Representatives of the Pollination Research Laboratory in the School of Life Sciences attended the South African Association of Botanists 2020 conference at the University of the Free State in QwaQwa, where two members received awards for their presentations.
The conference, which is South Africa’s premier annual botanical event, attracted approximately 250 local and international researchers from around 10 countries. The presentations addressed a diverse range of topics, including plant biotechnology; ecology; ethnobotany; plant-animal interactions; plant physiology; conservation biology; plant evolutionary ecology; invasion biology; and plant systematics and taxonomy.
Ms Ruth Cozien received the prize for the best oral presentation by a PhD candidate for her address on the reproduction of the Drakensberg River Lily. Masters candidate Ms Jamie-Lee Anderson was awarded the prize for best oral presentation by an honours student for her presentation on the significance of visual and olfactory cues in pollination of the “Hidden flower” by lizards.
Cozien’s PhD research focuses on the reproductive ecology of the “Crimson flag” flower of the Drakensberg. Known as a type of “showy selfer”, the flower is an example of the much-debated evolutionary paradox first identified by Charles Darwin wherein many flower species with the most extreme adaptations to attract pollinators do not actually require pollinators.
‘My study on the pollination ecology of this species has helped explain how pollinators can still be very important drivers of evolution in flower species for which they may appear superfluous,’ said Cozien.
Anderson’s Honours research dealt with some functional aspects of the recently discovered lizard pollination system, a first for the African continent. She evaluated the importance of visual and olfactory cues for attracting lizard pollinators to better understand how flower colour and scent are used by lizards to locate floral nectar sources.
Cozien and Anderson’s research aligns closely with the aims of the Pollination Research Lab and UKZN’s Centre for Functional Biodiversity. Members of the Lab and the Centre are passionate about studying how plant-animal interactions, and specifically pollination interactions, shape the evolution of the plants and animals involved. They investigate the variability of floral colour, shape, scent, and nectar properties, and conduct phylogenetic studies, as well as studies on pollinator perception and preferences.
Making the most of the Pietermaritzburg campus’ proximity to global biodiversity hotspots, researchers in these groups work on fascinating natural systems and provide information on plant-animal interactions that is critical for the conservation of the species involved and the ecosystems they are part of. They also utilise South Africa’s biodiversity advantage to provide insight into important evolutionary questions.
Thanks to an Innovation Post-Doctoral grant and a masters bursary, respectively from the National Research Foundation, in 2020, Cozien and Anderson will continue to explore novel and as yet little understood ecological interactions that they say make South Africa one of the most exciting living laboratories on the planet. Cozien will continue research into reptile pollination in South Africa, while Anderson will investigate the chemical ecology of seed dispersal by dung beetles.
Words: Christine Cuénod