Home > Research > Current Programmes > Current Research Programmes > Climate Change Vulnerability & Adaptation
Current Research Programmes

Climate Change Vulnerability & Adaptation


Dr Phoebe Barnard (Climate Change Adaptation Division, SANBI & PFIAO)

Research team 2016-2017

Dr Res Altwegg (UCT Statistical Sciences and SANBI)
Dr Jacqui Bishop (UCT Biological Sciences)
Dr Mark Brown (Nature’s Valley Trust)
Dr Lynda Chambers (Bureau for Meteorology, Australia)
Dr Callan Cohen (PFIAO/Birding Africa)
Dr Yvonne Collingham (Durham University)
Dr Susie Cunningham (PFIAO)
George Davis (SANBI Fellow, Caretakers Biodiversity Film Project)
Dr Richard Dean (PFIAO)
Dawie de Swardt (National Museum, Bloemfontein)
Laurence Dworkin (STEPS/ Caretakers Biodiversity Film Project)
Mike Ford (bird ringer, Hermanus Bird Club)
Dr Brett Gardner (Johannesburg Zoo)
Dr Sjirk Geerts (Cape Peninsula University of Technology)
Dr Rhys Green (Cambridge University)
Francis Hannay (bird ringer, Helderberg Nature Reserve)
Anina Heystek (Stellenbosch University)
Dr Dave Hole (Centre for Applied Biodiversity Science, Conservation International)
Prof. Brian Huntley (Durham University)
Johan Johansson (field assistant)
Robyn Kadis (BirdLife Berg River)
Dr Emily Lane (National Zoological Garden, Pretoria)
Dr Alan Lee (PFIAO)
Chrissie Madden (PFIAO)
Dr Martine Maron (University of Queensland)
Mrs Margaret McCall (bird ringer, Cape and Tygerberg Bird Clubs)
Prof. Guy Midgley (Stellenbosch University)
Prof. Jeremy Midgley (UCT Botany)
Bongani Mnisi (City of Cape Town/ Stellenbosch University)
Prof. Anders Pape Møller (Université de Paris-Sud)
Prof. Anton Pauw (Stellenbosch University)
Prof. Peter Ryan (PFIAO)
Dr Helène Steenkamp (National Zoological Garden, Pretoria)
Ross Turner (University of KwaZulu-Natal)
Dr Timo van der Niet (Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, Netherlands)
Zingfa Wala (UCT Animal Demography Unit)
Dr Steve Willis (Durham University)
Dale Wright (BirdLife South Africa)
BirdLife Northern Gauteng ringers


Why, in fast-changing times, do we bother to study the vulnerability of endemic and other birds to climate change? Climate change has had profound effects on African species over many millennia. Yet the fast pace of current climate change, compounded by relentless land use change, biotic invasion and desertification, confronts species with complex difficulties, and their combined impacts on biodiversity are hard to predict in detail. The scale and pace of these problems requires a concerted research response.

Our main aims are therefore to generate concrete advice and tools for biodiversity conservation planners, policymakers and habitat managers, and to train students in applied global change biology and conservation biology, using multiple skills and disciplines.

Our team looks at behaviour, phenology, stress ecology, pollination ecology, demography and genetic aspects of vulnerability to climate change and land use change in fynbos endemic birds. The research is a joint initiative, co-led by the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s (SANBI) Birds and Environmental Change Programme, based in the Climate Change Adaptation Division, Kirstenbosch. The scientific work is done jointly by SANBI and PFIAO with local and international partners, and the policy and planning translation is led by SANBI with partners’ inputs. The work takes place at field sites across the fynbos biome. PFIAO postdoc Alan Lee has undertaken intensive biome-wide mountain-bike and car surveys of endemic populations in order to help the team better understand endemics’ microclimate affinities, densities in different areas, and global population vulnerabilities. See Alan’s blog at

Alan Lee’s winter fynbos biome survey,
  initially by mountain bike, was not for
  sissies. Photo: Alan Lee
Ross Turner and Phoebe Barnard debating
the vulnerability of ericas and erica pollinators.
Photo: Claire Spottiswoode.

Key projects and questions

Which species are most vulnerable to climate and land use change, and why?

Which species are most vulnerable to climate and land use change, and why? Which ecological, behavioural and life history traits influence birds’ vulnerability? And what patterns of change are happening already?  Analyses of emerging data on occurrence and relative abundance from the Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2 suggest that existing global estimates of extinction risk could underestimate conservation threats to southern African birds (Huntley et al., 2010 Ecography 33:621-612; Huntley & Barnard, 2012 Diversity & Distributions – see references here. Long-term population and atlas datasets are analysed with demographic and spatial models, and we have established long-term studies at several sites of colour-marked endemic and non-endemic birds of the fynbos, a globally-important biodiversity hotspot biome projected to suffer significant climate change impacts. Our collaborators at Durham and Cambridge have also developed advanced modeling methods which integrate bioclimatic envelope and demographic tools (Huntley et al. 2010). This collaboration is funded by the Leverhulme Foundation and the Royal Society of the U.K.

Cape Rockjumper male looking haughty.
Photo: Mike Buckham

What are the risks for threatened, small and peripheral populations of endemics?

Alan Lee and Phoebe Barnard, in collaboration with Dale Wright and Mark Brown, are looking at climate change impacts on threatened and restricted-range species of southern African biomes, including montane endemics, pollinators, and Red Data species. Alan and Phoebe are preparing conservation-focused analyses looking at population estimates and habitat-specific population densities of the fynbos endemics. Keen potential PhD students and additional funding are sought for this theme.

Stress and the city – land use and climate change

Together with Anders Pape Møller and Brett Gardner, and ACDI MSc student Beth Mackay, we have been exploring how stress indicators in fynbos endemic birds may reveal vulnerability at the individual and population level. Beth’s thesis has shown intriguing links between urbanization, climate and stress proxies such as feather stress barring, fluctuating asymmetry and a seemingly invasive disease in sugarbirds. This work is being written up for publication, and we hope to explore immunological and genetic indicators of stress which could precede population declines.

Not asleep, just confused: Alan Lee tests a sugarbird for ‘tonic immobility’ as a measure of predator reactivity after ringing.
Photo: Alan Lee
Cape Sugarbird with severe Knemidocoptes
mite infection in Cape Town’s urban areas.
Photo: Alan Lee

Pollinators and pollinated – understanding interacting vulnerabilities

PhD students Anina Heystek (co-supervised by Anton Pauw and Sjirk Geerts) and Ross Turner (co-supervised by Steve Johnson and Jeremy Midgley) are both working on the role of sunbird pollinators in the diversification of Ericas, Erica pollination syndromes and biogeography.  Orange-breasted Sunbirds Anthobaphes violacea pollinate at least 67 species of Erica, including some previously believed to be insect-pollinated. So any declines in this sunbird pose significant threats to Ericas and other fynbos bird-pollinated plants.
Anina Heystek in Groenkloof with a net special. Photo courtesy Anina Heystek.

Iingcungcu - restoring connectivity in urbanizing landscapes for aerial pollinators

City of Cape Town conservation official and Stellenbosch MSc student, Bongani Mnisi is working with Anton Pauw, Sjirk Geerts, Phoebe Barnard and others on the Iingcungcu project, an exciting research-and-citizen science project which blends conservation biology, landscape ecology, pollination ecology, global change biology, climate change adaptation, restoration ecology, horticulture, citizen science and smartphone technology for kids at Cape Flats high schools. The isiXhosa word Iingcungcu is a collective name for long-billed sunbirds, as the project focuses on the fynbos endemics Cape Sugarbird Promerops cafer and Orange-breasted Sunbird Anthobaphes violacea, as well as non-endemics Malachite Sunbird Nectarinia famosa and other sunbirds. Our visions for restoring ecological connectivity between the Cape Peninsula and the Boland Mountains are featured in a new film in the Caretakers Film Series, Stepping Stones through Fragmented Environments (

Sjirk Geerts, Bongani Mnisi, Zane Matthews and high school teacher Vanjie Watkins discuss the Iingcungcu Connectivity Project. The project and school were featured in the documentary film “Stepping Stones through fragmented environments”. Photo: Phoebe Barnard

How can conservation planning, policy and management respond to these challenges?

In work led by SANBI, environmental change research results are increasingly fed into the science-policy interface through targeted publications (e.g. Birds and Environmental Change and Early warning systems for biodiversitybooklets), through uptake of data in "State of the Environment" (SoE) reports, national biodiversity indicators, and contributions to species and habitat management planning. Long-term datasets and large-scale projects such as the Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2 (SABAP2 and its successors) which can inform public policy are being secured financially by SANBI. Our goal is to help avert biodiversity loss by tracking southern Africa’s birds over time and space, and provide baselines and ‘snapshots’ of environmental change. Such work is badly needed to shape and strengthen conservation strategies for the future.