Professor Marcus Byrne

With a series of lectures with titles such as “Talking Crap: Using Dung Beetles as Agents of Discovery” and “Dirty Dancing: Doing Science with Dung Beetles” as well as a TED talk entitled “Dance of the Dung Beetle” which garnered nearly a million hits and, along with his colleagues from Sweden and the University of Pretoria, even won the 2013 Ig Nobel Prize for Biology/Astronomy for discovering that dung beetles can use the Milky Way galaxy for navigation, you would be right in thinking that Professor Marcus Byrne has made insects, particularly African dung beetles, the focus of his research. 

Byrne has brought his science to the public in a way that is easy to understand and engaging. He  maintains that: “It is the duty of we as scientists to not only report our findings to the scientific community but also to translate our discoveries into captivating stories, which allow us to share our work with the general public, who after all, pay and support us.”

Byrne completed his BSc and honours in biology at the University of London and a PhD in entomology and autecology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). He worked in the private sector and then as a biology teacher at King David High School in Johannesburg, then moved to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Australian Dung Beetle Research Unit in Pretoria as a senior technical officer. It was during his stint with the CSIRO that he learned about biological control, by using African dung beetles to control dung breeding flies in Australia. This concept has remained at the core of his research activity: exploring the evolution of behaviour and physiology in many species of insects. 

He later joined the Wits academic staff, working as a senior and principal tutor, and eventually as a professor, the position he currently holds. He has supervised 12 doctoral and 15 master’s students. His research laboratory collaborates with institutions such as Lund University in Sweden and Colorado University in the USA, in areas such as dung beetle orientation and biocontrol of alien invasive plants. 

His many public outreach activities include Yebo Gogga, an annual, public insect exhibition at Wits that he established in 1996 and which, to date, has reached more than 50 000 visitors, mainly schoolchildren. He also runs exhibits during National Science Week and gives regular public lectures to groups, organisations and schools. He also mentored a number of Wits students who ran a Habitable Planet mini-workshop for schoolchildren in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg. His laboratory also operates an outreach programme for grade 11 and 12 students, encouraging them to participate in projects on local weeds that are controlled by insect agents.

He has published more than 60 papers in journals such as Nature and Current Biology, has reviewed for publications such as Biological Control and the Journal of Zoology, and his work has been cited more than 1 000 times. 

He was also profiled in Forbes Africa in 2013 and was named as one of 100 World Class South Africans by City Press in 2014.

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