Giraffes help spark Canterbury biologist’s towering career
28 October 2022
As a child Elissa Cameron loved to sit and watch animals in her Christchurch backyard, and her dream job was to study giraffes in Africa.
Professor Cameron is now an internationally recognised wildlife biologist with research spanning from meerkats and giraffes in South Africa, to Tasmanian devils in Australia, and Kaimanawa wild horses in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The Deputy Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Canterbury (UC), Professor Cameron (Ngāi Tahu, Ōtākou) has just been awarded a 2022 UC Research Medal.
She says she feels honoured to win the award and lucky to have been able to realise her childhood ambitions.
“I grew up rurally. My mum always had a collection of animals around her as she had wanted to be a vet. So, I grew up in that environment, and my dad always encouraged me to follow my interests so I would end up in a job that I enjoyed.
Animals, and mammals in particular, have always piqued her curiosity. “I’m fascinated by what animals do, and why they do it,” she says. “I’m interested in why animals can behave very differently to one another and what causes that individual variation.”
Professor Cameron, who did her master’s research at Christchurch’s Orana Wildlife Park in 1992, spent seven years living in Africa and she has returned there regularly to do field work with a range of mammals including meerkats, zebras, lions and giraffes. She is returning to Africa in December to study giraffes and mole-rats.
Giraffes interest her because so little is known about them. “You would think we know a lot since they are big and obvious, but they live in a different sensory world which makes it hard for us to understand the world from a giraffe’s perspective.”
She enjoys finding out about “cryptic” social bonds between animals. “In the past there was a lot of concentration on aggression as a shaping force in animal societies and until relatively recently friendship was thought to be something just humans have,” she says.
“But through our research with Kaimanawa wild horses in the North Island, we’ve shown animals do have friendships and social relationships and they’re really strong determinants of their success in life. Their behaviour also changes according to who they’re with and their environment, which is very similar to humans.”
Another key area of research has been how animals can biologically influence the sex ratio [number of males and females] of their offspring. Professor Cameron has shown that the condition of mothers, including their glucose levels, can have an effect on whether they produce male or female babies. Her research in horses and mice has shown that fathers can also have an impact on sex allocation depending on the timing of fertilisation.
She is currently carrying out what she describes as a “fun project” studying how possums learn from watching the behaviour of other possums.
Professor Cameron was Director of the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria in South Africa from 2006 until 2010 and also worked at the University of Tasmania, in Australia for five years. She was part of the Tasmanian Devil Programme Steering Group from 2012 to 2018 and serves on several other international committees, including being co-chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, a globally significant role.
She has also been an advocate for equity and diversity within science. “Promoting equity, diversity and inclusion is really important to me,” she says. “Through mentoring roles I’m doing what I can to make sure some of the obstructions I experienced myself aren’t there for other people. I like to tell people that their difference is their super-power and if I can do it then anyone can. We need a diversity of views to achieve all we can as researchers.”
She has encountered challenges as a woman scientist, mainly because of other people’s attitudes.
“Certainly, the numbers [of women working in science] are changing, but the thing that concerns me is that it’s changing at the bottom end, in terms of postgraduate students rather than professors. We do pretty well in New Zealand and there’s definitely been positive change, but more change needs to happen.”
Read more about UC Council’s 2022 medallists here.
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