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Mapping the Antiquity, Pervasiveness and Uniqueness of Life on Earth

2017/07/13 03:42:55 AM

Animals and plants found only in a certain area are important in creating a sense of place while those occurring throughout the world are recognisable wherever one goes.

Professor Serban Proches with his wife, Cecile, and daughters, Anya and Mira, on the occasion of his Inaugural Lecture 

Animals and plants found only in a certain area are important in creating a sense of place while those occurring throughout the world are recognisable wherever one goes. Both widespread and localised species contribute to a region’s unique flora and fauna.

So says Professor Serban Proches, a Biogeographer in UKZN’s School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, who was speaking on the occasion of his Inaugural Lecture into the UKZN professoriate, during which he explored issues relating to biogeography, mapping the antiquity, pervasiveness and uniqueness of life on Earth.

‘My research into biogeographical concepts has crystalised around these three major themes,’ said Proches. ‘Antiquity is one of the most important things to consider when deciding what is worthy of respect. Pervasiveness refers to the ability to take over the world and to subsequently be found all over the world. And uniqueness is relevant in the context of diversity. In biodiversity our first and foremost measure is a species, which is made unique by a combination of traits. A biodiverse area is made unique by a unique combination of species.’

Proches explained that biogeography studied the distribution of plants and animals. ‘It provides key data towards conservation with contemporary conservation theory particularly emphasising the preservation of ancient lineages.’

Proches presented his contribution to global biogeography, from mapping ancient lineages to cosmopolitan ones, and to redefining biogeographical regions.

‘I have mapped antiquity in both plant and animal lineages throughout the world, focusing particularly on the two last mass extinctions, 66 million and 201 million years ago respectively. I have mapped globally invasive species such as pine trees, focusing on both natural and human assisted invasions. And I have mapped uniqueness by refining and redefining the world’s zoogeographical regions, initially proposed by Alfred Russell Wallace in the nineteenth century.’

Proches also used the opportunity to explore the conceptual relevance of his studies against the background of his own life story, both personal and professional.

Proches was born in Romania where he studied up to masters level at the country’s premier university, the University of Bucharest. He moved to South Africa in 1999 and completed a PhD in Zoology at the then University of Durban-Westville, looking at the ecology and biogeography of southern African secondary marine arthropods under the supervision of Dr David Marshall.

Proches subsequently completed three post-doctoral projects at the universities of Port Elizabeth, Stellenbosch and KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg), hosted by Professor Richard Cowling, Professor David Richardson and Professor Steven Johnson, all A-rated scientists. ‘Six years of postdoc publishing without having to lecture did wonders for my research output,’ he quipped.

Proches was appointed as senior lecturer in Biogeography at UKZN in 2008, promoted to Associate Professor in 2011, and to full Professor in 2017. He has been in research for 20 years, during which time he has published 70 peer-reviewed journal articles, many in top journals, including one each in Nature and Science. He has over 2 400 citations and an h-factor of 24.

He received the NRF President’s award in 2008, the UKZN Vice-Chancellor’s research award in 2009, and the Distinguished Teachers’ Award in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science in 2015.

‘I feel quite happy and lucky to be an academic because I am in the privileged position of being paid to make sense of the world, and to teach others how to do so.’  

Sally Frost


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