Banana Bat Takes Centre Stage in PhD Thesis
Newly-capped PhD graduand, Dr Samantha Naidoo, has always been fascinated by the remarkable life that has evolved on earth and this led to her doctorate in Biology, focusing on the the effect of wastewater treatment works on the foraging ecology, haematology, detoxification organs and reproduction in an urban adapter – the Banana Bat (Neoromicia nana).
‘Studying biology has helped me to understand the natural world we live in, and the processes that govern it,’ said Naidoo. ‘To a biologist, there are interesting traits to study in every organism. My special interest in bats, however, was sparked during my first field encounter with them. In particular, I was interested in the physiology of bats and their capacity to cope with environmental stress.’
Naidoo explained that despite all the myth and bad press that surrounds bats, they play a vital role in providing ecosystem services and also exhibit unique adaptations such as true flight and echolocation which make them ideal models for scientific study.
Naidoo’s research was multidisciplinary and produced interesting findings at various levels. ‘Wastewater treatment works (WWTWs) provide profitable foraging areas for insectivorous bats because of particularly high abundances of pollution-tolerant insect prey,’ she said. ‘The bats feeding on these insects, however, may also accumulate pollutants in their tissues. Wastewater pollutants are not only affecting the ecology and foraging behaviour of the species but are also causing sub-lethal physiological damage, which includes high DNA damage, whole organ effects, and reproductive impacts.
‘My research results suggest the potential for serious long-term health risks, negative fitness implications and ultimately, population effects for these top predators,’ said Naidoo. ‘These are worrying results, as anthropogenic pollution sources such as WWTWs, are ubiquitous within the urban landscape.’
Naidoo said various organisms, including humans, may be exposed to these pollutants. She hopes her research will highlight the consequences of urbanisation and its associated anthropogenic pollution on ecosystems and the environment.
‘Samantha’s research has resulted in three publications in high-impact journals, with a fourth manuscript currently under review,’ said her supervisor, Professor Corrie Schoeman of UKZN’s School of Life Sciences. ‘One of the thesis examiners predicted that these papers would have a major impact in the field of environmental health and toxicology for wildlife and be cited for decades.
‘I rank Samantha in the top 2% of undergraduate and postgraduate students that I have taught and advised,’ said Schoeman. ‘She has become an expert in an impressive number of field and laboratory skills, and is one of the few scientists who enjoys and excels applying multi-disciplinary approaches to solve research questions.
‘Most importantly, she has incredible passion, and routinely demonstrated the perseverance and initiative needed in the field and in the lab to succeed,’ said Schoeman. ‘I predict that Samantha will have an exceptionally successful career as a Biologist.’
Co-supervisor, Dr Dalene Vosloo, agreed. ‘All three of Samantha’s examiners were complimentary about her study and recommended her thesis be accepted without change which is a further indication of her passion for and dedication towards her research.’
Naidoo thanked both Schoeman and Vosloo. ‘They provided invaluable input and guidance during my postgraduate career,’ she said. ‘They equipped me with all the necessary skills to succeed in my future career, and I feel privileged to have been mentored by them.’ Naidoo also thanked her parents for their love and constant support during her studies.
Naidoo chose to study at UKZN as the School of Life Sciences offered modules and research topics that specifically cater for her interests spanning biochemistry to cellular, organismal, population and community ecology. ‘During my time at UKZN, I have interacted with great thinkers and these interactions inspired me to answer interesting and topical research questions,’ said Naidoo.
‘I was able to answer these questions using the excellent facilities and equipment available to me at the University.’ Naidoo also enjoyed the chance to teach and communicate her knowledge to others, to give public talks and to present her research at local and international conferences.
Naidoo has recently started a joint postdoctoral Fellowship under the supervision of Professor Andrew McKechnie at the University of Pretoria, and Professor Antoinette Kotze at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa. Her postdoctoral research will focus on thermal tolerance and phenotypic flexibility in bats, investigating their capacity to cope with heat stress.
In her spare time, Naidoo enjoys art and music – ‘which has probably helped in developing my scientific thinking,’ she said. ‘Contrary to the popular notion that science is a rigid discipline, it is by far one of the most creative and beautiful subjects, and is interlinked with all aspects of life.’