Mammalian Cognition Research Group at the UFS Qwaqwa Campus

This new research group, led by Dr Aliza le Roux, seeks to understand the ways in which the minds of wild mammals work. Currently, there are two main branches of our research – one focusing on the causes and consequences of fatherhood in bat-eared foxes, and the second centred on the effect of fear on samango monkey cognition. The Mammalian Cognition Research Group (MCRG) tries to answer questions in the field of cognitive ecology, relating cognitive development to the physiology, evolutionary history, and ecology of carnivores and primates.

If you’re interested in joining us as a postgraduate student, contact
Dr Le Roux

Below, you can find more information on the members of the MCRG.

Dr Aliza le Roux, Senior Lecturer
Principal investigator

I have been studying wild mammals since the late ‘90s at various field sites across Africa. While my interests initially lay in the evolution of acoustic communication, I have recently become more intrigued by the workings of mammalian minds. This curiosity led me to conduct postdoctoral research at the University of Michigan’s Gelada Research Group and, finally, to start up a new research group focused on cognitive ecology in my home country. I am still continuing to focus on monkeys – in particular, I’m supervising research on the effects that fear may have on samango monkey (Cercopithecus albogularis erythrarchus) cognition. When it comes to carnivores, I am particularly interested in the consequences of bat-eared foxes’ (Otocyon megalotis) unusually extensive levels of paternal care. Why would males spend so much time caring for their offspring? Does this really help the stressed females cope? Do the youngsters learn different things from their mothers and fathers? How does paternal care affect their development in general? Currently, my two primary field sites are in Hogsback, Eastern Cape, and the Kuruman River Reserve in the Northern Cape. I am mentoring several postgraduate students seeking to answer these questions. Some undergraduate students at the UFS’s beautiful Qwaqwa Campus have also joined my research group. My twitter handle is @alizalR, or you can find me on ResearchGateLinked-inor

Description:  Keywords: Aliza le Roux

Dr Katarzyna Nowak, Postdoctoral research fellow
Project: Cognition and fear in samango monkeys

My research has focused on the behaviour of threatened species and how it affects their capacity for persistence in human-dominated landscapes. I have studied Zanzibar red colobus monkeys in unprotected coral rag and mangrove forests in the Zanzibar archipelago, and forest-dwelling savanna elephants in the increasingly isolated Udzungwa Mountains of southern Tanzania. I am a member of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group and am interested in primate cognition and behavioural flexibility, primate-predator interactions, and mitigation of human-wildlife conflicts. I am currently developing a project on risk, fear, and cognition in samango monkeys in the Soutpansberg Mountains, while co-editing a book about primates in flooded habitats.

Description:  Keywords: Kate Nowak

Ruan de Bruin, PhD candidate
Project: The endocrinology of fatherhood in bat-eared foxes

I am an enthusiastic young researcher who has enjoyed the privilege of attempting to satisfy my curious mind at some of the leading institutions for scientific research.  My specific field of interest ranges from disease ecology to all aspects of reproduction, with a special interest in mammals. I have successfully completed an honours and master's degree at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, focusing on the colony dynamics of the Natal mole-rat (Fukomys anselli) and various aspects of reproductive physiology of the Southern African spiny mouse (Acomys spinosissimus) respectively. As part of my MSc thesis, I developed and validated a non-invasive technique to monitor reproductive hormones in both male and female spiny mice using faecal matter. I have also published my work in international journals, with various manuscripts currently under review for publication. I am currently registered at the University of the Free State as a PhD candidate and as part of my thesis, I am investigating reproductive behaviour in the bat-eared fox, with particular focus on the male and the effect of raising the pups. This is done by monitoring stress hormones through non-invasive techniques, using faecal matter and protocol already validated for the species. Generally, maternal investment is the primary source of care for the young, but as evident in bat-eared foxes, paternal care of young, although rare, does exist. By the end of my PhD, I hope to have shed some light on this out of the ordinary phenomenon in mammals, with my research and findings serving as a foundation for future researchers to investigate similar patterns that may be found in other mammalian species.

Description:  Keywords: Ruan de Bruin

Keafon Jumbam, PhD candidate.
I completed my undergraduate studies and honours degree at Walter Sisulu University. For my honours project, I investigated the physiological responses to temperature changes of two spider species on Marion Island. I got a distinction for my research and published my findings in Polar Biology. I completed my MSc degree at Stellenbosch University, where I looked at the physiological responses of the invasive Argentine ant to the temperature traits: Critical thermal limits and lethal temperatures. I obtained my degree with distinction and published my findings in the Journal of Insect Physiology and Functional Ecology.

For my PhD studies, I’m thrilled to be shifting gear to a new and exciting world of cognitive research. My studies are aimed at investigating the behavioural ecology and endocrinology of maternal care in bat-eared foxes. Interestingly, their diet consists largely of insects and an in-depth assessment of how this nutrient-poor diet impacts on maternal stress levels is still lacking. My entomological skills will come in handy in exploring the intricacies of their diet content, and addressing this gap in our knowledge of these mammals.

PJ Jacobs, MSc student.
My name is Paul Juan Jacobs, but people just call me PJ. I am a keen investigator of the physiology and behaviour of animals regarding their reproductive success and their cognitive abilities, mainly focused on learning. My honours research focused on variables associated with measuring standard metabolism and whether repeated measurements influence this measurement. The goal of my master's degree in the Mammalian Cognition Research Group, is to investigate the puzzle-solving ability between captive and wild bat-eared foxes, and relating this to explorative diversity and personality. Few studies have investigated cognitive abilities, apart from dogs. Furthermore, few cognitive studies are available for comparisons between wild and captive individuals. I am also going to investigate social learning in the bat-eared fox by determining food preferences of pups as influenced by distinct preferences in their parents. I am hard working and passionate and believe that the bat-eared fox can give us a lot of insight on parental care and social learning.

Nthabiseng Mathibane, Honours student.
My honours research is on samango monkeys’ neophobic and neophilic behaviour towards novel objects in the afro-montane forests of Hogsback in the Eastern Cape. We select trees in the forest and gardens, based on the monkeys’ known routes, and we present the objects to the monkeys at different heights (higher = safer, lower = riskier). I then film the monkeys’ interactions with these objects, to see if risk affects animals’ reactions to new things. I have used toys such as Barbie dolls, toy cars, balls, a traffic cone, and so forth, to test variety in shape and colour. The samango monkey troops have been studied for years by Dr Kirsten Wimberger (UCT), and I was supervised in the field by Dr Katarzyna Nowak. My future plans are to hopefully continue in behavioural ecology, focused on aardvarks.

Thando Cebekhulu, Honours student.
The research for my honours project will investigate the effect of roads on bat-eared fox mortality. We are trying to identify ways of reducing this form of human-wildlife conflict, together with the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Undergraduate students:

Thabiso Nkohli (left) and Motlatsi Motloung (right)
Projects: Comparative research on canid cognition.

These undergraduate students are assisting in cognitive research at Johannesburg and Pretoria Zoos, where they have been conducting foraging experiments to determine differences in canid species’ spatial cognition. They have already made a big impact on the MCRG’s success, and we hope as they continue to grow in their research careers, that they will remain active participants in ecological research projects.

Description:  Keywords: Motloung_Nkohli

Past students:

Helene Botha, Honours student
Project: Validating a non-invasive assay of stress hormones in bat-eared foxes.

I’m a determined, hardworking nature lover always in search of something new to learn. I want to make the most of all the opportunities I get, and I believe positivity is the key to sticking through and making the most with what you have, where you are. My motto in life is 'hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard'.
I’m currently a student in BSc Zoology (Hons) at the UFS. My year project is on validating a non-invasive technique to test stress hormones in bat-eared foxes. By validating the technique, more research will be possible on bat-eared foxes as well as stress in captive and free-living environments. The research for the project is done in collaboration with the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria, Drs Andre Ganswindt, Adrian Tordiffe, and Aliza le Roux.

Description:  Keywords: Helene Botha

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