In conversation with with Zoology Professor - Judith Masters

Read time: 8 mins

Zoology Professor, Judith Masters – one of the two B-rated research at the University of Fort Hare,  is part of a team of researchers from South Africa and France working to solve a 200-year-old problem: How did lemurs get onto Madagascar. 

Prof Masters has been researching the diversity, evolution, distribution and conservation of bushbabies since 1978. She joined the university 13 years ago.  

This Week @FortHare Journalist, Aretha Linden (AL) asked some questions to find out more about Prof Masters (JM) and her ground-breaking research discoveries during her outstanding career.

AL:  Who is Prof Masters?

JM: I was born and raised in East London, like my parents and brother. In zoological terms, one would say we are a philopatric family: we didn’t move far from the nest. My mother’s family were 1820 settlers, so the major migration was done by our ancestors. None of my family had been university-educated because of World War II, and I was brought up to revere the University of Fort Hare. I matriculated at Cambridge High School in East London.  In Grade 11 I had to move from Clarendon High School because Physical Sciences were considered dangerous for young ladies! Going to a mixed-sex school had its challenges: I had to learn an awful lot about rugby and cricket in a very short space of time.

In 1973 I spent a year as an exchange student in Western Australia, where I learned an awful lot about herding sheep (both on and off horseback) and sorting wool. By the time I returned to South Africa, I was committed to working with animals outdoors. I was also mature enough to be deeply concerned by the inequalities around me, both in South Africa and in Australia. I undertook a BSc in Biological Sciences at Natal University (Durban), where I considered becoming a marine biologist (sharks fascinated me) – but cold water has never been my thing - so I moved to Wits, where they had a captive colony of primates, and a wonderful new professor of evolutionary biology. I became, over the years, South Africa’s only indigenous specialist in tooth-combed primates (the lemurs of Madagascar, the bushbabies (or galagos) of Africa, and the lorises that span the tropics of Africa and Asia), which make up almost half of the species of primates alive today – and some of the most endangered.

But no (wo)man is an island entire on itself. While wrestling with models of species origins (since my PhD research I have been trying to get a clear picture of the relationship between the extinction of species and the emergence of new ones), it was impossible to ignore the socio-economic inequalities in South Africa. In 1985, I was also a woman in a very restrictive field. Job advertisements demanded that “the successful applicant must have completed his military service” – only white males need to apply. After completing my PhD, I worked as a part-time lecturer at Wits, and taught extra-curricular classes to township students. My township classes got bigger every week, and I had to keep repeating lectures for new students. The demand was enormous, and the situation was unmanageable. 

In 1986, I decided to “fix” things. A couple of important South African scientists (including Professor Phillip Tobias of human evolution fame) had been denied admittance to conferences because of the boycott against South Africa. Two friends and I wrote a letter to the world’s major science journal, Nature, suggesting that white South Africans be welcomed to international meetings. This would be done on condition that they signed a statement of commitment to science as an open, international enterprise that did not discriminate in terms of race, gender or creed. Also, in accordance with the Freedom Charter, the doors of learning and culture should be opened.

I was allowed by my Head of Department to remain in my office at Wits ‘so long as I had no contact with students’. My then husband (who was a co-author) was fired from his position at Wits. We were isolated in a basement room where everything became covered in soot that entered the air vents from the Braamfontein crematorium. We had no income, but we had one sign of hope: a rubber plant, which was placed under the skylight, and refused to die!  A few years later, my husband and I separated.

I undertook a two-year post-doc at Harvard University, working with two of my intellectual idols: Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. Both Steve and Dick had worked with anti-apartheid groups. They flattened the argument about racial differences in intelligence through serious science. They were also extraordinary thinkers who revolutionised my ideas about evolution.

Return to South Africa and Joining Fort Hare

I was appointed to my first permanent job in South Africa in 1998, 13 years after I received my PhD, and as a direct result of the government’s recognition of the paucity of female scientist. I served as Assistant Director of the Natal Museum from 1998 to 2007. In 2006, I was approached by the incumbent professor of Zoology at UFH to replace him.  I applied and was appointed. One of my first jobs when I took up my position at UFH, was to upgrade the course curricula in the Department of Zoology and established a research team to study primates.

AL:  Please tell us more about the research team you established at UFH?

JM: Our team is called APIES: the African Primate Initiative for Ecology and Speciation. The Alice campus is just 37 km from Hogsback, where there are three species of diurnal primates, (baboons, samango and vervet monkeys) all sharing the same forests and grasslands. Unfortunately, not all of the Hogsback residents, with their exotic gardens and fruit trees, appreciate the privilege of having wild neighbours. Over ten years, my students and post-docs have monitored the primate populations on the mountain. Despite accusations that the troops are “breeding out of control”, the numbers of animals are stable. Afromontane samango monkeys are severely threatened because of the continued clearance of indigenous forests, and ours comprise one of the most viable populations in the country. Much work has been done by our students to inform local residents of the importance of conserving our wild primates. 


AL: Please share some information about your research field, including past and current projects

JM: My own work has continued to describe the diversity, evolution and biogeography of tooth-combed primates. More than 60% of primate species are threatened worldwide, mainly through habitat destruction and hunting. My work has involved identifying crucial aspects of  the preferred habitats of species in order to take steps to prevent their local and ultimate extinction. Assessing the species diversity of small, nocturnal primates is quite a challenge. In the wild, the most one often gets to see, are two shining orange orbs way up in the trees. Like many mammals, bushbabies and lorises have a reflective layer immediately behind the retina  which causes the torchlight to bounce back. Nocturnal animals communicate and identify each other chiefly by sound and calls, hence different species sometimes appear identical. This is particularly the case with long-dead museum specimens. Morphological differences can often only be detected by sophisticated multivariate statistical techniques, or DNA extracted from skins.

When I started studying bushbabies, it was generally believed that there were five species, all of which were jammed into a single genus, Galago. In the last 40 years, extensive work in the field, in museums and in the lab have shown that this was a gross underestimate. We now know that there are at least 14 species, and greater knowledge of their behaviour and ecology has allowed us to trace the independent evolution of six generic lineages. We also know that living bushbabies have very deep roots in time: the family began to evolve around 35 million years ago, when the world becomes a cold and dry place after the Antarctic ice sheets began to form.

I played a key role in putting together this story, and it is something I am proud of.

I am currently working on a 200-year-old problem: how did lemurs get onto Madagascar, when the Mozambique Channel is 420 km wide at its closest point, and the Agulhas current that courses south-westwards between Africa and Madagascar is one of the strongest in the world? I am working on this problem with colleagues in South Africa and France, and we think we may have solved it….

AL: How do you ensure your research is communicated well, internalised and acted upon?

JM: Since I was a child, I have loved reading and writing.  I work hard to get my results published in internationally read journals. I participate actively and regularly in conferences and host an annual meeting for primatology researchers in South Africa, where students are encouraged to present their work alongside professional researchers. I aim to make a bid to host the meeting of the International Primatological Society – which has thousands of members worldwide – in Durban in 2025. I am also a member of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group that carries out regular surveys of primate species.

AL: What do you think has been the greatest impact of your work?

JM: Perhaps the greatest impact of my work has been to raise the profile of primatology in South Africa. Not only do we have a dedicated primatological society in the country that has met annually for 17 years (this year is its first interruption), I have trained local students in primate research, as well as postgraduate students from Italy, France and Madagascar, who have come to work on our wild animals.

AL: What advice would you share with Young Researchers out there?

JM: Nothing comes without passion, commitment and hard work – so before you take on a research career, make sure you love what you do. There will be many times when you wonder if there isn’t an easier way to make a living. You may lose your field site in a fire, or lose your animals in a drought or to a hunter, and have to start again. Just remember what Winston Churchill said: “Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”