The power of collective experience

Wendy Panaino

I recently had a most wonderful experience visiting the UK to attend a workshop at The David Attenborough Building, Cambridge, to develop ecological monitoring methods for pangolins. Having never attended a workshop before, I was not too sure what to expect, but from the agenda sent out by Dan Challender, Chair of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, I knew it was going to be challenging. Scanning through the list of participants, I recognized only a few names, none of whom I had ever met. I was excited to meet and engage with several of the conservation champions I had read so much about.

pangolin workshop group photo

IUCN Pangolin workshop group photo in front of the David Attenborough Building, Cambridge.

The morning of day 1 comprised of meeting the group of about 40 participants. I was blown away by the diversity of people from all around the world, and from so many different organizations, but all having the same goal – conservation of pangolins. Presentation sessions followed, where nine experts had the opportunity to discuss the various techniques used to detect and monitor one or more of the eight extant pangolin species. I had the privilege of discussing my own research in the context of the use of telemetry to track and monitor Temminck’s ground pangolins (Smutsia temminckii) in South Africa. I was surprised to learn about the struggles that participants go through on a daily basis to conduct their research on the other seven pangolin species. Perhaps I had known that detecting pangolins was difficult, but the most surprising of all was how easy my overall experience had been relative to those trying to achieve similar goals.

Wendy presenting

Presenting my research on ground Pangolin in South Africa. Photo credit: Elisa Panjang

I could not help but feel guilty that my time tracking pangolins and the information I had been gathering over the past few years had come with relative ease, when there were so many people sitting in that room dealing with the problem of just finding one pangolin to work with. I felt relieved when an anonymous participant came to me after the talks and said that “it was nice to have a happy, optimistic story to add to the workshop”. In all that we are trying to achieve, and through all the struggles that these conservation heroes face, it certainly felt good to be able to add some optimism to create a more positive outlook to our conservation goals.

Day 2 involved discussing key questions that we, as conservation scientists, should be asking to achieve our goals. In Africa and Asia, tons of pangolins are being taken out of the wild and illegally traded each year. We cannot assess whether that trade is sustainable or not if we do not know how many pangolins are in our wild populations (See my blog on pangolin conservation). Day 2 and 3 then allowed us to discuss and devise various methods that could be used for each pangolin species to answer that big question – how many pangolins are in the wild? We asked which techniques can be used to monitor individuals and populations at a regional scale so that we may ultimately begin to understand the species as a whole. Each participant had the opportunity to add their input and talk about their experiences with a particular pangolin species or a particular method. We soon realized that it was not a single method or technique that was going to answer our questions, but rather a combination of methods, whether they were social, ecological or technological methods. It was at this time that information started to flow – information that people possessed that may not necessarily have been written down anywhere.

Workshop brainstorming in action

Brainstorming in action.

Suddenly, connections started forming in my mind. I was able to link my own knowledge and experiences with the global experts in the room. I soon learned how similar, yet very different each individual pangolin species is, whether it was a behavioural or physical attribute under discussion. I still get chills when I think about the energy I felt in that room when our simple individual experiences became massively exaggerated as a group. In just three short days, we had put our minds together to produce a very powerful and significant output dealing with the most effective ways to answer our questions. I walked out of The David Attenborough building on the third day having just witnessed a beautiful phenomenon – the power of collective experience. And I got to be part of that. What an experience!


BFRG Highlights 2016

Welcome to the BFRG Highlights, our new feature, to celebrate our success of the past year and to reflect on some of the exciting developments in the Brain Function Research Group!

We started off 2016 with the very first BFRG Research Day, and hosted collaborator Romy Parker from Cape Town as our invited speaker and judge. It was great fun and a huge success, and we hope to do the same again next year. Congratulations to Anna Haw on taking home the prize for best speaker.

On the student front, many of our students made excellent progress this year:

Honours student Kristin Nel, who conducted research on ethnic variations in autonomic skin wrinkling with Peter Kamerman in the Pain Lab, says: “I truly loved the atmosphere in the BFRG lab and would choose to work with this group of professionals over and over again – thank you.”

PhD student Arista Botha from the Wildlife Conservation Physiology (WCP) team started her study on the nutritional ecology of free-living buffalo in the Kruger National Park by having 13 buffalo implanted with miniature temperature-sensitive data loggers in February 2016. Since then she’s been going back every two months to collect blood samples and carry out vegetation analyses. Arista is looking forward to removing the loggers and getting her data early next year. Arista also wrote some great blog articles on her experiences with buffalos in the bush, and on her lab work.


A large buffalo bull can weigh close to a tonne. Photo by Arista Botha

Another WCP PhD student, Nora Weyer, was awarded a prestigious Oppenheimer Memorial Trust scholarship this year. She was also invited by the Zoological Society / Zoological Garden in Frankfurt, Germany, to present a public talk on the responses of aardvark to the hot and dry conditions in the Kalahari semi-desert. Read about Nora’s PhD research in Afrotherian Conservation and the Diamond Route Newsletter, or follow her aardvark news on Twitter. Nora finished her data collection after spending six months at the University of Cape Town analysing aardvark scats and prey abundance samples in the lab of Professor Mike Picker. She is now back in Joburg working hard at analysing her data and writing up. “It’s been another phenomenal year doing my PhD with the BFRG, and I hope that 2017 will be just as exciting!”  Good luck for the final stretch!

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Another postgraduate student  in the WCP team, Wendy Panaino, also has been conducting research in the Kalahari, on the ecophysiology of ground pangolins (read more on her blog). Aside from the blog article, she had great media coverage on her pangolins, such as this CNN video . On her highlight this year, Wendy reports that “just being surrounded by amazing people in the field of wildlife and research has been such an incredible experience in terms of how much I have learned from these people and how much I have grown.”

Pangolin face

A pangolin looks up from its ant meal. Photo by Wendy Panaino

Led by Nora and Wendy, our WCP team recently joined an interesting collaboration with Dr Frédéric Delsuc (University of Montpellier, France), who studies the evolution of the gut microbiome of free-living aardvarks and pangolins, and other ant- and termite-eating mammals in the Kalahari.

News from the Sleep Lab is that Chloe Flinn has been recruiting participants for her MSc research on the effect of sleep disturbance on pain sensitivity. Chloe has also had some great media attention: visited her at Wits to film a short piece on her research project. Watch the video here, and follow Chloe’s research on facebook to find out more!

Prinisha Pillay, from the pain lab started a longitudinal project for her PhD at a new site this year and submitted her second paper from her PhD research (fingers crossed!). Next year she is looking forward to completing her data collection early in the year and submitting her thesis by December 2017.

Several of our postgraduate students successfully completed their studies in 2016:

Anna Haw, research officer, veterinarian and PhD student in the WCP team completed her PhD (read about her project here), while MSc students Stephanie de Lange (who graduated in 2015 from the University of Pretoria, co-supervised by Andrea and Anna, WCP team) and Tanusha Dukhan (Fever Lab) who graduated this year had their graduation ceremonies. Both Stephanie and Tanusha graduated with distinctions. PhD student Sean Chetty from the Pain Lab completed his PhD and will join the graduation ceremony in December. MSc students Dershnee Devan (Pain Lab) and Kirsten Redman (Sleep Lab) are in the process of completing their degrees following examination. We wish them all the best, and hope to see them on the graduations list soon!

Edward (“Ned”) Snelling, from the University of Adelaide, joined the WCP team in April as a postdoctoral fellow and was very quick off the mark in publishing papers. One of his publications had social media buzzing. Ned also started the BFRG “coffee club”, which led to the Illy coffee shop on the 4th floor of Med School doubling its profits! All of the coffee club members were delighted by the arrival a month ago of our new coffee machine in the Richard Hellon room!


Another postdoc in the BFRG, Gaëlle Ngassa, who joined the Pain Lab last year, started recruiting patients for her project investigating epigenetic changes of HIV-associated sensory neuropathy in an African population. She has already submitted her first paper from this project to the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, and published two others from her previous work. Next year, Gaëlle looks forward to starting her epigenetic analysis.


Toni Wadley completed her 3-year Hillel Friedland Postdoctoral Fellowship with the Pain Lab and, following the departure of Anna Haw to Stanford for an MBA programme, took over as our BFRG Research Officer and Lecturer in the School of Physiology. In her own words: “If I had to design my best job, this would be it!” Toni has kept the BFRG running smoothly and we wish her all the best for the coming year. Her big paper from her postdoc also had great media coverage.


Patricia Price, honorary BFRG member and collaborator in the Pain Lab, paid us a visit earlier this year and presented a talk to the School of Physiology about “An integrated study of immune recovery in HIV/HCV patients beginning ART in Indonesia”. Peter Kamerman will reciprocate next year and visit Patricia at Curtin University in Perth.

The Pain Lab has some really exciting collaborations and joint projects planned for next year. We look forward to reporting more on that in our 2017 blogs!

In the Sleep Lab, Karine Scheuermaier was on sabbatical this year giving her the opportunity to work on some collaborative research this year. She spent two month in Berlin, Germany working with her former Harvard colleague, Dr Mirjam Münch. They re-visited performance data from a study they had run together on the impact of evening light exposure on healthy older adults who complained of disrupted sleep. She also started a collaborative research study with Dr Katinka de Wet from the University of the Free State on sleep and HIV interactions. The sisters Mosilo and Mampho Machere started data collection in the Tseki clinic in Phuthaditjhaba (Qwa Qwa), braving the cold weather.  Finally, she was given an opportunity to publish with Dr Duffy on nocturia in a special circadian rhythms and aging issue of Current Aging Science.


Lois Harden, from the fever group, was also on sabbatical this year. She undertook several collaborative projects with researchers Dr Helen Steele, from the Department of Immunology at the University of Pretoria, Prof Shabir Madhi and Dr Gaurav Kwatra, from the Respiratory and Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit (RMPRU) based at Chris Hani Baragwanath related to fever and sickness behaviour and immune responses to Groups B Streptococcus. She also helped several postgraduate students in the fever group with data collection and analysis and worked on 12 publications including both human and animal based studies.

The BFRG members also travelled and networked extensively this year. Some of the local conferences attended included the PainSA congress in Umhlanga, where Prinisha took the joint first prize for best oral presentation, the Oppenheimer De Beers Group Research Conference in Johannesburg, the Mammal Research Institute 50th Anniversary Conference at Mopani Camp in Kruger National Park, the South African Wildlife Management Association Symposium in Tzaneen, and the South African Society of Sleep Medicine conference in Johannesburg. Several of our students also participated at the Wits Health Sciences Research Day.

PainSA Group photo

Toni Wadley (far right) and the rest of the team, (from the left) Sean Chetty, Peter Kamerman, Prinisha and Dershnee Devan at the PainSA congress. (Photo by Toni Wadley)

International conferences included the Society of Experimental Biology conference in Brighton, UK, the Elsevier Inflammation symposium, Miami, Florida, the International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology, Washington, D. C., and the European Sleep Research Society Meeting in Bologna, Italy. Toni and Peter attended the World Pain Congress in Yokohama, Japan, where Peter was elected as Vice Chair of NeuPSIG, the Neuropathic Pain division of IASP (International Association for the Study of Pain).

There were also personal highlights for many members of the Group. Robyn Hetem and Maartin Strauss welcomed their second child, Ayden John, and a few days later our Honorary Research Fellows (and previous postdocs) Ian Murray and Hilary Lease introduced their son Osirus to the world. Duncan Mitchell was delighted by the arrival of his second grandson in New Zealand.

To round off the year, the Swanepoel family hosted a BFRG staff braai, and everyone joined in to celebrate a productive 2016 at the BFRG publications tea!

Next year, we will be welcoming many new members into our group. We are also excited for Duncan to be plenary speaker at the International Union of Physiological Sciences Congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and at the International Mammalogical Congress in Perth, Australia. There will surely be lots of exciting news in 2017, so follow us here on the blog, and on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with us throughout the year.

The BFRG Team wishes everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Born to be a Kalahari kid

Wendy Panaino


Pangolin face

A pangolin looks up from its ant meal. Photo by Wendy Panaino

It’s hard to think that almost a year ago, I had barely even heard of pangolins, and now I get to spend most nights with these incredible creatures in the most beautiful place. My MSc research involves investigating the body temperature and activity patterns of free-living ground pangolins (Smutsia temminckii) at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in the Northern Cape Province. It has taken me a while to sit down and put into words the incredible journey I have been on this year. As I sit and wait for a pangolin to emerge from its burrow, I have plenty of time to gaze at the stars and reflect on my 2015 adventure. How could I possibly put this incredible year into one blog post? So many spectacular stories can be told here, but for now I’ll stick to telling you about my daily field work life at Tswalu.


After a successful week of surgery to implant pangolins with temperature data loggers, my adventure into a mind-blowing world was to begin. I’d be away from home longer than ever before, and fending for myself for the first time. I could never have dreamed that I would end up here, living in such a spectacular reserve. I dived right into things, venturing over the sandy dunes of the Kalahari, tracking the pangolins each day with a VHF receiver and antenna. There are few things more thrilling than hearing that first beep coming from your receiver, indicating that the animal you seek is nearby. Whether it takes you five minutes or an hour, you can’t help but feel the excitement boiling inside you when you know you’re getting close. There it is… a beautifully structured burrow that houses the precious scaly creature you’ve been seeking. I place a camera trap, mark the burrow on my GPS and get a slight sense of victory as I walk away.


Kalahari Kid tracking (2)

Tracking pangolins in the Kalahari. Photo by Lizelle du Preez

Camera trap

A camera trap in front of a pangolin burrow. Photo by Wendy Panaino


Daylight passes and the glorious night sky awakens. The way the moon rises over the mountains is more spectacular here than anywhere I’ve ever seen. This is my FAVOURITE part. I arrive at the burrow that I had marked earlier in daylight hours. I use the VHF receiver to ensure that the pangolin has not left its burrow yet. Providing that it is still in its burrow, I carefully position myself somewhere close by and down-wind. Here I sit and wait for the sound of the pangolin emerging from its burrow. Such a unique sound it is for a mammal, with the scales brushing against each other, a sound that could easily be mistaken for grasses rustling with the evening breeze. However, after spending many nights with these little animals, I have finally developed an ear for the unique sound. The moment I hear the animal in motion, my heart starts to race and the butterflies in my stomach emerge. I am about to lay my eyes on one of South Africa’s most elusive animals; the animal that I have chosen to devote an entire year to study. What a privilege!


Pangolin tracker (2)

A pangolin with a tracking device attached. Photo by Wendy Panaino


After the pangolin emerges, I follow the scaly critter from a distance as it forages for ants and termites through parts of the night. Recently I have managed to catch a pangolin in the act of laying a scat. How many people have seen a pangolin in the wild, let alone seen its scat? That’s a component that is lacking in most “tracks and signs” wildlife field guides. To take things even further, I have had the most incredible experience of being able to watch a female pangolin emerge from her burrow with her offspring. This may be the highlight of all my experiences here at the ever-so mesmerizing Tswalu, and I’ve only just begun! I cannot wait to see what lies in store for me in 2016.


Pangolin baby (2)

A pangolin female with her offspring clinging to her back. Photo by Wendy Panaino.


When I am not tracking or following pangolins, I am sitting counting ants that have been collected from pitfall traps. Although this takes many hours out of each day, it somehow gives me a sense of peace and I have learned to embrace it, since I am so fortunate to be doing it in this beautiful reserve. I never thought I’d end up working with insects, but I’ve recently taken it upon myself to learn as much as possible about the various insects and other little creatures that I find in these traps. The endless urge to keep learning and my continuous curiosity is what drives my passion for science and research, and so I encourage myself to embrace every opportunity that comes my way, no matter how small. Looking at each day with utter optimism is what makes my journey so special to me, and is what drives my excitement for this project and this place. And what would such an adventure be without the people I get to share it with? Living with such a diverse group of researchers has been a whole new world of fun, and each person (albeit unknowingly) drives my passion and excitement even further. I have met some of the most incredible people in this spectacular place. Tswalu is possibly the best place I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit. It is so unique and different to any other place I know and I have now started thinking that maybe, just maybe, I was born to be a Kalahari kid.


group photo

A few of the researchers and students at Tswalu that inspire me every day. Photo by Wendy Panaino.



Arista Botha

Welcome to the Physiology in Action Blog spot! For our first blog post I will introduce the Brain Function Research Group (or BFRG) and give a brief overview of who we are and what we do.


The BFRG is based at the School of Physiology, University of the Witwatersrand, and is made up of a diverse group of researchers studying sleep, pain, fever, and wildlife physiology. The research entity started 40 years ago, when Duncan Mitchell, Helen Laburn and several others started investigating the neurophysiology of sleep, pain, fever, and temperature regulation in humans and, later on, in wildlife. Thanks to the brilliant minds and excellent team work of these early members, the research entity grew and expanded until it achieved research group status 27 years ago. Today the BFRG, under the directorship of Andrea Fuller, consists of about 60 members, including academic staff, research staff, postdocs, postgraduate students and honorary research fellows.


Although our research interest is diverse, spanning HIV-associated pain, temperature regulation in wildlife, consequences of sleep deprivation, and sickness behaviour in rats, the cohesion within our group between different disciplines is the backbone to our success. Apart from the fun we have, working together as a group has many other advantages. We support each other, learn from one another, share equipment and lab space, and (have I mentioned?) we have lots of fun! Team spirit and the strive for excellence are the essence of our group. It is impossible to summarise, in one post, all the great people in our group and all the exciting research they do. Therefore I invite you to get to know us better. Follow this blog for stories about our research, data collection, travelling and other adventures!