20 April 2016 Volume :4 Issue :19

Crowned Eagle ‘Champion’ Awarded PhD

Crowned Eagle ‘Champion’ Awarded PhD
Dr Shane McPherson of New Zealand earned a PhD for work done on the urban ecology of the Crowned Eagle.

Self-confessed ‘raptorphile’ and newly-capped New Zealander, Dr Shane McPherson, travelled to South Africa in 2011 to search for a raptor research study idea. 

‘The options were rather limited in New Zealand with just five species,’ he joked.   The foundations of his PhD project were proposed by his co-supervisor Dr Mark Brown.  Guided by Terrestrial Vertebrate Biologist, Professor Colleen Downs, he soon found himself with a very enthusiastic and supportive research group.

McPherson’s doctoral thesis was titled: “The Urban Ecology of the Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa”.

‘Generally urbanisation has negative effects on biodiversity,’ explained Downs. ‘Shane’s research is the first detailed work on a large predatory raptor and a threatened species persisting in an urban environment.  He has made important findings and made management recommendations for their conservation.’ 

Downs said McPherson had used novel techniques to determine the diet of the eagles and show that they rarely took domestic prey - the study revealed that pets comprised less than 1% of their diet.  ‘This is a result very useful for the advocacy and public perceptions of the Crowned Eagle,’ she said. 

He also demonstrated how dependent the Crowned Eagles were on remaining forest patches and that they were particularly vulnerable to human impacts and land transformation. 

‘Few others could have done his work,’ said Downs. ‘He regularly had to climb trees 30m high or more with a helmet and a backpack to prevent an eagle attacking him with its talons.’ 

In his search for eagle nests McPherson discovered many more than had been predicted, with nests being distributed about every 2.5 km along river systems throughout eThekwini.  A GPS tracking study of these territorial adults revealed the importance of indigenous forests within this landscape - natural habitats protected by the eThekwini Municipality’s Durban Metropolitan Open Space System. 

McPherson has given more than 30 presentations on his work and involved the public in Crowned Eagle conservation. 

‘Shane was never going to do a PhD but I encouraged - or rather, coerced - him so I think we are both very chuffed it has happened,’ said Downs. 

Comments from McPherson’s examiners included ‘excellent’, ‘a sterling thesis’ and one that displayed ‘all the hallmarks of a high-quality ecologist’.  The thesis would ‘significantly influence African raptor conservation especially with respect to little known African forest raptors.’ 

‘During my time at UKZN I have thoroughly enjoyed the South Africa wildlife and landscapes,’ said McPherson. ‘I hope to continue to contribute to wildlife conservation and research in this spectacular country.’

Sally Frost

Pic:Minke Witteveen


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