School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Mr Rory McNeill graduated with an MSc in Ecological Sciences.

A Tale of Eels and Eco-Estates

‘I chose UKZN because I was given a fantastic opportunity to pursue a funded master’s degree. I had also heard that Professor Colleen Downs was an excellent supervisor and that it would be hugely beneficial to undertake research with her.’

These factors motivated Mr Rory McNeill to pursue an MSc in Ecological Sciences at UKZN.  His focus was on eels and eco-estates, in particular: are eco-estates in coastal KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) refugia or traps for freshwater eels?

With Downs as his supervisor and eel experts, Drs Celine Hanzen and Matthew Burnett as co-supervisors, he was on his way.

McNeill explained that his research aimed to fill knowledge gaps around the complexities of freshwater eels in South Africa by focusing on two aspects of their lifecycle in KZN. Firstly, he examined the environmental factors that are associated with and influence the movement of freshwater eels from the Indian Ocean to the Thukela River. Secondly, he investigated the freshwater eels’ ability to migrate between dams in a heavily altered ecosystem, which was located within eco-estates.

‘My study highlighted the complexities of eel biology and the challenges associated with studying these species as a result of these complexities,’ he said.  ‘Whilst eels are not the most glamourous of species, they are incredibly complex and have a lifecycle that takes place over thousands of kilometres in both marine and freshwater environments. There is also little information about eels in South Africa and my research was an opportunity to find out more about these really strange animals.’

McNeill’s study is significant as it provides a benchmark for a means to allow development and urbanisation to continue without impeding the functioning of ecosystems.

He thanked his parents for providing him with the opportunities to get to this point and for encouraging him to keep going.

With his master’s under his belt, McNeill plans to take a break and sail across the Pacific Ocean before continuing his academic career.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Sethu Dlamini