PhD student

Gina Arena

Thesis topic: An assessment of long-term vegetation change over a 60 year period in the Eastern Cape’s Nama Karoo and Grasslands biomes using historical vegetation data and photographs.

Supervisors: Prof M. Timm Hoffman (PCU), co-supervised by Dr Helga van der Merwe (SAEON, Arid Lands node) and Prof Tim O’Connor (SAEON, National Office)
Collaborating institutions: South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON)
Office: Room 5.04, HW Pearson Building


MSc Ecology, Environment and Conservation (University of the Witwatersrand); BSc (Hons) Ecology, Environment and Conservation (University of the Witwatersrand)


My Masters thesis focused on the pollination biology and ecology of an Endangered South African endemic species, Aloe peglerae. After a two-year work abroad stint in America after graduating, I returned to South Africa to pursue a career in ecology and conservation. I entered into the DST/NRF Internship programme in 2016 based at SAEON’s long-term ecological research facility, Tierberg, in Prince Albert in the Karoo. It was through spending time in the Karooveld that I became very interested in and passionate about this environment and its people. After completing the internship I turned my attention to starting a doctorate in assessing the long-term changes of Nama-Karoo and Grasslands vegetation across a climatic gradient where these two biomes meet. I hope to achieve this by comparing historical agricultural vegetation datasets acquired from farms in this region (collected in the 1950s-1960s) with repeat surveys and repeat photography of these same farms in the context of changing climate and land use patterns for this period.

Research interests:

My current research interests fall broadly into understanding how semi-arid environments in South Africa respond to drivers of change, particularly climate, land use, and fire through long-term monitoring of vegetation patterns. Other research interests have included studying Aloe pollination, population and habitat dynamics.

Peer-reviewed publications:

Arena G, van der Merwe H, Todd SW, Pauw MJ, Milton SJ, Dean WRJ, Henschel JR 2018. Reflections, applications and future directions of Long-Term Ecological Research at Tierberg. African Journal of Range & Forage Science 35(384): 257-265. 

Djukic I, Kepfer-Rojas S, Schmidt IK, Larsen KS, Beier C, Berg B, Verheyen K, Arena G et al. 2018. Early stage litter decomposition across biomes. Science of the Total Environment 626: 1-26:

Arena G, Witkowski ETF, Symes CTS (2015) Growing on rocky ground: Microhabitat predictors for site occupancy of Aloe peglerae, an Endangered endemic species with a restricted range. South African Journal of Botany, 100: 174 – 182.

Arena G, Symes CTS, Witkowski ETF (2013) The birds and the seeds: opportunistic avian nectarivores enhance reproduction in an endemic montane aloe. Plant Ecology, 214: 35–47.

Conference abstracts:

Arena G, Milton SJ, Dean WRJ (2017) Conference abstract: The population size structure of Aloe claviflora on the Wolwekraal Nature Reserve in the Prince Albert district. South African Journal of Botany, 109: 326. DOI: 10.1016/j.sajb.2017.01.025

Arena G, Symes CTS, Witkowski ETF (2013) Conference abstract: Neighbourhood effects on reproductive success in the endangered montane Aloe peglerae. South African Journal of Botany, 86: 144. DOI: 10.1016/j.sajb.2013.02.026.

Popular articles and professional communications:

Arena G 2018. Kraalaalwyn: an oasis in the drought. Veld & Flora March 2018.

Arena G. 2017. Using history to understand how natural rangelands in the Eastern Cape have changed. SAEON online newsletter Aug 2017.