Schools Menu


Welcome to University of Venda’s Department of Zoology

We are situated in a truly fascinating region of the world, the Vhembe District, South Africa and we are the only Zoology Department in the world situated within a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve!

Our department consists of dedicated staff members involved with teaching and training zoologists, ecologists and nature conservationists. As a department, we exist to conduct research and make a difference to the lives of our students within the context of a developing rural region.

Recent exciting developments

The Department of Zoology recently published its first ever paper in the prestigious international journal Science. This was also the very first time the University of Venda has featured in this journal. Professor Yoshan Moodley headed the genetic analysis of the Helicobacter pylori strain in the stomach of the Tyrolean Iceman “Ötzi”, who has been dead for over 5000 years, but perfectly mummified in an Alpine glacier. He discovered that the Iceman’s strain belonged to a bacterial population that is different to that which can be found in modern-day European stomachs, implying that major human migrations into Europe must have occurred within the last 5000 years. News of the article was featured in the New Y ork Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and many other international newspapers. Read more about this fantastic finding on the Science website: The Department will be offering our new Diploma in Freshwater Technology from 2014, equip students for a career in freshwater biology and freshwater resource management, by training them as technical staff with a practical working knowledge of aspects such as assessment. Potential career opportunities exist in the Department of Water Affairs, national and provincial departments of Environmental Affairs, Water Boards (Rand Water Board, Umgeni Water Board and Sedibeng Water), municipalities and local authorities as well as Catchment Management Agencies (CMAs) and Water User Associations (WUAs). The University of Venda has been awarded a SARChi Chair entitled ”Biodiversity and Change in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve”. This initiative


Teach, research and communicate knowledge in the ecology, conservation and management of rural areas with the following thrusts:

· Global change ecology
· Evolutionary Genetics
· Alien invasion
· Freshwater conservation
. Insect Taxonomy


To discover, teach and broadly communicate, knowledge on sustainable rural livelihoods.

Strategic Objectives


· Provide quality training for undergraduate students from previously disadvantaged communities that will enable them to access postgraduate opportunities nationally and internationally at reputable tertiary institutions.
· Maintain a rigorous, broad-based major in biological sciences that provides a compelling learning experience.
· Emphasize general purpose problem solving and analytical abilities that have broad
applicability and so foster an ability to adapt to the changing world. · Emphasize the fundamental building blocks in biology that constitute themes of unification and integration.
· Devise and maintain a non-major instructional program that captures the attention of students and enables them to understand a wide range of contemporary biomedical, biological, medical, and environmental issues.


- Focus research on scarce resources, water in particular
- Develop strategic liaisons with national and international Universities, research institutions and international conservation organisations


Communicate contemporary biological science in a compelling way to the public through lectures, workshops, service on boards, outreach to schools, interviews with the media, and other appropriate endeavors.
Inform public policy on the pressing problems of the day (e.g., bio-ethics, environment, evolution) through consultations, service on boards, and related endeavors.

Last updated 10 August 2016

The following courses are offered by Zoology:

BSc Botany and Zoology
BSc Biodiveristy and Conservation
Diploma in Freshwater Technology
BSc Hons Zoology
BSc Hons Conservation Biology
MSc Zoology
PhD Zoology

Minimum requirements for BSc degree

National senior certificate as certified by the Council for General and Further Education and Training (Umalusi) with an achievement rating of 4 (Adequate achievement; 50-59%) or better in each one of the following four recognized 20-credit NSC subjects:

i) English
ii) Mathematics
iii) Physical Science
iv) Any other related subjects as judged by responsible Departments

Minimum requirements for Diploma in Freshwater Technology

National senior certificate with a minimum of 30% in the language of learning coupled with an achievement rating of 3 (moderate achievement; 40-49%) or better in four of the recognized 20-credit NSC subjects and a 4 in either Biology, Agricultural Science or Physical Science.

Last updated 10 August 2016

First Year Modules
BIO1541: Diversity of Life

Biological principles and the science of biology, the origin and chemistry of life, classification and phylogeny of animals, review of bacteria, fungi and viruses, kingdom protista (classification 7 characteristics), kingdom animalia (a general review), kingdom plantae (review , life cycles and theories of their possible origin).

BIO1542: Cell Biology

Organic chemistry: the scope of biochemistry, organic compounds of importance to the living system, structure, functional groups, stereochemistry and characteristics of the carbohydrates, lipids, proteins and nucleic acids, chemical-physical principles of biochemical bonds, matrix of life: weak interactions in an aqueous solution, energetics of life. Cytology: history of cell biology, cell theory, membrane biology, structure and features of eukaryotic cells, techniques used in cytology. prokaryotic cells. Genetics: DNA replication, transcription and translation, introductory principles of mitosis and meiosis, Chromosome variation, sex determination and the mechanism of sex related inheritance, Mendelian genetics, multiple factor inheritance

BIO 1643: Ecology, Adaptation and Evolution

Ecosystems, Energy flow and nutrient cycling, Analysis of communities, ecological hierarchy and sampling methodology, species and their relationship, common and rare species, latitude gradients, interactive network and food webs, niches and competition, demography, dispersal, evolution and natural selection, microevolution, macroevolution, origin of life.

BIO1644: Introductory Human Anatomy and Physiology

Introduction to human Physiology and Anatomy: chemical basis of life, introduction to cytology and cell physiology, histology: skin and integument, support and movement, integration and coordination, reproduction, processing and transportation.

Second Year Modules

BIO2542: Ecology

Population distribution and abundance, population dynamics, population growth, life histories, competition, predation, herbivory, parasitism, mutualism. energy flow and nutrient cycling in ecosystems; biomes and factors determining spatial distribution of life zones in the world and South Africa.

ZOO 2544: Principles of Genetics

An introduction to the central principles of Genetics, covering the following topics: Genes and loci, Genetic markers and variation, DNA replication, Mutation, Recombination, Transcription, Protein synthesis (Translation), Regulation of gene expression, Epigenetics, Genetic engineering, Genetic structure, Gene flow, Genetic drift, Selection, Artificial selection and domestication, Assortative mating/Sexual selection, Evolution, Mendelian Genetics, Hardy Weinberg Equilibrium.

BIO2646: Conservation Biology I

An introduction to physiology, concept of homeostasis, cell physiology, food and energy, gaseous exchange, blood physiology, cardiovascular system, water and osmotic regulation, movement, information and integration, calcium metabolism and bone formation, body heat and temperature regulation and reproduction.

ZOO2541: Animal Physiology

Introduction to cell structure and functions of cell organelles, specialized cell types, cell division, principles of cellular transport, Structure and function of tissues, organs and organ systems, Nutrition and feeding, Structure and function of the respiratory systems, including movement of respiratory gases in, out and around the body, Structure and function of the urinary system, and its role in regulating body fluids, Characteristics of body structure of a range of invertebrates and vertebrates in particular to type of skeletal systems, and movement, tructure and function of the nervous system including sense organs, initiation and transmission of nerve impulses and conduction across the synapse, co-ordination of the body in terms of sensory, integrative and motor functions of the nervous system

ZOO2648: Animal Phylogeny

Introduction to evolutionary biology, the tree of life: classification and phylogeny, patterns of evolution, evolution in the fossil record, history of life on earth, biogeography, evolution of biodiversity. Major animal body plans

Third Year Modules

BIO3646: Conservation Biology II

The natural world; principals and concepts; human impacts, habitat destruction and disturbance; sustainability; history of conservation biology, selecting protected areas; in situ and ex situ conservation strategies; the landscape mosaic, managing for biodiversity, ecological restoration.

BIO3544: Limnology

Defining limnology and identifying the applicable ecological concepts, the physic-chemical aspects of water, the hydrological cycle, the global and national water situation. The definition, structure, classification and functioning of wetlands. The origin, geomorphology, and zoning of wetlands. The effects of damning on river systems. A review of rivers, fresh water lakes and wetland types in a global and regional perspective. Processes within water bodies (gasses, nutrients, primary and secondary production and the cycling of nutrients). The effect of water pollution and eutrophication.

ZOO3541: Animal Ecophysiology

The physics of heat exchange, heat transfer, heat balance and control systems, animal responses to the thermal environment, physics of water movement, evaporative water loss and water turnover rates, nutritional requirements, energy, energy metabolism and the energy budgets, communication in the ecosystem.

ZOO3649: Evolutionary Genetics

The Central Dogma, Genes and Genomes, Extranuclear DNA, Molecular genetics, Darwin and Selection, Sexual selection, Adaptation, Mendel and Inheritance, Gene frequencies and allele frequencies, The Modern Synthesis, Genetic Drift and Migration, Recombination, Neutral vs Functional Variation, Epigenetics, Speciation, Molecular ecology, Conservation genetics, Ancient DNA, Measuring Genetic Diversity and Structure, Population genetics, Modelling and model testing, Coalescence, Phylogenetics, Gene trees, Species trees and Phylogenomics, Phylogeography.

Honours Modules

ZOO5607: Molecular Ecology

Human Evolution: from Africa to the world, Host-parasite interactions, Inferring Genetic Structure, Inferring Admixture, Models and model testing, Maximum Likelihood vs Bayesian Inference, Heuristic parameter estimation, Markov Chain Monte Carlo Simulations, Approximate Bayesian Computation, Coalescent Theory, Migration-Drift Equilibrium, Changes in Effective Population Size, Trees vs Networks, “Model-free” inference, Genetic landscapes

ZOO5611: Conservation Biology

Concepts (niche, life history, migration and dispersion, small populations, metapopulations, population interactions, succession, food webs, ecosystem functioning, biodiversity, island biogeography, sustainability) and the applications (alien invasive, restoration, conservation, minimum viable populations, habitat fragmentation, global climate change, economic thresholds, biological control, integrated pest management, eutrophication, agriculture, ecosystem health, conservation planning, economic implications

BIO5510: Applied Limnology

The limnology of lotic water bodies and the role of the ecohydraulic template. The impact of reservoirs and inter-basin transfer on lotic systems. The South African Water Act and its implications. Biomonitoring and the role of biotic indices in EcoStatus and wetland health determination. Sampling methods used in lentic and lotic systems.

ZOO5609: Animal Ecophysiology

Costs of living: Cost of production and cost of maintenance, cost of reproduction, trade-offs and their measurements, Physiological energetic (feeding, metabolism and growth): the comparative physiology of animal digestive system, feeding and digestion, optimal foraging and optimal digestion, constraints imposed by food items, Growth in animals: central concept, growth curves, metabolism and growth, physiology and cellular aspects of growth, the regulation and integration of growth, hormonal influences, environmental factors and growth, environmental tolerance, environmental stressors, Niche overlap and diet analysis: measurement of niche breadth and niche overlap, dietary preferences and indices, Reproduction: endocrine control, species difference in reproductive mechanisms, ovulation rate, embryonic mortality, gestation length, patterns of reproduction, pregnancy and lactation, the costing of reproduction, types of costing, trade-offs and their causes, the environment and reproduction.

BIO 5606: Insect Diversity and Conservation

Basic insect morphology; higher classification of the Class Insecta; threats to insects; response of insects to the landscape mosaic; surveying and monitoring, insect conservation planning and management.

Last updated 10 August 2016


Current research and collaborations

Besides our teaching and administrative duties, we are also involved with research on global change ecology, invasive aliens, freshwater conservation, molecular genetics and taxonomy.

Dr Paul Fouche is currently working on a project on Nandonni Dam registered with the Water Research Commission, with collaborators from University of Limpopo. Other project include among others a long term monitoring of fish populations in Kruger National park with Prof. Nico Smit from University of Johannesburg. He is also part of the provincial biomonitoring team at national meetings of the River Health Programme.

Prof Ben van der Waal is involved with a project on water resource management in the Caprivi Strip funded by WWF. He has just returned!

Dr Tshifhiwa Nanngambi has recently registered a project on genetic divergence among different Venda groups with Univen’s Research and Publications Committee. She is also collaborating with Dr from Natal Museum on Mollusca or something like that. She has also built up a new genetics laboratory at our department.

Prof. Jan Crafford is involved with supervising Mr Koos Steyn from UNIVEN School of Environmental Sciences on the use of trap crops in Macadamia orchards as a viable pest control strategy. He is supervising Mr project testing island biogeography theory in natural forest fragments in a grassland matrix, otherwise known colloquially as leopard bush.

Dr Stefan Foord, a core team member of the DST-NRF Center for Excellence in Invasion Biology, has a project registered with the NRF on spider diversity in the Savanna biome, and also conducts extensive sampling for the SANSA project headed by Prof Ansie Dippenaar Schoeman from the Agricultural Research Council. He is also supervising Dr Norbert Hahn’s Post-Doctoral project on the impact of invasive aliens in the Soutpansberg and and Caswell Munyai’s project on ants along an elevational transect in the Soutpansberg. He is also co-supervising honours students for 2010.

Mr Colin Schoeman has registered a project with Univen’s Research and Publications Committee on insect diversity and conservation in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve that is running from 2010—2011. Dr Stephan Foord and Henk Geertsema of University of Stellenbosch are co-workers on this project. Mr Schoeman is supervising Daisy Thononda, Vanessa Matukana and Mandla Magoro’s honours projects on biodiversity in traditional agricultural landscapes.

Mr Schoeman and Mr Munyai have also started building up an insect collection for the department.

The department has a close association with Lajuma Research Station run by Prof. Ian Gaiger. Many of our student practicals and honors and masters projects have been conducted at Lajuma.

Canopy fogging for spiders on Lajuma
Specially woven baskets for catching fish in Caprivi
“Nice day for a spot of Malacology!”

“I caught a fish this big!” Nandoni Dam Project

Caswell at CIB’s annual research meeting

Staff and graduate students at Zoology

Please browse through our staff and graduate student page. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions.

Head of department

Much of my research has focused on invertebrate composition in space and time, both in natural and (Foord et al. 2008, Muelelwa et al. 2010) and human-dominated ecosystems (Foord et al. 2003). Working on invertebrates has lead to both taxonomic work (Foord 2008), optimal sampling protocols (Muelelwa et al. 2010) and a search for surrogates of their diversity (Foord et al. 2013). But the broader relevance of this work falls within the context of global change drivers such as the effects of land use change, habitat fragmentation, alien invasive organisms and possible impacts of climate change on biodiversity. This work provides insights into the scale at which landscapes should be managed for conservation (Schoeman & Foord 2012), baseline information (Foord et al. 2011, Dippenaar-Schoeman et al. 2012) and a framework for monitoring the response of assemblages over time (Foord et al. 2003) but also identifies the drivers and processes that underlie this diversity (Munyai & Foord 2012). Recent research has shifted some and some of  my postgraduate students focus on functional perspectives in community assembly and the functional importance of diversity in agro-ecosystems particularly within the context of ecological networks, see student projects. I am currently head of the Department of Zoology, a Core Team Member of the Centre for Excellence for Invasion Biology and have ongoing collaborations with the Agricultural Research Council and the University of Bloemfontein. I teach Ecology and Conservation Biology at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.



After over a decade abroad, I have returned to Africa. I am now based at the University of Venda – the only South African University located in the tropics, and within a biosphere reserve that includes the world famous Kruger National Park. While remote (a five hour drive from Johannesburg), the Vhembe region offers accessibility to sophisticated research facilities at the university, while affording researchers the opportunity to live in a forgotten, scenic and highly diverse corner of Africa. I have always been intrigued by systematic (top-down) and population genetic (bottom-up) approaches to the study of evolution, and my experience has shown me that both approaches are fully complementary, and indeed essential for the elucidation of evolutionary mechanisms. Evolutionary history, therefore, is a central theme throughout my research. I have worked with several taxa from bacteria to large mammals (see publication list). Below is a brief description of just some of the exciting research project currently being carried out.

Tracing human migrations

My group continues the very successful research on the phylogenetic and demographic history of the human pathogen (Helicobacter pylori) could be used as a marker for prehistoric human migrations, and can be more reliable than human DNA itself. This is because high bacterial mutation and recombination rates allow faster lineage sorting among continents, with greater diversification within continents. This has allowed us to trace prehistoric human migrations In collaboration with Dr. Silvia Ghirotto (University of Ferrara, Italy) we are currently fitting coalescent models to a massive MLST data set of strains from Siberia and Central Asia. We hope to determine the number of independent migration events that led to the peopling of the Americas. My group is also working in collaboration with Dr. Yoshio Yamaoka of the Baylor College of Medicine (Houston, USA). In this project we are focussed on the island of Japan and will study the H. pylori diversity there using whole genome sequences.


The process by which new species are formed has intrigued biologists long before Darwin introduced us all to natural selection. Speciation is at its most rampant during an adaptive radiation, where lineages rapidly evolved from a single common ancestor. What drives this process? What evolutionary forces are most dominant? One group of bovids that are particularly well suited to identify potential answers to these questions is the Tragelaphine antelopes. That is because they contain both high levels of diversity – just compare an eland with a bushbuck for size – but they are also well known for their high levels of convergent evolution – compare the evolutionary unrelated yet phenotypically similar kudu/lesser kudu or nyala/mountain nyala. What speciation processes have led to this high convergence? Together with Prof. Michael Hofreiter (University of Potsdam, Germany), we have already sequenced the whole genomes of a representative of each Tragelaphus species and we are presently being assembled. We will scan these genomes for signatures of selection, determine the genomic regions affected and correlate these with genes known to be associated with phenotypic traits.

Conservation Genetics

African rhinoceros are among the most endangered mammals in the world, yet their evolutionary histories are largely unknown. This is ironic, given that a firm understanding of population structure is essential for efficient conservation management. We are currently publishing the results of a pan-African study funded by the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) that reconstructs the phylogenetic history of both species. Together with Prof. Michael Bruford and Dr. Isa-Rita Russo (Cardiff University, UK), we recently obtained another research grant from the IRF to establish the first black rhinoceros whole genome assembly, and compare this to resequenced genomes from other southern African populations.


I am always very keen on the interaction between genes and their spatial, climatic and ecological environments. Together with Prof Petra Quillfeldt, Dr. Juan Masello (University of Giessen, Germany) and other colleagues, we have embarked on an ambitious project in which we will elucidate the comparative phylogeography of petrel (Pachyptila) species in sub-Antarctic waters. These highly specialised seabirds, capable of migrating thousands of kilometres between breeding and feeding grounds, are another product of a Pleistocene adaptive radiation. We aim therefore to determine the evolutionary relationships and levels of gene flow among them, and then ascertain the underlying evolutionary mechanisms responsible.

Research opportunities

I am in the process of establishing a high end molecular zoology lab, capable of generating DNA libraries for next generation sequencing applications such as RADseq, RNAseq and whole genome sequencing. The lab will also include an ancient DNA facility for museum and other “difficult” specimens. Concurrently, I am setting up a bioinformatics hub at the University that will process the NGS data that we generate. We are presently looking for capable lab members at all academic levels. So if you are seriously interested in one of the themes outlined above, and would like to work and live within an African biosphere reserve, then do get in contact with me.

Undergraduate teaching

I teach a comprehensive course in evolutionary genetics at the third year level. Our three year undergraduate program has been restructured with the aim of producing graduates skilled in evolutionary thinking and genetic analyses.


My honours course focuses on further building on theoretical and analytical skills. It also serves to introduce students to postgraduate research in conservation genetics and molecular ecology.


Fresh Water Toxicology

Irene’s research interest is in freshwater aquatic sciences with the emphasis on environmental endocrine disruption (ecotoxicology) and the safe consumption of wild fish. Key findings of her work include incidences of intersex in a South African freshwater fish species, Clarias gariepinus, in the Rietvlei Dam (Barnhoorn et al., 2004) and in a freshwater fish species, Oreochromis mossambicus, from an area where DDT (known EDC) spraying is on-going (Barnhoorn et al., 2010). Intersex in fish is the presence of both male and female reproductive features within the same individual. This is of concern as it may cause changes in the reductive health of fish species and is usually associated with exposure to EDCs. Reports from the UK and Europe indicated exposure to EDCs since 1994 and my findings show that  South African waters are not excluded from endocrine chemical pollution. The findings also have significance value for humans: Not only does EDCs exposure leads to intersex in fish species, but global reports  show a number of reproductive, developmental, behavioural and immunological abnormalities  in both humans and other wildlife species. This may have an impact on populations surrounding and using these polluted water sources. This research formed the baseline for future studies on the possible effects of EDCs on freshwater fish and aquatic ecosystems in South Africa. Completed research projects formed a basis in which protocols were developed to apply in EDCs research. I will focus on environmental endocrine disrupters and the safe human consumption of wild fish species. The concept will in future make an important contribution in South Africa to provide safe food for the local people/ everybody. Irene teaches third year Eco-physiology and Limnology.


Conservation Biology

I obtained my PhD from the Centre for Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria. My PhD focussed on evaluating the Viability of Leopards (Panthera pardus) in South Africa. My current research focusses on, but is not limited to, the conservation ecology of small to medium carnivores, small mammal population ecology, small mammals in agro-ecosystems, predation ecosystem services and associated conservation policies. My research is hypothesis and field work driven with great emphasis on statistical ecology. I teach Conservation Biology on 3rd year and Honours level.


Conservation Biology

I obtained my PhD from the Centre for Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria. My PhD focussed on evaluating the Viability of Leopards (Panthera pardus) in South Africa. My current research focusses on, but is not limited to, the conservation ecology of small to medium carnivores, small mammal population ecology, small mammals in agro-ecosystems, predation ecosystem services and associated conservation policies. My research is hypothesis and field work driven with great emphasis on statistical ecology. I teach Conservation Biology on 3rd year and Honours level.



Justice trained at UKZN and UWC. He focuses on physiology of small mammals, with the main focus on the role of dietary proteins in sexual function., biological control of alien plants (water hyacinth), and biological water monitoring, using algal group known as diatoms (Bacillariophyta). Justice teaches Physiology, Ecophysiology, Animal Diversity and Human Anatomy and Physiology.



Justice completed a BSc Hons from Univen and a MSc from UP. He started his career working for the Department of Environmental Affairs as a field assistant on Marion Island. Currently he is teaching first and second year Cell Biology as well as first year Ecology, Adaptation and Evolution.



Khathu is currently completing his MSc degree with Botany. He assists in the lab and the field.



Mashudu is an assistant in the lab and field.


Directions: University of Venda Campus is located in Thohoyandou, Northern province. To drive from Makhado, take the R 524 Sebasa Road off the N1,. Continue past Piesanhoek and Entabeni. Just after Entabeni, there is a road block, turn right and continue following the Thohoyandou signs. You’ll drive through the Levubu tropical valley, and eventually you will turn right back onto Sebasa road. Continue straight, drive past Tshakuma, and continue until you see the Thohoyandou Sibasa sign, at the following set of robots turn left. Continue onwards, at the second set of robots there is a board with VENCO written, turn left there, continue straight on. Just before the road turns to the left take the right and continue onwards until you see the parking behind a large building (the library). We are situated next to the Library in the Mathematics and Natural Sciences building.

To Contact us: University of Venda
Department of Zoology
School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences
University of Venda
Private Bag X5050

Contact persons in the Department

- Prof SH Foord (015) 962 8492
- Prof Prof IEJ Barnhoorn (015) 962 8041

Last updated 10 August 2016