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PhD in Nature Conservation student, Emily Jones is known as “the fern lady” and her research focuses on invasion biology; and particularly, alien ferns, their ecology and distribution globally.

Emily, who obtained 89% for her master's in Nature Conservation, was the winner of three top awards at the Nelson Mandela University Academic Awards ceremony in the Feather Market Centre on 21 June. She is from Wilderness, Western Cape.

For the best Master’s Degree by Dissertation in Science, Engineering and Technology, Emily won the Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa Award, the Rupert Gesinstigting Academic Award worth R75 000 and the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Academic Excellence as the best postgraduate in Science, Engineering and Technology. 

After multiple jobs in nature conservation, she realised that she is happiest in the world of research and academics. She wants her research to play an important role in understanding our planet and its biodiversity and is already busy with her doctorate.

“Ferns are remarkable and whether they are alien or not, they never fail to surprise me. They have been around since the dinosaurs and yet, they remain extraordinarily advanced in their means of reproduction and survival, this Nat Con baby, as she calls herself, says.

“I also enjoy that I am learning a skill that can be applied across other plant groups, and so although I am specialising, I am also building up a skills base I can apply in other research nodes or management positions.

Alien ferns are hugely understudied in invasion science and under-represented in scientific literature as well as in alien species lists and inventories. Her studies thus far have been ground-laying, trying to collect information to understand these species better, to understand what makes them invasive and how invasive they could get, she says.

“All of this helps us shape potential management plans and control efforts that won’t only apply to South Africa but many other parts of the world. We are looking at a group of plants that, as invaders, are largely ignored or not even seen in many countries – and we are just trying to make sure that they are noted before they become too much of a problem”, Emily says.

Emily’s research seeks to understand the mechanisms underlying invasiveness in alien ferns. Her master’s study largely focused on the various plant traits that make these species invasive, “and we also performed the first systematic search for 15 alien fern species across South Africa”, she says.

Her PhD particularly focuses on the ecology of the different life stages of ferns and how this relates to their invasive potential. She will also look at species distribution modelling and untangling the global horticultural trade networks in ornamental ferns.

Her research found that the majority of known alien fern species in South Africa are in fact too widespread to be considered viable candidates for eradication; however, some species remain viable targets. Determining which methods of control would be most successful, however, remains to be explored.  

“The big issue with ferns is that they are habitat specific, meaning that they like to grow in very specific niches, such as smaller streams and other watercourses. This means that alien ferns inhabit areas also preferred by indigenous fern species.

“Because alien plants, in general, grow faster and thrive at a greater scale than indigenous species, it is assumed that alien ferns will show the same dominance in habitats over indigenous ferns. We have already noticed some signs of direct competition, but more observations need to be made,” Emily explains.

“I love ecology and how everything in nature has this intricate way of surviving and interacting. Part of why I love invasion biology, in fact, is the interaction between indigenous and alien species and how it affects the ecosystem.

I am not just plant-crazy, but also hugely interested in animals and birds, their behaviours and movements. That, however, is more of a personal line of interest than a professional one.

Emily Jones’ dream world exists of writing, travelling and being close to her family on a farm with dogs. She also likes music and reading.

Emily with the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sibongile Muthwa and family.

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777