#04 2022

New PDP postdoctoral fellow strengthens savanna ecology research capacity in a ‘Mega’ way

By Dr Helga van Coller, PDP Postdoctoral Fellow*, Ndlovu Node, NRF-SAEON

Dr Helga van Coller’s research interest has been exploring the ecology of herbaceous communities in nutrient hotspots of semi-arid African savannas. Her key focus has been to determine the effects of major savanna drivers (i.e. herbivory, fire and climate) on forb-grass dynamics. Her research aims to contribute to a better understanding of the ecosystem services and functions that forbs (non-graminoid herbaceous vascular plants) provide, as well as their ecology, since this component of herbaceous layers is poorly represented in savanna research worldwide. 

Having completed her under- and postgraduate studies, and a previous postdoctoral fellowship at North-West University on the community ecology of herbaceous layers in nutrient-rich sodic savannas, she has considerable experience working in the savannas of the South African lowveld, particularly the Kruger National Park and adjacent rangelands.

Helga is currently a DSI-NRF Professional Development Programme* (PDP) postdoctoral fellow at the Ndlovu Node under the mentorship of Dr Dave Thompson. She splits her time between the lowveld and North-West University, Potchefstroom Campus, where she is integrated into the Forb Ecology Research Group (FERG) under Prof Frances Siebert. Helga’s postdoctoral research aims to answer the overarching question: How do megacarcasses – the carcasses of megaherbivores – influence terrestrial ecosystem processes?

The carcasses of megaherbivores, such as the African elephant, likely have large ecological impacts on their surroundings (Photo: Cathy Greaver)

International collaboration 

Helga’s research will aid in understanding the effects of megacarcasses on plant productivity and forage quality through surveying, analysing and comparing vegetation dynamics across megacarcass sites of different ages. Her postdoctoral research falls under a larger research programme titled ‘Ecological legacy effects of megacarcasses in African savanna ecosystems’, which will investigate the role of megacarcasses of the largest terrestrial animal, the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), in generating a spatially and temporally dynamic pattern of nutrient hotspots with legacy effects on the ecosystem.

Although Helga is funded through the NRF-PDP programme, the larger programme is funded by the United States National Science Foundation and is being completed in collaboration with scientists from SANParks, the University of California Santa Barbara, Utah State University and Marquette University in the USA, the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research and Delmar Media.

Helga has a particular interest in the herbaceous plant communities of savannas, particularly the flowering forbs and their response to disturbance (Photo: Nanette van Staden)

Recent field work in the Kruger National Park involved tracking down variously aged carcasses of dead elephants (Photo: Velly Ndlovu, SANParks Scientific Services)

Helga is eager to begin work on the project. She is anticipating interesting results in terms of the vegetation dynamics and ecology, particularly of the forb component, in response to a major disturbance in the system (i.e. a megacarcass), and how these changes will impact the productivity and biodiversity of the savannas of the Kruger National Park. Helga is excited to work closely with the project leader, co-investigators and collaborators to ensure the success of the project. She hopes to not only advance her scientific career through this postdoctoral fellowship, but also to enhance other skills pertaining to, among others, project management, science engagement and networking.

Outside of SAEON, Helga enjoys the outdoors, spending time and braaiing with friends and family, visiting the Kruger National Park, jogging, cooking, baking, dancing, playing guitar and singing, pencil sketching and painting with acrylic paint.

Outside of science, Helga finds time to relax by pursuing more creative activities (Photo: Helga van Coller)

Link to Helga’s publications: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Helga_Van_Coller2

* The Professional Development Programme of the Department of Science and Innovation and the National Research Foundation aims to accelerate the development of scientists and research professionals in key research areas.