and touch the plants. Secondly, there is a mental shift when you are out of your normal routines and interactions. When you are exposed to other places and ideas, you realise that spending too much time in one group of people leads to insular thinking. Although much can be achieved by online meetings, it is hard to build meaningful relationships and to have the type of conversations that may result in a new perspective. Lastly, many collaborations are built from chance encounters. You cannot easily make the small talk in online meetings that results in the establishment of common interests and the generation of research ideas. Additionally, being somewhere in person makes it possible to attend departmental talks and interact with post-graduate students and faculty members.

How did the current challenges influence your cooperation?

CC: By current challenges I assume you mean COVID-19 related restrictions in meeting and traveling. I have never really enjoyed speaking to anyone through an online platform, personally I prefer to interact with people face to face. I work for South African National Parks and we host an annual international meeting which is called the Savanna science network meeting in the Kruger National Park. The meeting is called a network meeting because it brings ecologists and other researchers that work in savannas together and provide plenty of opportunity to network and socialise. Some of my co-workers have become friends over time and I enjoy having solid relationships with my collaborators and co-workers. I missed these social interactions during the times that South Africa was in lockdown and we were not allowed to travel. I was very much excited when researchers started to return to Kruger after the travel restrictions were relaxed. Also, for an ecologist, if you cannot get into to field to do fieldwork and experience new ecosystems, then half of your raison d'etre is lost.

The Grantee and her Host:

Dr Corli Coetsee is a savanna ecologist that works for South African National Parks and is based in Kruger National Park. She holds a PhD in savanna ecology from the University of Cape Town. Apart from doing her own research focused on interactions between animals and plants and how these affect ecosystem processes, she coordinates much of the vegetation-related research that takes place in savanna parks. 

Professor Steven Higgins holds the Chair of Plant Ecology at the University of Bayreuth. He received a PhD in Botany from the University of Cape Town and held Professorships in Physical Geography (Frankfurt) and Botany (Otago) before moving to Bayreuth. His main research interests are developing and demonstrating methods for integrating data and models for ecological forecasting. Most of his work is focused on forecasting at a global level, but more detailed work is conducted either in savanna ecosystems or in the greenhouse.

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