A new generation of interdisciplinary scientists addressing critical environmental challenges

The emerging discipline of Statistical Ecology uses innovative analytical methods to tackle important questions around ecology, biology, and the environment and has been identified as a critical scarce skill in the Human Capital Development Strategy for the biodiversity sector in South Africa. Our goal at SEEC is to carry out research and provide training in this interdisciplinary field. Our group has a diverse array of expertise in quantitative ecology, theoretical statistics, ecosystem modelling, conservation science, climate risk, and structured decision support. Core members are based across several institutions, including the Department of Statistical Sciences (UCT), Biological Sciences (UCT), the University of Stellenbosch, the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the University of St Andrews, and the South African Environmental Observation Network. 


A/Prof. Res Altwegg (SEEC Director)

I’m a statistical ecologist with broad interest in population ecology, wildlife demography, species distributions and pretty much any other ecological field that yields itself to interesting quantitative approaches. I joined UCT’s Department of Statistical Sciences in 2013 where I head up the centre for Statistics in Ecology, Environment and Conservation.

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Email: res.altwegg@gmail.com

Prof. David Borchers

I am a statistician with around 30 years’ experience, specialising in the developing statistical methods to solve problems in ecology: mostly methods of estimating wildlife population abundance, distribution and population trajectories over time. My current research interests focus on various spatial sampling methods like spatial capture-recapture, particularly methods that use remote devices like camera traps and acoustic recorders to detect animals. I am currently Director of the Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling at the University of St Andrews.

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Email: dlb@st-andrews.ac.uk

Francisco 'Pachi' Cervantes (Postdoctoral Research Fellow)

Pachi holds a PhD in Statistical Ecology by the University of Cape Town. He is an ecologist focused on modelling animal movement and dynamics of wildlife populations. He is particularly interested in using quantitative methods to address human impacts on biodiversity. Currently, he occupies a joint position between the Centre for Statistics in Ecology, Environment and Conservation and the South African National Biodiversity Institute, where he works on the Biodiversity Data Pipeline for Wetlands and Waterbirds. Apart from this, he has also worked extensively trying to harmonize renewable energy development with biodiversity conservation, developing analytical techniques for vantage point surveys, and predictive risk maps for Cape Vultures.

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Email: f.cervantesperalta@gmail.com

Dr Murray Christian  (Postdoctoral Research Fellow)

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Marion Island Marine Mammal Program, University of Pretoria, working with Dr. Chris Oosthuizen and Prof. Nico de Bruyn. My research focuses on cutting-edge statistical methods to analyse the rich elephant seal dataset from Marion Island. Currently, we are developing integrated population models, which combine different data types in a principled way. These allow us to estimate demographic parameters that are otherwise inaccessible, thus providing further insights into the drivers of elephant seal population dynamics. By training I am a mathematician, with expertise in differential geometry. I obtained my doctorate, which was closely related to the geometry of soap bubbles, from the University of Cape Town in 2019. Since then I have worked as an applied statistician during a postdoctoral fellowship at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. There my research used Bayesian methods to tackle problems in the biomedical sciences. Away from equations and code, I’m an avid birder and amateur botanist. I enjoy contributing to citizen scientist projects, and do so quite actively for the Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2, eBird, and iNaturalist.


Email: murraychristian@live.co.za

Mr Allan Clarke (Senior Lecturer, Statistical Sciences)

My primary area of research lies is the development of statistical methods that can be used to answer various ecologically important questions. The models I work on relate to occupancy modelling, capture recapture methods as well as abundance estimation all primarily from a Bayesian point of view. I try and publish widely and my list of publications include peer reviewed academic articles in the field of Marketing, dose escalation studies (clinical trials), Finance and Ecology amongst others. I am an active member of SEEC and have supervised postgraduate students in Commerce (Credit risk), Biological studies (Bayesian occupancy models) as well as Statistical Sciences (Machine learning, Convolutional Neural Networks, Spatial modelling).

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Email:  allan.clark@uct.ac.za

Dr Jonathan Colville

I have a special interest in the fauna and flora of the Greater Cape Floristic Region, a global centre of plant megadiversity and a region in which several plant and insect groups show clear signatures of adaptive radiation. My research focuses on investigating the drivers of plant and insect species and phenotypic diversity, particularly in the context of their interactions.

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Email:  jonathan.colville@gmail.com

Dr Greg Distiller (Senior Lecturer,, Statistical Sciences)

My primary area of research is statistical ecology. My PhD involved developing a continuous-time (CT) framework for spatial capture-recapture (SCR) models. The CT SCR framework treats detections as a temporal Poisson process and uses an encounter rate function to model the actual times of capture. Using a CT framework avoids having to impose an artificial construct on the data for analytical convenience, allows one to learn about animal behaviour, facilitates a parsimonious and flexible way to model heterogeneity in detection, and leads to a likelihood for single-catch traps. I also work with non-spatial capture-recapture models and occupancy models.

UCT Research Portal, ORCID

Email: greg.distiller@uct.ac.za

Dr Ian Durbach

I have a joint position as adjunct associate professor at SEEC and research fellow at the Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling at the University of St Andrews, and I'm an associate research fellow at the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences. I joined the UCT Department of Statistical Sciences in 2005 as a lecturer and completed a PhD in multicriteria decision analysis, a branch of operations research, in 2011. I still do some work in this area, mainly around how uncertainty is thought about and represented in models, but my interest in recent years has moved to statistical ecology. Most of my current work involves developing and applying methods for estimating animal distribution and abundance, especially using spatial capture-recapture methods, and using machine learning to facilitate the classification of ecological images, audio, and video. My research interests are a bit of a mixed bag, but ultimately I'm interested in developing and linking together approaches supporting data collection, analysis phases and into decision-making and policy implementation.

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Email:  ian.durbach@uct.ac.za

Dr Birgit Erni (Senior Lecturer, Statistical Sciences)

My research focuses on time series modelling applied to environmental and biological problems. I work on methods to measure changes in trends and seasonality. These problems become even more interesting if a spatial dimension is added, leading to spatio-temporal modelling

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Email: birgit.erni@uct.ac.za

Dr. Guilherme Frainer (Postdoctoral Research Fellow)

I was born and grew up in Porto Alegre-RS, southern Brazil. My academic career was based in the Department of Zoology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), where I have concluded my bachelor in Biological Sciences studying the taxonomy and systematics of freshwater fishes. During the masters and the PhD – now living at the coast, I have investigated the ontogeny, evolution and functional morphology of the sound generating structures in dolphins, especially the endangered Franciscana dolphin. The main idea was to answer how dolphins evolved different head shapes into similar sound production capabilities, and how unique features might reflect the natural history of some particular species. I have great interest in the classification and evolution of cetacean acoustic behaviours, particularly in toothed whales. I am now enrolled in a post-doc position at the Department of Statistical Sciences, University of Cape Town, to investigate ways to classify dolphin sounds at species level using machine learning approaches. This study is part of the project investigating humpback dolphin bioacoustics and population dynamics in collaboration with Sea Search Research and Conservation and the SouSA Consortium.

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Email:  gui.frainer@gmail.com

Dr Tess Gridley

My body of work bridges the gap between pure ethology and applied ecology. By generating fundamental knowledge of animal acoustic behaviour, and the evolutionary and cultural factors shaping it, I can inform programmes of passive acoustic monitoring and understand individual movement, distribution, abundance, density and responses to noise. My research contributes directly and indirectly to conservation management of threatened marine species.


Email: nam.dolphin.project@gmail.com

Dr Dominic Henry

Dominic is an ecologist at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and an Honorary Research Associate at SEEC. In 2016 Dominic completed his PhD on the movement ecology of African waterbirds at the FitzPatrick Institute at UCT. Following that he joined SEEC as a postdoctoral researcher where he worked on the developing site multi-species occupancy models for species from several animal and plant taxa in the Karoo as part of SANBI’s BioGaps project. Dominic took up a position at the EWT in 2018 and is now involved in a wide range of scientific pursuits, including modelling the distribution of South Africa’s threatened animal species with the purpose of informing land use decision making.

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Email:  dominichenry@gmail.com

Dr Natasha Karenyi (Lecturer, Biological Sciences)

I am a marine benthic ecologist with a particular focus on unconsolidated sediment habitats. I am also interested in marine biodiversity research, utilizing new or uncommon statistical methods to analyse marine biodiversity data to answer ecological and conservation questions. I am therefore a core team member of the centre for Statistics in Ecology, Environment and Conservation (SEEC). I also sit on SANBI’s Marine Ecosystem Classification Committee who is tasked with updating the marine ecosystem classification and map for the National Biodiversity Assessment.

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Email: natasha.karenyi@uct.ac.za

Dr Tim Kuiper (Postdoctoral Research Fellow)

Tim's research seeks to understand the drivers, impacts and potential solutions to poaching/wildlife crime, and his current postdoc project seeks to leverage ranger-collected data to help tackle these threats. Tim completed his PhD at the University of Oxford (2021) on ranger-based monitoring and management of elephant poaching in Zimbabwe (summarised here), and enjoyed combining quantitative analysis of poaching data with interviews with rangers and park managers. His strengths lie in quantitative analysis (statistical and mathematical modelling) but he also enjoys using qualitative methods to better understand human behaviour and institutions. Tim has experience working with government and private partners to translate research into policy/action. He has also worked on several human-carnivore conflict analyses through Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. 

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Email: timothykuiper@gmail.com

Dr Kyle Lloyd

Kyle’s goal is to promote human-wildlife coexistence by bridging the gap between scientists and practitioners through applied research. By reducing uncertainty about conservation issues, Kyle wants to develop a philosophy that encourages management decisions based on evidence and adaptation. Kyle wants to disseminate research results to landowners in a way that truly helps them navigate the complexities of their local, national and global environments. Kyle studied for his Ph.D. in Zoology at the University of Pretoria, specialising in population ecology and modelling (2017-2019). Kyle has conducted research in various habitats (savanna, thicket, forest, tundra, and wetlands) on a range of taxa (birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects) with several peer-reviewed publications to date. Kyle oversees the research and conservation of the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail at BirdLife South Africa. The White-winged Flufftail serves as a flagship species for safeguarding South Africa’s peat-based wetlands that are inhabited by a diversity of unique animals and plants.

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Email: kyle.john.lloyd@gmail.com

Dr David Maphisa

David Hlosi (aka Sishozonke) Maphisa has spent up to 10 years systematically collecting data on many rare species and contributing valuable data to citizen science projects on various biota. In 2010 he enrolled as the first student of Res Altwegg under SEEC after Mark Anderson of Birdlife South Africa (his employer) successfully persuaded him that all the data that he has been collecting need to be statistically translated into a conservation story. This led David to join SANBI in pursuance of the above idea. Subsequently, David graduated with a PhD in Statistical Sciences in 2015. Upon graduating, David became honorary associate with SEEC and a core member of SEEC mostly co-publishing with SEEC and BirdLife South Africa. Although David can now analysis data that he collects himself, he still prefers outdoor life recording wildlife things than sitting behind the computer!

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Email: Maphisad@gmail.com

Dr Ony Minoarivelo (Postdoctoral Research Fellow)

Ony is a postdoctoral research fellow at SEEC. Being a mathematician by training, she is a theoretical ecologist who likes to use modelling tools offered by mathematics and statistics to address any questions related to species community dynamics. A major focus of her research is the modelling of networks of species interactions: the study of their dynamics, stability, and response to disturbances at both the ecological and the evolutionary time scales. Her current research seeks to understand the dynamics of plant-pollinator interactions in Africa in the context of the current global warming. She holds a PhD in mathematics (mathematical ecology) from Stellenbosch University, and a MSc in computer science also from Stellenbosch University.

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Email: ony.minoarivelo@uct.ac.za

Glenn Moncrieff

I work at the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) and my research focuses on factors that control vegetation structure and function in disturbance-prone environments and using remote sensing and vegetation models to explore the impacts of global change on fynbos and savannas. I am passionate about using data to solve environmental problems and tell compelling stories that raise interest and increase public engagement with ecological issues. I enjoy sharing my knowledge and experience with data and modelling with young scientists and advocate strongly for the adoption of the tools and techniques used for open science and reproducible research. Outside of science, I dedicate all my spare time to my best friend and trusted advisor - my dog, Murray.

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Email: gr.moncrieff@saeon.nrf.ac.za

Mzabalazo Z. Ngwenya (Lecturer, Statistical Sciences)

Mzabalazo is a statistician who also has undergraduate training in geography, environmental science and planning. He lectures in the Department of Statistical sciences at the University of Cape Town. His research focuses on leveraging modern statistical methods, such as machine learning, to solve diverse environmental and ecological problems. Past and current research has revolved around the theory and practice of spatial analysis and modelling of ecological data and the intelligent analysis of remotely sensed environmental data.

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Email: mzabalazo.ngwenya@uct.ac.za

Dr Chris Oosthuizen (Junior Research Fellow)

My research centres on the ecology of marine predators (seabirds, seals and cetaceans) inhabiting sub-Antarctic and Antarctic ecosystems. At present, my main research projects investigate foraging behaviour of krill-dependent Adélie, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguin populations in the Antarctic Peninsula region. We deploy miniaturized Global Positioning System (GPS), accelerometer, time-depth recorders and animal-borne cameras to obtain detailed information on the foraging behaviour of adult, breeding penguins. Information on marine predator at-sea distributions and foraging behaviour is key to define priority areas for conservation. An important goal of this research is also to improve our understanding of predator-prey interactions at scales that are relevant for Ecosystem-Based Feedback Management of the Antarctic krill fishery. This work is being conducted in collaboration with several national and international collaborators. My background is in population ecology and the application of modern capture-recapture models. Between 2007 and 2020 I worked within the Marion Island Marine Mammal Programme of the University of Pretoria. Current collaborative projects include investigations into the demographic drivers of realized population growth rates in southern elephant seals at Marion Island, making use of nearly 40 years of capture-recapture and population count data, and integrated population models.

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Email: w.chris.oosthuizen@gmail.com

Dr Theoni Photopoulou

Theoni is a statistical ecologist and currently a research fellow in the Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Research in the School of Mathematics and Statistics, at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, as well as a research associate at the Institute for Coastal and Marine Research at Nelson Mandela University. She works on individual and population-level processes in movement ecology (where animals go, why, and what they do there), trends in ecological time series, and in her current post, the effects of multiple stressors on marine mammal populations. Her expertise lies at the intersection of ecology, statistics and environmental science and she collaborates widely in all three disciplines. Her overarching research interest is using robust statistical methodology to answer questions about the way top predators use their ocean environments. She is also interested in the technological aspects of animal telemetry and what they mean for how we interpret and analyse data. She is an associate editor for the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

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Email: theoni.photopoulou@gmail.com

Dr Stefan Schoombie (Postdoctoral Research Fellow)

I am biologist by qualification but have a very strong interest in electronic technologies, and how these can be used to compliment ecological research. I spent most of the past eight years studying seabirds on Marion Island, which included my MSc and PhD research through the FitzPatrick Institute. My postgraduate research was mainly focused on the distribution and fine-scale behaviour of several albatross and large petrel species in the Southern Ocean using a range of bio-logging devices. Currently, I am using data recorded by video loggers and inertial measurement units on chinstrap penguins to identify prey capture events through supervised machine-learning and computer vision techniques.


Email: schoombie@gmail.com

Dr Jasper Slingsby (Senior Lecturer, Biological Sciences)

Jasper is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town and a Research Associate at the South African Environmental Obervation Network (SAEON). His research is focused on global change in South African ecosystems and revolves around field studies and spatial data analyses with the goal of informing policy and management. Most of his projects focus on fire, water, land cover (including invasive species) and climate change, but have increasingly included people in the mix as he’s come to accept that sustainable management of ecosystems has little to do with ecology.

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Email: jasper.slingsby@uct.ac.za

Dr Christopher Trisos

Christopher's research focus is on the intersection of climate change, biodiversity and human well-being. He directs the Climate Risk Lab. The lab builds tools to predict when and where climate change risks appear, and how society can respond to climate risks in a way that is rapid, just and equitable. He is a Co-ordinating Lead Author for climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability for the Africa region of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 6th Assessment Report and a member of the Core Writing Team of the IPCC Synthesis Report. He has also consulted on climate change risk and adaptation for the World Bank. Before moving to ACDI, Christopher spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center at University of Maryland, where his research focused on biodiversity, climate change and geoengineering. He completed his doctorate at Oxford. He teaches a graduate course on interdisciplinary and actionable science.

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Email: christopher.trisos@uct.ac.za

Dr Vernon Visser

I am a research fellow based in SEEC. Since my childhood days I have always been fascinated with maps, and with the natural world. My research has afforded me the opportunity to combine these two passions. Broadly speaking, I am interested in understanding why species occur where they do, and being able to predict and monitor their past, present and future distributions. This research is important for advancing our understanding of the natural world, but also for very practical purposes in that global climate change, land-use change, and human-assisted dispersal of species are causing unprecedented changes in the extents and distributions of species.

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Email: vervis@gmail.com

Delene van Wyk

Delene van Wyk

Delene is a lecturer and researcher in Mathematical Statistics and possesses an MSc. in Advanced Data Analytics from the University of Pretoria. Currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Mathematical Statistics at the same institution, she is passionate about teaching and research in circular and spherical statistics. Her first publication appeared in a South African journal in 2023, with a second one in an international journal well on its way. Having entered the field of Statistics in 2019, she worked as a research intern on various postgraduate projects at the University of Pretoria. Fluent in programming environments such as R and SAS, with adequate experience in Python, her current research focuses on the distribution theory of directional statistics. She expresses keen interest in further exploring application possibilities related to modeling wind direction and animal movement.

Email: delene.vanwyk@uct.ac.za