Meet the team

Kyle-Mark Middleton

PhD student, University of Cape Town

Kyle was born in Gauteng where he spent his early years until he moved to Klaserie Private Nature Reserve within the APNR. He always possessed a passion for the outdoors and the move to a wilderness area led him to pursue a career in anything that would involve him in nature. He completed his BSc honours degree in Environmental Analysis and Management at the University of Pretoria in 2014. Following his degree, he spent the next two years working in the reserve where his passion continued to grow and birding became an everyday hobby. During this time, Kyle was introduced to the APNR Ground-Hornbill Project and knew he wanted to be a part of such a great project. He is now managing the conservation side of the project whilst doing his PhD study on the birds.The aim of his study is to investigate the social structure of Southern Ground-Hornbills, and to understand how individual group members contribute to two vital group functions: territory defense and reproduction, two poorly understood topics.

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Carrie Hickman

PhD student, University of Cape Town

Carrie is from Scotland and has been a member of The APNR Ground Hornbill Project since 2016. Originally running a dog walking and pet sitting business in Scotland, she has always loved the outdoors and being immersed in nature. After a life changing decision to come to South Africa to complete a Field guiding course in 2016 she realized she wanted to understand more about the environment and the environmental issues we face. She then went on to complete a BSc honours degree in Environmental Science at The Open University in 2019 while working as a field assistant on the Ground Hornbill Project. Her honours project looked at the effects of temperature on prey types and size provisioned by Southern Ground-Hornbills to the nests during breeding. With the supervision of Dr Rita Covas and Dr Susie Cunningham she is excited to learn more about these Thunderbirds. With her interests remaining in the impacts of climate change, her study will look at the effects of temperature on nestling growth and physiology in Southern Ground-Hornbills.

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Rita Covas

Project coordinator, Principal Researcher at CIBIO, University of Porto (Portugal) and Honorary Research Associate at the FitzPatrick Institute, University of Cape Town (South Africa)

Rita is a behavioural ecologist and evolutionary biologist with a passion for fieldwork and a particular interest in the evolution and consequences of sociality. She uses birds as study models and strongly believes in the importance of long-term data to address questions about evolution in the wild. Rita became coordinator of the APNR Ground Hornbill project in 2016 and her main focus has been understanding the dynamics of group living, how the species social system interacts with their exceptional life-history, and whether cooperation helps Southern Ground-Hornbills’ to cope with the weather extremes that they experience (and which are increasing under the climate emergency that our planet is facing). Rita runs another long-term project on the Sociable Weaver (at Benfontein Nature Reserve, near Kimberley, South Africa), which also focus on the evolution and consequences of sociality and cooperation. These projects’ long-term data sets are also used to study how long-term population dynamics is influenced by environmental variation and how this interacts with social behaviour. In addition, Rita has a strong interest in insularity and how species adapt to the island environment, especially on what concerns behavioural adaptations.

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Claire Spottiswoode

PhD co-supervisor, University of Cape Town and University of Cambridge

Claire is an evolutionary biologist and passionate naturalist with a particular interest in the ecology, evolution and conservation of species interactions. She works jointly at the University of Cape Town and the University of Cambridge. She represents the Southern Ground Hornbill project on the academic staff of the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at UCT, and co-supervises Kyle Middleton’s PhD research together with Dr Rita Covas and Dr Fanny Ryback. For more information about Claire’s research, please visit for information on research on brood parasite-host coevolution in Zambia, and for information on research on honeyguide-human mutualism in Mozambique. Beyond her main focus on coevolution, Claire has wide interests in ornithology, and has also worked on cooperative breeding, life history evolution, nest camouflage, sexual selection, and bird migration, as well as the conservation ecology of threatened species in eastern Africa. She has been thrilled to get to know the ecology of Southern Ground-Hornbills, whose dawn booming is always a highlight of fieldwork.

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Rob Little

Manager of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence (CoE) at the FitzPatrick Institute, University of Cape Town

Rob attained national Diplomas in Forestry and Nature Conservation, a BSc degree in Wildlife Resources from the College of Forestry, Wildlife & Range Sciences, University of Idaho, USA, and a PhD degree from the University of Cape Town. During 1988-1997, Rob was the co-ordinator of the Gamebird Research Programme at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, UCT. Rob was Director: Conservation at WWF South Africa from 1997 until 2008. In 2009 Rob took up the post of Manager of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence (CoE) at the Fitztitute where he acts as the Fitztitute link with the National Research Foundation and Department of Science and Technology and manages the research activities of the CoE using Birds as Keys to Biodiversity Conservation. Rob is Vice Chairman of the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project management board and represents the FitzPatrick Institute on the national SGH Working Group. Rob has authored 84 papers in peer-reviewed journals, 132 popular articles, 5 books and 9 book chapters. Of these, seven papers and 10 articles were on the Southern Ground-Hornbills.

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Susan Cunningham

PhD co-supervisor, Senior lecturer at the FitzPatrick Institute, University of Cape Town

Susie is a lecturer at the FitzPatrick Institute, University of Cape Town. She has been involved in the Hot Birds programme since 2010, initially as a post-doc with Prof. Phil Hockey and later as PI of the behaviour side of the programme. She works closely with Andrew McKechnie on projects integrating behavioural and physiological approaches to understand the thermal biology of birds. Susie is a New Zealander and completed her undergraduate degrees in Ecology & Biodiversity and Classical Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, and her Ph.D. on tactile sensory systems in birds at Massey University. She moved to South Africa in 2010 and spent her first field season in the Kalahari over the summer of 2010/11. The focus of Susie’s and her students’ field work is on the relationship between thermal biology and behavioural ecology, in particular the fitness consequences of behavioural thermoregulation.

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Fanny Rybak

PhD co-supervisor, Associate Professor in the Paris-Saclay Institute of Neurosciences, University Paris-Saclay

Fanny is an Associate Professor in the Paris-Saclay Institute of Neurosciences at the University Paris-Saclay and elsewhere, she teaches animal biology, animal diversity, animal behaviour and bioacoustics. She is also strongly involved in teaching in the field. Her domain of research expertise is bioacoustics, and works in a team devoted to the study of acoustic communication (Team Acoustic Communications). Her favorite model species are birds and insects, in which she investigates the coding-decoding systems of various levels of acoustic signatures. Her first introduction to the Southern Ground-Hornbills of South Africa were through Kyle in 2017, when she then became very fond of these amazing birds. She is particularly interested in within and between-group acoustic communication in the Southern Ground-hornbills, and in charge of supervising all of the acoustic research (recordings, analyses, playback experiments, …)

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