Conservation Genetics - Photographs supplied by Frank ZachosPhotographs supplied by Frank Zachos

What is Conservation Genetics?

Conservation Genetics aims to conserve natural patterns of genetic diversity and differentiation within and between animal populations, and the processes that sustain these patterns. South Africa hosts a large pool of biodiversity which provides exciting opportunities for research in Conservation Genetics and employment as a conservation scientist or manager. A number of focus areas in conservation genetics are in the spotlight during training and research in the Department of Genetics.

  • The study of genetic diversity is central to conservation and population genetics. In this field, we aim to determine levels of genetic diversity in natural and artificially managed populations and screen for signs of inbreeding.
  • The preservation of natural patterns of geographic genetic structure is an important goal of conservation strategies. We thus aim to study genetic connectivity between population fragments, the real boundaries of populations, and the wisdom of translocations between isolated population fragments or over long geographic distances.
  • Hybridisation between closely related species becomes a possibility when human actions bring together species that would not normally occur in the same area. We aim to find molecular markers and statistical approaches to detect hybrids, and develop management guidelines for hybrid populations.
  • In recent times, the practical implications of all the above processes has become an important focus area. We thus aim to predict the practical effects on fitness and adaptability, when populations lose genetic diversity or gene flow occurs between populations or species that are normally not able to interbreed.
  • In addition to the above focus areas, we have projects in the fields of wildlife forensics, characterization of local breeds of farm animals and novel methods for sample collection. Some of the processes described above are also studied in plant populations.

Species that are currently studied include wildebeest (black and blue), springbok, giraffe, vervet monkeys, mopane caterpillars, mopane trees and kudu, and with a strong growth area involving the use of zebrafish as a model organism for the processes described above.

The Conservation Genetics Team

Research in Conservation Genetics is conducted by Prof JP Grobler, Hesmari Bindeman, Dr Riël Coetzer and Thabang Madisha, together with a number of close collaborators and affiliated members of staff. Conservation Geneticists formally affiliated with the Department of Genetics are Prof Antoinette Kotzé and Prof Desiré Dalton from the National Zoological Gardens (a SANBI facility); Prof Trudy Turner from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the USA; and Prof. Frank Zachos from the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria.

The following postgraduate students are currently conducting research in the field of conservation genetics:

  • Humbu Mafumo, working on DNA-based census techniques for African Elephant.
  • Khanye Nxumalo, who is working on the genetic characterization of indigenous cattle breeds (based at the ARC).
  • Zelda Du Toit, who is studying the phylogeography of pangolins.
  • Pumeza Cingo, working on genetic and immunological diversity of Old World Vultures in South Africa (based at the National Zoological Garden).
  • Rae Smith, studying the impact of translocations on the genetic diversity and fitness of Cape mountain zebra (based at the National Zoological Garden). 
  • Elmarie Blom, working on the association between genetic diversity and adaptability in zebrafish.
  • Ruan Jacobs, who is studying genetic diversity in adaptive genes across a diverse landscape, in kudu.
  • Carlo Greyling, investigating the genetic status of giraffe in South Africa, in a follow-up to the study just completed by Marieka Van Niekerk.
  • Jodea Van der Merwe, investigating genealogy and genetic diversity in four white rhino populations.
  • Gerhard Van Bosch, working on genetic diversity and differentiation in southern African freshwater mussel populations.
2019 Honours students
  • Rieze Straeuli and Letshego Mosese, who are using two different gene regions to track the origin of invasive crayfish found in the Free State Province.
  • Mart-Marie Myburg and Hannah Janse van Vuuren, will assess the level of adaptive genetic diversity within Rhabdomys sp. distributed across different South African habitat types.
  • Gerhard Reinecke and Gershon Mckenzie, working on performance-related traits in different horse breeds, with a special focus on gait.
Recently completed MSc and PhD projects
  • Marieka Van Niekerk completed her MSc on genetic status of giraffe from Central South Africa (early 2019).
  • Anri Van Wyk completed her PhD on hybridization involving a range of Southern African game species (2019).
  • Nadia Breytenbach was awarded her MSc for research on diversity in performance-related genes in horses (2018).
  • Lucy Kemp completed her PhD on the phylogeography of ground hornbill (2017).
  • Christiaan Labuschagne obtained his PhD on the application of next-generation techniques in conservation genetics, focussing on rhinos and penguins (2016).
  • Bongo Mdyogolo was awarded her MSc for work on patterns of genetic diversity in South African catfish populations (2015).
  • Woogeng Ngundu completed his PhD on the population genetics of edible land snails in Cameroon (2015).
  • Lené Pienaar obtained her MSc on genetic diversity in the Afrikaner cattle breed (2014).


Elfrieda Lötter: Marketing Manager
T: +27 51 401 2531

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