Medal underscores Underhill's contributions to marine science

05 August 2002
BACK FROM Northern climes and with barely a chance to wipe the Siberian tundra from his shoes, Professor Les Underhill found himself in the limelight again, this time to receive the 2002 Gilchrist Memorial Medal (belatedly, due to his Siberian sojourn).

The venue was the MAP Room in the Avian Demography Unit, which has become quite a gathering point following a string of recent awards and highlights in the small department.

"We've tagged galjoen and even crayfish that migrated over 1 500 km, but haven't yet tagged Les," quipped Professor John Field from Zoology. Field collected the medal on Underhill's behalf at the Southern African Marine Science Symposium in Swakopmund last month. The accolade is awarded by the South African Network for Coastal and Oceanic Research (SANCOR) every three years or so.

In his nomination citation, Professor Tim Dunne, Head of Statistical Sciences, said Underhill had made a major contribution to several diverse aspects of marine science since the early 1970s, and particularly in the three-year time frame outlined for nominations.

Underhill graduated from UCT with a PhD in mathematical statistics in 1973. He trained as a bird-ringer and was founder-member of the Western Cape Wader Study Group. "As a consequence, he co-authored a series of papers on shorebirds, most of them migrants from the Siberian tundra," Dunne said in his nomination. "Where new statistical methods were needed to analyse unusual types of data, he developed them from scratch."

His publications did not go unnoticed in Moscow, and Underhill was the only South African to be invited to participate in the annual International Arctic Expedition of the Institute of Evolutionary Ecology of the former Soviet Academy of Sciences. He spent the summer of 1991 on 76°N on the north-eastern Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia, the breeding ground of many of the species he had studied in South Africa.

"On the tundra he was part of a team of scientists that successfully tested the idea that the breeding success of the migrants to South Africa was linked to the abundance of lemmings. When lemmings were abundant, Arctic foxes preyed on them and the waders had high breeding productivity; when lemmings were scarce after being abundant but hunted the previous year, the foxes quartered the tundra, destroying virtually all nests at the egg stage," Dunne explained.

He added that Underhill, unlike the majority of statisticians, was actively involved in fieldwork. "Most recently he was Scientist-in-Charge at Prince Edward Island during the Prince Edward Island's Millennium Expedition."

Underhill's involvement with marine research broadened from estuarine and coastal birds to genuine seabirds, and now includes fisheries."His commitment to the African Penguin dates back to a Dassen Island ringing expedition in 1973. Following the Treasure oil spill, he was responsible for the website that depicted the travels of penguins Peter, Pamela and Percy. (He is a director of the newly-reconstituted SANCCOB as a non-profit company.)

In 1991 Underhill initiated the ADU, a Unit that has some big projects to its credit, like the Atlas of Southern African Birds. The publication includes distribution maps of all bird species occurring in the region, including those associated with the marine environment.

"Currently Les leads a strong team of staff and students, with co-supervisors drawn from the pool of expertise outside the universities; tackling a wide array of marine projects," Dunne continued. "Some of these have a focus on species of seabirds, shorebirds and seals. Others have a statistical focus, modelling patterns and processes. An important new area is the development of indices of the health of the marine environment."

Tagging the Director of the ADU might not be a bad idea. Together with Field and colleague Dieter Oschadleus, Underhill is spreading his wings once again; he's off to the 23rd International Ornithological Congress (IOC) in China this week, to a venue promisingly named Happy Island.

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