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UKZN’s Marine Biologists Turn Attention to Global Change

November 30, 2016

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) is the only university in the country to offer a BSc degree programme in Marine Biology, and has blazed a trail in its multidisciplinary marine research and training equipping young researchers to tackle threats facing South Africa’s marine systems. At the upcoming 3rd biennial national Conference on Global Change, a number of researchers from the discipline will feature their research in the context of understanding key grand challenges facing our changing planet.

Research presented will include investigations of how coral, a marine fauna extremely vulnerable to the  effects of global change due to their tolerance only for very narrow ranges of temperature, are persisting in intertidal pools in KwaZulu-Natal despite adverse conditions, which 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 play a number of ecological and economical functions including the cycling of nutrients, enhancing coastal production, functioning as nursery and breeding sites for aquatic organisms, and as sources of food and sites for recreation and tourism.

Recent research on estuaries has included 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. According to researchers, estuarine habitats have naturally high variable natural conditions, which are being intensified by human activities, leading to unpredictable, extreme disturbances.

Indicators of ecosystem health like zooplankton have been under study, and researchers have also investigated the fauna living in disturbed environments like Durban Bay, which, before the construction of a harbor, 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 minimize the damage these threats could result in.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 is the foundation of encouraging production of new knowledge and information in South Africa to face key grand challenges, including understanding a changing planet, reducing the human footprint, adapting the way we live, and innovation for sustainability.

Christine Cuénod

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