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Professor M Justin O'Riain

O'Riain 2nd from left with studentsBehavioural ecology, Sociality, Evolution, Mammals, Human-wildlife conflict, Conservation, Wildlife management 
Phone: 021 6503645 






Current and future research

My two main research fields over the next six years will be Behavioural Ecology and Conservation Biology.   Within these two fields I will continue my long term work on the proximate and ultimate causes of sociality in mammals while including a new research emphasis on the importance of behavioural studies in deriving sustainable solutions to mammal species in conflict with humans in southern Africa.   In essence I believe that behavioural ecologists should design studies not only to test discipline specific hypotheses but also to provide additional information for protection and management of their study organisms and habitats.


This in essence is the approach I have adopted since obtaining academic tenure and it has proven to be an exceptionally good vehicle for training postgraduate students while ensuring social relevance of the work undertaken.  Furthermore by studying natural systems that are being impacted by human activities one can design studies that include anthropogenic impacts as treatments and thus couch the research within a quasi- experimental design (e.g., van Doorn et al 2009, Hoffman and O’Riain 2010 and Kaplan et al. 2011). In the process of realising these objectives it has been essential to forge links with local, provincial and government bodies and assist with the shaping of management plans, protocols and policy.  This constitutes an important component of academic life (i.e., social responsiveness) and is an essential part of making science ‘relevant’ in a developing country with established social challenges. 

Lastly it is my long term goal to use the data from multiple studies on individual species in different regions of southern Africa to allow for a meta-study on the effects of land use type on wildlife biodiversity, relative abundance and human-wildlife conflict in Southern Africa.  A major problem in applying traditional behavioural ecology to landscape-level ecological problems is that ecologists and behaviourists work at very different spatial scales. Most studies on threats to and the loss of biodiversity rely on species distributional data and abundance estimates across a spectrum of different habitat types.  However it is only by examining such patterns at a broader scale that we can begin to disentangle the effects of global and local effects on animal communities.  I thus propose to compare terrestrial mammal communities using standardised methods across all study sites in different regions of southern Africa.  In all instances I will be comparing the presence/absence and relative abundance of species in relation to land use type, topography, climate, management practices and conservation policies. Such a landscape-conscious behavioural undertaking would not only establish more firmly the link between behaviour and ecological systems, but also catalyze the study of basic biological phenomena such as dispersal of interest to behaviourists and ecologists alike.

Using the above conceptual approach I have the planned the following research for the next six years:

 1) Behavioural and spatial ecology of baboons within and outside of commercial pine plantations in Mpumalanga province, South Africa.  This study, commissioned by Forestry South Africa aims to understand how and why baboons damage trees in commercial plantations and aims to first understand the behavioural and spatial ecology of this primate in a human altered agricultural habitat and then to use these data to devise sustainable solutions to this important agricultural sector.  Two Masters, one Doctoral and one Post-doctoral student will be engaged in this research. 

2)  Behavioural and spatial ecology of solitary and social predators in the Western Cape. This represents an extension of my earlier research on factors promoting solitary and eusocial lifestyles in mole-rats and meerkats.  It is my intention to expand this work to include a range of solitary and social carnivores while simultaneously providing important information on the main predators currently locked in conflict with farmers throughout the Western Cape Province.  Farmers state that persistent high predation rates by jackal, caracal and leopard are threatening the sustainability of livestock husbandry in the region. This study will be performed in collaboration with an economist (Dr Beatrice Conradie), a social scientist (Professor Natalie Nicoli) and a predator ecologist (Dr Quinton Martins) and aims to quantify the behaviour, life history and spatial ecology of these predators across a range of broad scale habitat types (large Karoo, Cederberg and Overberg) to assess how these variables are impacted by human activities and in turn influence the spatial and temporal patterns of livestock losses.  These studies propose to model the presence/absence and relative frequency of conflict at the landscape level and by including both economic and social variables offer the first regional approach to a persistent challenge to biodiversity management and farming.  Furthermore we propose to investigate potential conflict mitigation methods within an entire farming district of 21 farms.  This will allow for experimental and control farms within a single region and thus a rigorous platform for a comparison of the relative success and costs associated with different conflict mitigation measures.

In addition to the above research projects I currently have the following on-going research projects:

1)  Matthew Lewis: Marine foraging in Peninsula chacma baboons (Papio ursinus): the effects on behavioural and isotope ecology (PhD).

2) Bentley Kaplan: Human-baboon conflict mitigation strategies in the Cape Peninsula, South Africa (PhD).

3) Alison Kock: The behavioural and spatial ecology of white sharks in False Bay, South Africa (PhD). (Co-supervised with Prof. Charlie Griffiths and Kaya Mauff)

4) Christy Bragg: The ecological role of Cape porcupines in selected ecosystems in South Africa (PhD).

5) Neil Midlane: The conservation status, population dynamics and spatial ecology of lions in the Kafue National Park (PhD). (Co-supervised with Dr Guy Balme and Dr Luke Hunter).

6) Spatial ecology of leopards in the Gouritz region: the leopard as an umbrella or ambassador species for conservation corridors (PhD). (Supervised by Dr Dan Parker, Rhodes University, I am cosupervisor).

7) Behavioural ecology of Cape clawless otters in the Cape Peninsula: a potential bio-indicator of water pollution throughout the Western Cape (PhD).

8)  Spatial and behavioural ecology of an apex predator in a fragmented, fire-driven ecosystem: a case study of the Cape leopard, Panthera pardus, in the Boland mountains, Western Cape, South Africa (Co-supervised by Dr Quniton Martins and Prof. Les Underhill).

9) Gareth Tate: Species diversity, richness and relative abundance of mammalian wildlife in general and damage causing animals in particular: commercial plantations versus natural and other human-modified habitats in Mpumalanga province (MSc)

10) Michelle Wcisel: The effects white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) presence has on the behaviour of Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus) at Geyser Rock (MSc).  (Co-supervised by Alta De VGos and Les Underhill).


Recent publications

Kotze, S.H. Van der Merwe, E.L. Ndou, R. O'Riain, M.J., Bennett, N.C. (2010). The colonic groove or furrow: a comparative morphological study in six species of African mole-rats (Rodentia, Bathyergidae). Journal of Morphology. 271(1): 50-60.

Kotze, S.H. Van Der Merwe, E.L. Bennett, N.C. O’Riain, M.J. (2010). The Comparative Anatomy of the abdominal Gastrointestinal Tract of Six species of African Mole-rats (Rodentia: Bathyergidae). 271(1): 50-60.  

De Vos, A. and O’Riain, M.J. (2010). Sharks shape the geometry of a selfish seal herd: experimental evidence from seal decoys. Biology Letters. 6(1), 48-50.

Wilson, W. O’Riain, M.J, Hetem R.S. Fuller A and Fick L.G. (2010).  Winter body temperature patterns in free-ranging Cape ground squirrel, Xerus inauris: no evidence for torpor. Journal of Comparative Physiology B. 180 (7): 1099-1110.

Hoffman T. and O’Riain, M.J. (2010). The Spatial Ecology of Chacma baboons (Papio ursinus) in a human modified environment.  International Journal of Primatology. 32:308–328

Kaplan, B. O’Riain, M.J., van Eeden, R. King, A. (2011).  A low-cost manipulation of food resources reduces spatial overlap between baboons (Papio ursinus) and humans in Conflict.  Int. J. Primatology. Volume 32, (6), 1397-1412.

van der Horst, G., Maree, L. Kotze S.H. O'Riain, M.J. (2011) Sperm structure and motility in the eusocial naked mole-rat, Heterocephalus glaber: a case of degenerative orthogenesis in the absence of sperm competition? BMC Evolutionary Biology. 11:351

Drewe, J. O’Riain, M.J. Beamish, E. Currie, H. (2012). A survey of infections transmissible between baboons and humans in Cape Town, South Africa" Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Hoffman T.S. and O’Riain, M.J. (in press).  Landscape requirements of a primate population in a human-dominated environment.  Frontiers in Zoology

Ravasi D., O’Riain, M.J. Adams, V.J. and Appleton, C. (in press).  A coprological survey of the protozoan and nematode parasites of free ranging chacma baboons (Papio ursinus) in South Africa.  S.A.J. Wildlife Research.

Hoffman T.S. and O’Riain, M.J. (in press). Monkey Management: Using spatial ecology to understand the extent and severity of human-baboon conflict in the Cape Peninsula, South Africa. Ecology and Society.

Hoffman T.S. and O’Riain, M.J. (in press). Ranging patterns of a chacma baboon population in the Cape Peninsula, South Africa, provide support for social theory despite extensive habitat heterogeneity. American J. Primatology.

T.C. Bray, P. Bloomer, M. J. O’Riain, and N.C. Bennett. (2012). How attractive is the girl next door? An assessment of spatial mate acquisition and paternity in the solitary Cape dune mole-rat, Bathyergus suillus.  PLos One.

De Vos, A and O’Riain, M.J. (in presss). Movement in a selfish seal herd: Do seals follow simple or complex movement rules? Behavioural Ecology.

Damiana F. Ravasi, M. Justin O'Riain1, Faezah Davids, Nicola Illing (in press).  Phylogenetic evidence that two distinct Trichuris genotypes infect both humans and non-human primates. PLos One.