Research philosophy

I am a quantitative ecologist with two over-arching questions that encompass my previous work and where I plan to take my research programme in the future. A). What is the evolutionary significance and what are the causal mechanisms fundamental to fitness, physiological, and behavioural trade-offs exhibited by organisms in response to ecological challenges? B). How do our philosophical, methodological, and statistical approaches to science (specifically ecology) alter our inferences, and what are the consequences of these possible biases?

I detail my research experience below by subject category, including outcomes of the work (published journal articles, conference presentations, government reports, software user manuals etc.) The chronology for my research experience is based on the following approximate timeline:

a) From 2003 to 2005, I completed an MSc at Virginia Tech on home range theory and movement behaviour, focused specifically on cheetah of the Serengeti Plains. During this time I took one year out to develop a novel home range software application, and I also worked on other field projects (one on horseshoe crabs in Delaware, and another on shorebirds in Alaska).

b) From 2006 to 2007, I co-founded and managed a remote ecological research centre in northern Limpopo (the Mogalakwena Research Centre) where I facilitated field projects for postgraduate students, volunteers, and university field courses.

c) From 2008 to 2013, I completed a PhD at Virginia Tech on the disease ecology of banded mongooses, during which time our team discovered a novel species in the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex – the first published addition to the complex in nearly 20 years [1]. During this time I was based permanently at a field site in northern Botswana for nearly four years. In addition to my dissertation fieldwork, I also conducted research with a local conservation NGO (CARACAL) in northern Botswana (based on human-wildlife conflict) and with BirdLife Botswana (based on bird conservation). During the two years of my PhD when I was based in the US, I also took a full complement of PhD coursework, and taught both undergraduate and post-graduate courses.

d) Since 2014, I have been conducting a broad-scale freshwater biomonitoring project in southern Africa for my NRF Scarce Skills Post-doctoral Fellowship, which is based at the Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Pretoria. I have just started as a Claude Leon Foundation Post-doctoral Fellowship at the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Cape Town.

A motivating factor in my research, is that the theoretical questions I pursue generally have applied outcomes for ecosystem health and hence, human well-being. I am particularly interested in conservation management at human-wildlife interfaces [24, 3, 2, 14], including the ecology of potential zoonoses [1, 25, 21], and the landscape-level effects of land-use patterns on freshwater ecosystem health [14]. Some of this work has resulted in the development of quantitative tools [20] and methods [4, 12, 8].

Although the majority of my work over the last 13 years has focused on terrestrial ecology (and particularly vertebrate zoology), some of my current work is at the nexus of terrestrial and aquatic systems (freshwater and marine), and in future research I hope to address issues related directly to human health, and understanding evolutionary fitness in a broad array of taxa.

Current and past research areas

1. Vertebrate physiological ecology

I conduct theoretical research on vertebrate stress physiology [26] and how it relates to predation risk [13], nutritional limitation [11] and foraging behaviour [21]. I also investigate how chronic production of stress hormones may depress immune function and influence susceptibility to infection [25, 23, 10, 11]. I apply non-invasive physiological assays to monitor ecosystem health and inform conservation action [12, 11, 14].

2. Behavioural ecology

I conduct research on home range and movement ecology [22, 21, 20, 19, 18, 17, 16, 15, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 24], predation risk [13, 17, 21], sociality [22, 19, 15, 7], and group living [21, 9]. I am interested in how movement and foraging behaviour relate to human-wildlife conflict [24, 3] and how this conflict can be mitigated using an understanding of the underlying behavioural ecology [2, 3]. I have also investigated theoretical aspects of relatedness and inclusive fitness and how both affect movement ecology and philopatry [22, 19, 15, 7].

3. Disease ecology

I conduct research on disease ecology and epidemiology [1, 23, 25, 21]. I investigate behavioural and physiological factors associated with disease transmission, related to changes in exposure to pathogens and changes in host susceptibility [23, 11, 21].

Funding

Over the last 13 years, I have gained experience in securing and managing research funding from six different funding streams. (a) At the research centre that I founded, I initiated a business model that has allowed the centre to become solvent and grow its staff, research facilities, and accommodation infrastructure. (b) As a graduate student, I competed successfully for assistantships that provided for tuition, fees, stipends, and research funding. (c) As a post-doc, I have competed successfully for a National Research Foundation Scarce Skills Fund fellowship (including project funding), for three years in a row. (d) I have experience in grant writing, in conjunction with Dr Kathleen Alexander, for solicited funding calls: three from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and three from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). (e) In conjunction with Dr Alexander, I have also secured project funding from unsolicited grant proposals to the WildiZe Foundation (new project) and National Geographic (funding renewal). Independently, I have funding pending from an unsolicited grant proposal to the Peace Parks Foundation. (f) Recently, I have started crowdfunding my biomonitoring project via the GivenGain Foundation.

Proposed research plan and funding strategy

I have identified several research projects for my future undergraduates, post-grads and postdoctoral fellows to work on. Some of these projects are theoretical or based on existing empirical data, with the aim of graduating my first set of MSc and Honours students within a short space of time. Other projects are comprehensive, field-based, and may require PhD students, post-docs, or several students (concurrently or sequentially) over the medium term. Within five years in the post, I plan to be graduating three Honours students per year, one MSc per year, and one PhD every two years. Within ten years, I plan to have a labgroup (excluding undergraduate research projects and external supervision) of eight to ten people (Hons, MSc, PhD, Post-docs) concurrently, with each of these lab members publishing one manuscript per year.

Funding strategy: I will fund research through a variety of small- to medium-sized grants. I will identify promising students and post-docs and assist them in obtaining their own support through scholarships and fellowships. I will identify these students from courses taught on campus, through colleagues at other institutions, and through presenting talks at conferences and seminars at other institutions.

Projects: The following general research themes are already identified (along with external funding sources). The first five themes concern trade-offs in animals exposed to ecological challenges (see question A, above). The last three themes concern our approaches to, and philosophy of science (see question B, above). I provide estimates of potential student numbers over the long term (approx. 20 years). Details of planned projects and funding strategies can be made available upon request.

  • Novel evolutionary fitness metrics (predominantly in terrestrial vertebrate species). Funding from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation, Darwin Initiative, and People’s Trust for Endangered Species. 2 Post-doc fellows, 2 PhD, 3 MSc, 4 Hons students.
  • Non-invasive freshwater ecosystem biomonitoring using sentinel species: Nile crocodiles, Cape clawless otters, spotted-necked otters. Funding from the South African Water Research Commission, Peace Parks Foundation, Darwin Initiative, Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. 2 Post-doc fellows, 2 PhD, 4 MSc, 6 Hons, 5 undergraduate students.
  • Non-invasive marine (littoral zone) biomonitoring using sentinel species: catsharks and shysharks. Funding from National Geographic, NRF Marine Research Grants, Blue Skies Research, PADI Foundation. 1 Post-doc fellow, 1 PhD, 3 MSc, 3 Hons, 5 undergraduate students.
  • Terrestrial vertebrate physiological ecology projects. Funding from a variety of small grants including Chicago Zoological Society, John Ball Zoo Society, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Phoenix Zoo, Zoo Boise. 1 PhD, 2 MSc students.
  • Behavioural and disease ecology projects (foraging – predation risk trade offs and implications for transmission dynamics in emerging infectious diseases and zoonoses. Funding from South African Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust, Club 300 Foundation, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. 2 Post-doc fellows, 2 PhD, 2 MSc, 6 Hons, 10 undergraduate students.
  • Methodological approaches in ecology. Funding from the Royal Geographic Society, IdeaWild. 2 MSc, 1 Hons students.
  • Epistemology, statistics, and philosophy of biology projects. Funding from the International Foundation for Science, and the International Development Research Center. 1 Post-doc fellow, 1 PhD, 2 MSc students.
  • Resolving information asymmetries in public health and clinical settings. Funding from the South African Medical Research Council, and the Wellcome Trust. 2 Post-doc fellows, 2 PhD students.
Collaborations

I have 13 years of experience in basic and applied conservation research throughout South Africa, and in Botswana, Tanzania, and the USA, working independently and within larger collaborative teams. I have worked closely with a variety of conservation stakeholders. In 2006 and 2007 I co-founded and managed a rural research centre aimed at facilitating and promoting ecological research (volunteer, undergraduate, and graduate projects, field courses) on communal grazing land, cattle ranches, and game farms in northern Limpopo Province.

For my PhD [21], I spent nearly four years conducting fieldwork in northern Botswana, working closely with the Chobe National Park, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), local communities, and private landowners. During this time I also worked with the DWNP on human-wildlife conflict research (predator-pastoralist and herbivore-crop-farmer conflicts), with a local conservation NGO (CARACAL) on varied socio-ecological research, and with a national NGO (BirdLife Botswana) on bird conservation research.

For my post-doctoral work I have developed and validated a broad-scale biomonitoring tool [14], through collaborations across northern and eastern South Africa, with commercial crocodile farmers, private land owners, SANParks, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Mpumalanga Parks & Tourism Authority, Eastern Cape Parks & Tourism Agency, iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority, and the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment, & Tourism. I am extending this study further into southern Africa, to include stakeholders in Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia.

Approaches

I place an emphasis on using rigorous quantitative methods [4, 8], particularly informationtheoretic approaches, hierarchical modeling, and Bayesian estimation, for which I rely heavily on coding in R, OpenBUGS, JAGS, and STAN. I believe that these methods lend themselves to robust analysis, easier interpretation for researchers, and easier communication to non-technical stakeholders. I also have a strong spatial ecology background and have produced several GIS analysis tools (using VBA, ArcObjects, ArcView/Map, QGIS, R).

I seek to foster engagement with scientific research and promote better technology-transfer to students, managers, and non-technical stakeholders. To this end, I have developed and taught a number of courses on quantitative and spatial methods (using open-source tools) for undergraduates, graduates, and non-academic audiences. I have fostered undergraduate research, graduate research, and citizen science through the centre I founded, through supervising student projects with the School for International Training, through collaboration with students at the Faculty of Veterinary Science (Onderstepoort), and through my role as a regional branch chairperson of BirdLife Botswana.

References

[26] Scheun, J., Bennett, N., Nowack, J., Laver, P., and Ganswindt, A. Under revision. Reproduction and captivity as putative drivers of adrenocortical function in the African lesser bushbaby, Galago moholi. Journal of Experimental Zoology Part A.

[25] Alexander, K., Sanderson, C., and Laver, P. 2015. Novel Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex spp. in group-living African mammals. In Many Hosts of Mycobacteria, Tuberculosis, Leprosy, and other Mycobacterial Diseases of Man and Animals, edited by H. Mukundan, M. Chambers, W. Waters, and M. Larsen. CABI publishers, New York.

[24] Alexander, K., Vandewalle, M., and Laver, P. 2011. Northern Botswana human-wildlife co-existence project. Component B: Survey and mapping of elephant corridors and cluster fences. Report to the Government of Botswana.

[23] Badenhorst, M., Page, P., Ganswindt, A., Laver, P., Guthrie, A., and Schulman, M. 2015. Detection of equine herpesvirus-4 and physiological stress patterns in young thoroughbreds consigned to a South African auction sale. BMC Veterinary Research 11(126). Http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/s12917-015-0443-4.

[22] Kelly, M. and Laver, P. 2006. Moving in social circles: Philopatry and interaction in Serengeti cheetah. In The Wildlife Society Annual Conference, Anchorage, AK, USA. (Conference presentation)

[21] Laver, P. 2013. The foraging ecology of banded mongooses (Mungos mungo): Epidemiological and human-wildlife conflict implications. Ph.D. Thesis, Virginia Polytechnic and State University, Blacksburg, VA, USA.

[20] Laver, P. 2005. ABODE: Kernel home range estimation for ArcGIS, using VBA and ArcObjects. User Manual, Beta Version 2, pp 62.

[19] Laver, P. 2005. Cheetah of the Serengeti Plains: A home range analysis. M.Sc Thesis, Virginia Polytechnic and State University, Blacksburg, VA, USA.

[18] Laver, P. 2004. Home range analysis — The science of agreement. In Society for Conservation GIS Annual Meeting, NCTC, USA. (Conference presentation)

[17] Laver, P. and Alexander, K. 2015. Seasonal and synanthropic drivers of space use: effects on banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) movement. In 37th Congress of the Zoological Society of Southern Africa, Grahamstown, South Africa. (Conference presentation)

[16] Laver, P. and Alexander, K. Under revision. Seasonal and synanthropic drivers of banded mongoose space use. Journal of Zoology.

[15] Laver, P., Durant, S., Caro, T., and Kelly, M. In prep. Moving in social circles: A spatial perspective on philopatry and interaction in Serengeti cheetah. Behavioral Ecology (intended)

[14] Laver, P. and Ganswindt, A. 2015. Using faecal glucocorticoid metabolites from wild animals as biomonitoring tools: Nile crocodile stress and freshwater health. In 5th Meeting of the International Society of Wildlife Endocrinology, Berlin, Germany. (Conference presentation)

[13] Laver, P., Ganswindt, A., Ganswindt, S., and Alexander, K. 2015. Is adrenocortical activity associated with predation risk and anti-predator behaviour? a field test in free-ranging banded mongooses. In 5th Meeting of the International Society of Wildlife Endocrinology, Berlin, Germany. (Conference presentation)

[12] Laver, P., Ganswindt, A., Ganswindt, S., and Alexander, K. 2012. Non-invasive monitoring of glucocorticoid metabolites in banded mongooses (Mungos mungo) in response to physiological and biological challenges. General and Comparative Endocrinology 179:178–183.

[11] Laver, P., Ganswindt, A., Ganswindt, S., and Alexander, K. Under revision. Effects of food limitation and reproductive activity on fecal glucocorticoid metabolite levels in banded mongooses. BMC Ecology.

[10] Laver, P., Ganswindt, A., Ganswindt, S., Williams, M., Palmer, M., and Alexander, K. 2014. An overview of the pathology, epidemiology, and ecological physiology of infections of a novel Mycobacterium species, M. mungi, in its only known host, the banded mongoose. In University of Pretoria, Faculty of Veterinary Science, Faculty Day, Onderstepoort, South Africa. (Conference presentation)

[9] Laver, P., Ganswindt, A., Muenscher, S., Williams, M., and Alexander, K. 2012. Urban life and seasonality. In Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Ecological Society of America, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, USA. (Conference presentation)

[8] Laver, P., and Kelly, M.J. 2008. A critical review of home range studies. Journal of Wildlife Management 72:290–298.

[7] Laver, P., Kelly, M., Durant, S., and Caro, T. 2007. Philopatry, dispersal and static interaction in Serengeti cheetah. In International Felid Biology and Conservation Conference, Oxford, UK. (Conference presentation)

[6] Laver, P., Kelly, M., Caro, T., and Durant, S. 2006. Moss or a rolling stone? Home range in a ‘migratory’ carnivore: Serengeti cheetah. In The Wildlife Society Annual Conference, Anchorage, AK, USA. (Conference presentation)

[5] Laver, P., Kelly, M., Caro, T., and Durant, S. 2004. Female cheetah of the Serengeti Plains: Home ranges from 1969 to 1994. In Society for Conservation Biology Annual Meeting, New York, NY, USA. (Conference presentation)

[4] Laver, P., Powell, R., and Alexander, K. 2015. Screening GPS telemetry data for locations having large measurement error. Ecological Informatics 27:11–20.

[3] Laver, P., Ramotadima, M., Vandewalle, M., and Alexander, K. In prep. Human-wildlife conflict in Botswana: What landscape-level attributes influence the distribution and scale of the problem? Animal Conservation (Intended).

[2] Laver, P., Vandewalle, M., and Alexander, K. In prep. Challenges in using fences in human-elephant conflict mitigation. Oryx (Intended).

[1] Alexander, K., Laver, P., Michel, A.,Williams, M., van Helden, P., Warren, R., and Gey von Pittius, N. 2010. Novel Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex pathogen, M. mungi. Emerging Infectious Diseases 16(8):1296–1299.