Whiff of Rhino Dung Puts Researcher on PhD Trail
Innovative research – which made international headlines - on how white rhinoceroses utilise olfactory communication, transmitting key information via the odours of their dung, secured Dr Courtney Marneweck a PhD in Ecological Sciences.
Details of her research were featured by National Geographic news, Nature, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Los Angeles Times, Spiegel Online, Live Science and Digital Journal.
Marneweck’s study, supervised by Dr Adrian Shrader, revealed that rhino dung contains clues for others to sniff out about the individual’s age, sex, whether a female is in a fertile oestrus stage or not, and whether a male has a territory or not. Rhinos are known to make consistent use of common areas, known as middens, thereby leaving the information for other rhinos to sniff out.
This is the first study confirming olfactory communication in rhinos and involved the tracking of 200 rhino and the sampling of their droppings to ascertain chemical composition, followed by the planting of synthetic dung mimicking the chemical clues in the original to assess the responses of rhinos to the planted messages. Marneweck first published her results in Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, a leading international journal.
‘The results show the potential to manipulate behaviour using odours,’ explained Marneweck. ‘This could be applied to increasing the success of captive breeding, increasing the success of translocations and potentially keeping animals away from areas of high conflict.’
The technique developed can be extended to apply to any olfactory species.
Marneweck is originally from England where she completed her undergraduate and Honours degrees in Zoology at Liverpool’s John Moores University. She proceeded to UKZN to undertake her MSc on the topic of rhino olfactory communication, having always been interested in animal behaviour, specifically African mammals.
She is continuing with her research, preparing chapters of her thesis for publication in international peer-reviewed journals. She is also setting up a research project investigating olfactory communication in other mammal species and the potential effect that climate change will have on their ability to interpret olfactory signals under increased global temperatures.
Marneweck acknowledged her husband for his support of her scientific endeavours, encouraging her when she doubted her ability to deal with the chemistry involved in olfactory communication. She also gave credit to her mother for working tirelessly to make sure that she had the opportunities to pursue her dreams.