Free Clean-Up Services Provided by Scavengers Vital for Ecosystem Health – UKZN Researcher
Research by doctoral graduate Dr Morgan Pfeiffer of the United States on aspects of the ecology and conservation of the Cape Vulture in communal farmland in the Eastern Cape is already contributing to management of these birds and their habitats through science-based solutions.
Fascinated by human-wildlife interactions, Pfeiffer relished the opportunity to investigate how an endangered species reacts to human-modified land uses over a large scale.
‘I find scavenging ecology interesting as this is an ecosystem service we are just starting to understand,’ added Pfeiffer. ‘The free cleanup services scavengers provide has implications for human health and safety, as well as ecosystem health.’
Pfeiffer examined communities’ perceptions of the vultures as well as livestock management trends that likely influence the abundance of carrion and the persistence of the vulture on communal farmland. Through the placement of GPS transmitters on vultures, she investigated the birds’ movements, finding that the study sub-population had the smallest home range, and preferred communal over commercial farmland.
A growing concern for these endangered birds is the wind energy development, with collisions between birds and wind turbines a likely negative outcome. Pfeiffer used GPS transmitters to identify areas of conflict between wind energy development and the distribution of the Cape Vulture.
She also used a long-term dataset to identify ideal cliff characteristics and density requirements for breeding colonies, and highlighted a persistent problem in the form of the ingestion of microtrash by nesting and adult Cape Vultures.
Pfeiffer’s research has filled a geographical gap in the study of this species and has created awareness in these communal farmland areas. The community of Colleywobbles, near the largest known Cape Vulture breeding colony in the Eastern Cape, has started a grassroots effort to increase the colony’s protection status from an Important Bird Area to a formal Protected Area.
In addition, Pfeiffer’s contributions are being used by BirdLife South Africa in its Best Management Guidelines for Cape Vultures and Wind Farms.
Pfeiffer is from the USA, where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Pennsylvania State University. She enrolled for her masters at UKZN in 2012, which was converted to a PhD.
She is now a postdoctoral researcher with the National Wildlife Research Center (Aviation Safety Division) which is part of the United States Department of Agriculture, where she is using a national bird strike database to investigate the role of landscape structure on bird strikes at civil airports. The results will include habitat management recommendations to reduce the number of bird strikes on aircraft. Pfeiffer is enjoying the applied research aspect and the opportunity to use her ornithological skills to save human lives.
Pfeiffer acknowledged her supervisors Professor Colleen Downs and Dr Jan Venter for their guidance and confidence in her. She expressed gratitude to her family and friends for their support of her decision to live abroad for four years, and thanked those who assisted with her fieldwork and the study, and who made South Africa a second home.
Pfeiffer gave special thanks to her partner, Martyn Drabik-Hamshare, whom she met in South Africa, for his consistent support.