Academic Staff

Dr Susan Cunningham

PhD (Massey University, NZ)
John Day Building: 2.03
Tel: +27 (0)21 650 3306
Fax: +27 (0)21 650 3295



Susie grew up in New Zealand and obtained her BSc in Ecology & Biodiversity from Victoria University of Wellington. She completed her honours and PhD at Massey University in the Manawatu, working initially on the foraging behaviour of kiwi, and expanding her research into non-visual senses used by probing birds, including kiwi (Apterygidae), ibises (Threskiornithidae) and shorebirds (Scolopacidae). Susie discovered that a unique anatomy and associated vibro-tactile sense thought only to exist in shorebirds has also evolved in kiwi and ibises – suggesting a beautiful case of convergent or parallel evolution. Susie’s PhD was awarded in 2011.

Susie accepted a post doctoral fellowship at the Fitztitute in 2010 to work on the ‘Hot Birds’ desert birds and climate change programme, in conjunction with Prof. Phil Hockey and core Centre of Excellence team member Prof. Andrew McKechnie (University of Pretoria). Following Phil’s sad and untimely passing in 2013, Susie accepted an extension to her fellowship to continue managing the University of Cape Town branch of ‘Hot Birds’ in collaboration with Prof. McKechnie. Susie was appointed to the post of Lecturer in 2015 and is continuing the ‘Hot Birds’ programme as well as taking a hand in the co-ordination of the Conservation Biology Masters course.

Research interests

Hot birds: understanding the vulnerability of arid zone birds to climate change: A major focus of Susie’s current research is the use of mechanistic approaches to understand the potential vulnerability of different bird species to climate change. Together with her collaborators and students, she studies the behavioural and ecophysiological responses of birds to high temperatures, with a focus on fitness consequences associated with thermoregulatory trade-offs. Susie works closely with Prof. Andrew McKechnie and Dr Ben Smit on these questions, using predominantly Kalahari species, but also fynbos birds, as model taxa.

Behavioural ecology in a changing world: Susie is interested in the behavioural flexibility of animals in the face of ecological change: how environmental factors, particularly temperature and aridity, drive behavioural decisions. She is especially interested in the consequences of these decisions for individual fitness, sociality, and the evolution of life history strategies.

Sensory ecology: Susie is particularly interested in the non-visual senses used by animals –especially birds - in foraging and social interactions, the ecological pressures that lead to the favouring of non-visual senses, and the connections between sensory systems and behaviour.

Research programmes

Life History Strategies, Ecological & Evolutionary Physiology

Current students


Margaux Rat


Amanda Bourne: Can social behaviour, particularly load-sharing, buffer against fitness costs associated with heat stress? (Co-supervisors: Amanda Ridley, Claire Spottiswoode)

Tanja van de Ven: Implications of climate change for the reproductive behaviour and performance of the desert-dwelling Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas) (Co-supervisors: Andrew McKechnie, Peter Ryan).

Michelle Thompson: Climate change and arid zone birds: validation of a behavioural index for assessing species' relative vulnerabilities to rising temperatures (Co-supervisor: Andrew McKechnie) (Registered at U.Pretoria)


Carla du Toit: Sensory structures in the beaks of waders (family: Threskiornithidae) in relation to foraging ecology (Co-supervisor: Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan)

Krista Oswald: Threats of climate change to a Fynbos-endemic bird: flexibility in physioogical and behavioural mechanisms in the Cape Rockjumper (Co-supervisor: Ben Smit) (Registered at NMMU)

Jerry Molepo: Foraging behaviour and thermal physiology in Cape Sugarbirds: gender specific responses to temperature (Co-supervisor: Ben Smit) (Registered at NMMU)

MSc Conservation Biology

Ryan Olinger: How does temperature affect Fork-tailed Drongo, Dicrurus adsimilis foraging effort, nestling provisioning and growth rates? (Co-supervisor: Tom Flower)

Graduated students

Penny Pistorius 2016. How air temperature affects flight initiation distance in arid-zone birds (Co-supervisor: Rowan Martin)

Salamatu Abdu. 2015. Spatial use of the landscape by Kalahari birds in relation to temperature and the location of water holes

Robyn Milne. 2014. Physiological consequences of high temperatures in fynbos birds and implications for climate change. (Co-supervisors: Peter RyanBen Smit, Alan Lee)

Phenias Sadondo. 2014.The influence of temperature on parental investment in southern fiscals and consequences for nestling growth. (Co-supervisors: Peter Ryan, Rowan Martin)

Gina Louw. 2012. How will climate change affect birds in hot African deserts? (Co-supervisors: Phil Hockey, Rowan Martin)

Katherine du Plessis. 2011. Heat tolerance of Southern Pied Babblers in the Kalahari Desert: how will they respond to climate change?  (Co-supervisors: Phil Hockey, Amanda Ridley, Rowan Martin)

Recent peer-reviewed publications


Cunningham, S.J., Thompson, M.L., and McKechnie, A.E. 2017. It’s cool to be dominant: social status alters short-term risks of heat stress. Journal of Experimental Biology.


Cunningham, S.J., Madden, C., Barnard, P. and Amar, A. 2016. Electric crows: power lines, climate change and the emergence of a native invader. Diversity and Distributions 22: 17-29 (Published online 18 December 2015; published in hard copy January 2016).

Smit, B., Zietsman, G., Martin, R.O., Cunningham, S.J., McKechnie, A.E. and Hockey, P.A.R. 2016. Behavioural responses to heat in desert birds: implications for predicting vulnerability to climate warming. Climate Change Responses 3: 9.

Van de Ven, T.M.F.N., Martin, R.O., Vink, T.J.F., McKechnie, A.E. and Cunningham, S.J. 2016. Regulation of heat exchange across the hornbill beak: functional similarities with toucans? PLoS ONE 11: e0154768.


Cunningham, S.J., Martin, R.O., & Hockey, P.A.R. 2015. Can behaviour buffer the impacts of climate change on an arid-zone bird? Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology 86(1&2): 119-126.

Martin, R.O., Cunningham, S.J. & Hockey, P.A.R. 2015. Elevated temperatures drive fine-scale patterns of habitat use in a savannah bird community. Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology 86(1&2): 127-135.

Milne, R., Cunningham, S.J., Lee, A. & Smit, B. 2015. The role of thermal physiology in recent declines of birds in a biodiversity hotspot. Conservation Physiology  3:1-17


Cunningham, S.J., Martin, R.O., Hojem, C.L. & Hockey, P.A.R. 2013. Temperatures in excess of critical thresholds threaten nestling growth and survival in a rapidly-warming arid savanna: a study of common fiscals. PLoS One 8(9):e74613.

Cunningham, S.J., Corfield, J.R., Iwaniuk, A.N., Castro, I., Alley, M.R., Birkhead, T.R. & Parsons, S. 2013. The anatomy of the bill tip of Kiwi and associated somatosensory regions of the brain: comparisons with shorebirds. PLoS ONE 8(11):e80036.

Cunningham, S.J., Kruger, A.C., Nxumalo, M.P. & Hockey, P.A.R. 2013. Identifying biologically meaningful hot-weather events using threshold temperatures that affect life-history. PLoS One 8:e82492.


Du Plessis, K.L., Martin, R.W., Hockey, P.A.R., Cunningham, S.J. & Ridley, A.R. 2012. The costs of keeping cool in a warming world: implications of high temperatures for foraging, thermoregulation and body condition of an arid-zone bird. Global Change Biology 18:3063-3070.


Cunningham S.J., Alley, M.R, & Castro, I. 2011. Facial bristle feather histology and morphology in New Zealand birds: implications for function. Journal of Morphology 272:118-218.

Cunningham S.J. & Castro I. 2011. The secret life of wild brown kiwi: studying behaviour of a cryptic species by direct observation. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 35:209-219.


Castro, I., Cunningham, S.J., Gsell, A.C., Jaffe, K., Cabrera, A., Liendo, C. 2010. Olfaction in birds: a closer look at the kiwi (Apterygidae). Journal of Avian Biology 41:213-218.

Cunningham, S.J., Alley, M.R., Castro, I., Potter, M.A., Cunningham, M., Pyne, M.J. 2010. Bill morphology of ibises suggests a remote-tactile sensory system for prey detection. The Auk 127(2):308-316.

Cunningham, S.J., Castro I., Potter M.A. and Jensen T. 2010. Remote touch prey-detection by Madagascar crested ibises Lophotibis cristata urschi. Journal of Avian Biology 41:350-353.