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Nicole Hagenah - exploring the impact of global change on vegetation dynamics

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Nicole Hagenah is a Professional Development Programme* (PDP) Postdoctoral Fellow at SAEON’s Grasslands-Wetland-Forest Node

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Nicole conducts fieldwork on mole-rat impacts on vegetation in Darling, Western Cape

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Nicole and former colleague, Dr Kevin Wilcox, collect plant species composition data at Konza Prairie Biological Station, Kansas, USA

In October 2014, the Grasslands-Wetland-Forest Node in Pietermaritzburg added post-doctoral researcher Nicole Hagenah to their team.

Nicole’s role at SAEON is to explore climate change impacts on plant species and communities in the Maloti-Drakensberg mountains. More specifically, she will:

  • Define the distribution of individual plant species and plant communities in the Drakensberg in relation to climate and physical environment.
  • Identify species and community thresholds linked with environmental gradients.
  • Project potential climate change in relation to the altitudinal gradient, using currently available climate change models to then determine the expected altitudinal and spatial displacement of individual species to these projected changes in climate regimes.
  • Determine whether the current plant communities will persist, whether new communities will emerge, and whether plant diversity patterns will be affected as a result of climate change.

A perfect match

"When I saw this position advertised I felt it was a perfect match with my research interest and expertise and with what I was looking for in my future career,” Nicole says. "What I like most about this project is that I can combine my love for the Drakensberg with my scientific interest in global climate change effects on plant communities in a biome that I have never worked in before.”

"Another advantage of this project is the fact that I will mostly be working with a pre-existing database. As a result, I am not going to spend too much time away from home collecting data in the field, which can be challenging when you have a young family. At the same time, it allows me to fully concentrate on publishing papers. I also really like the prospect of becoming proficient in the statistical program R, the free online Geographic Information System (GIS) program QGIS and the species distribution modelling program MaxEnt, which I will be using for my work.

"Finally, at SAEON I have the opportunity to interact and collaborate not only with a large number of well-established scientists within the organisation, but also with scientists from other institutions such as government departments, industrial partners and NGOs.”

Research interests

Nicole is originally from Germany and did her undergraduate studies and MSc at the University of Hannover. At the time, her main interests were Behavioural Ecology and Tropical Ecology.

For her MSc, she conducted fieldwork in Madagascar for five months, studying the ecology and social behaviour of nocturnal primates. After that, she did her PhD through Wageningen University (the Netherlands), exploring the ecological importance of the interactions of small and large herbivores in savanna grasslands.

Nicole conducted the fieldwork for her PhD in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park between 2002 and 2004. "I instantly fell in love with South Africa and its amazing wildlife,” she reminisces.

After finishing her PhD, she returned to South Africa to conduct a postdoctoral study at the University of Pretoria, investigating the effects that subterranean rodents have on plant communities in deserts and fynbos. Upon completion, Nicole did two postdoctoral studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and Yale University (Connecticut, USA).

The first project examined the role of fire and herbivory in South African and North American grasslands. The second project investigated how future climate change coupled with herbivory may alter the structure and function of grassland communities. "This is when I discovered that my true scientific passion lies in exploring the impact that global climate change may have on vegetation dynamics,” she explains.

In addition to her research projects, Nicole has been running the Nutrient Network Experiment (NutNet) at the Ukulinga Research Farm in Pietermaritzburg for the past five years. NutNet is a long-term international collaboration of researchers working on grassland community dynamics across 62 sites found on six continents.

* The Professional Development Programme of the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation aims to accelerate the development of scientists and research professionals in key research areas.

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