Molecular Ecology

What do we do?

Morphometric data collection

The Molecular Ecology Programme is concept-based. Here researchers work on various taxa with the goal of understanding the processes that have led to the evolution of biodiversity in Southern Africa. In addition, there is also a strong taxonomic component where phylogenies generated through our research are used in collaborative projects with researchers from other institutions to describe and catalogue South Africa's fauna and flora.

Bradypodion sp.

Our work goes beyond DNA analyses as we combine our genetic results (on population, phylogeographic, and phylogenetic levels) with other types of information. We have several mark-recapture programmes on species at risk in fragmented habitats, and use this information to better interpret genetic patterns.

We also combine our genetic data with climate models to make predictions regarding clade/ population distributions, and incorporate performance-based data for investigation of adaptive radiations. In addition, we aim to understand patterns of reptile biodiversity and adaptation to the physical environment by combining phylogenetics, phylogeography and morphology.

Field work-Namibia


Where we work

We are based at the Leslie Hill Laboratory located at the Kirstenbosch Research Centre in Cape Town. The laboratory is named after the late Leslie Hill, who made a generous donation in the year 2000, making the establishment of this facility possible. The laboratory is a shared facility, mainly used by the Molecular Ecology and Evolution staff and students, but is also routinely used by staff and students from the Compton Herbarium. The laboratory also houses a national DNA Bank for plants, and a tissue bank for South African reptiles.

What we have achieved

We are a group of researchers involved in studies on the molecular ecology of South Africa's threatened species. We also work on species in a phylogeographic context, to better understand speciation processes on the sub-continent. Our outputs generally take the form of scientific publications and popular articles.

What are we planning?

We have a number of active projects, including an investigation of the endangered Western leopard toad breeding population structure (using microsatellites and mark-recapture/ photo ID), dwarf chameleon speciation patterns and processes, and understanding adaptive radiations in South African reptiles. While not among our usual projects, one of our lab members is currently undertaking her PhD on the population structure of coast dolphins in collaboration with the Iziko South African Museum.

How do we link to other programmes?

Within SANBI, we collaborate with the Threatened Species Programme, and with members of the Climate Change and BioAdaptation Group. We also work within Applied Biodiversity Research on the management of threatened species, and the population demographics of reptiles and amphibians in threatened habitats.

Who we are



  • Hanlie Engelbrecht (PhD, The radiation and biogeography of snakes across south-eastern Africa with respect to the evolution of the savanna biome)
  • Paula Strauss (MSc, Genetic and physiological adaptive potential of Meroles knoxii (Family: Lacertidae) in response to climate change)
  • Francois Becker (MSc, Conservation and monitoring of the endangered dwarf mountain toad, Capensibufo rosei)

Research assistant

  • Ryan Daniels (Microsatellite data for the Western Cape leopard toad, Amietophrynus pantherinus)
Last updated on 06 August 2015
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