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SAEON research fellow achieves NRF Prestige rating


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Gareth's current research on herbivores is focused on Lowveld ecosystems and aims to understand how different groups of animals respond to drought 

Dr Gareth Hempson was recently awarded a P Rating from the National Research Foundation (NRF).

The P stands for “Prestige” and this rating is rarely obtained within the South African scientific community.

It is only awarded to researchers considered likely to become future international leaders in their respective fields, on the basis of exceptional potential demonstrated in research performance and output during doctoral and/or early postdoctoral careers.

Gareth joined the SAEON Ndlovu Node in October 2016, which he says was a happy return to his Lowveld roots after many years out in the big wide world. His first academic stop was in Cape Town, a far-off country where he tried his utmost to focus his University of Cape Town (UCT) studies on trees, grasses, fire and plant defences (while saving majestic Fynbos for the weekends).

After a stint at a research station in Costa Rica, he headed to Scotland to join the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Membership was too expensive, so he instead embarked on a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, studying goat population dynamics in the Richtersveld (he wasn’t prepared to be away from Africa for too long).

After three years of weighing 500 goats every three months he’s certain that despite the massive unpredictability in when food would be available, he can make predictions about how the population would grow – there and elsewhere. At least in theory.

Predicting what Africa’s animal populations would have looked like 1 000 years ago

Emboldened, Gareth returned to Cape Town (via a field lecturing spell in his beloved Kruger Park savannas) for a postdoc with Prof. William Bond. There he set about predicting what Africa’s animal populations would have looked like 1 000 years ago – so now he can tell you, for example, how many buffalo there once were in Africa, and where they were. Roughly. Pretty useful nonetheless, as it gives us a much more complete picture of the important components shaping the ecology of different ecosystems.

Along the way he somehow also got really interested in grasses, and so took the train to Joburg to take up a postdoc with Prof. Sally Archibald at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). Focusing on how grasses respond to being heavily grazed, it turned out to be essential to spend time in the Serengeti, and also to travel widely around South Africa, to see for himself what happens as soil and rainfall conditions change. You’ve heard of overgrazing, but undergrazing can be as much of a problem – ergo, lawnmowers.

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Gareth’s continuing grass research has global and local relevance

And now, SAEON…

Gareth wears two hats at present – one made of herbivore hide (not really), and the other made of grass. His current research on herbivores is focused on Lowveld ecosystems and aims to understand how different groups of animals respond to drought. The goal is to be able to better manage herbivore populations through droughts in future, recognising that some managers will want to maximise total animal survival, some will prioritise cattle or buffalo, and others might place most value on conserving a diversity of species.

Gareth’s continuing grass research is steadily gaining a global scope and is underpinned by recognising and surveying the specific adaptations or traits of grasses that allow them to survive fire or grazing in all sorts of different ways, across the world’s grasslands. This has global and local relevance – what were the major factors shaping the evolution of different grassy ecosystems, how are grass communities going to respond to climate change while almost only being grazed by cattle, and how vulnerable are different parts of the world to grass invasions, and by which grasses?!?!

SAEON’s P-rated researcher can get a bit carried away by all this. Fortunately, he stays grounded by having to return home to a reed shack in the bush every day, where three cats extol the virtues of a more sedate pace of life.

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