Photo: Ingrid Minnaar

© 2016 biological interactions

PhD student with B Anderson

Department of Botany and Zoology


biological interactions

Corneile Minnaar

Since I can remember, I’ve been trying to find explanations for things that I observe around me. As a child I paged through encyclopaedias (before Google) looking for answers to burning questions that plagued my mind. In my teens I took biology as a subject at school, but sadly, as was common for that time in South Africa, evolution was either rejected outright by my biology teachers, or simply ignored. I eventually lost interest in biology because I found myself asking why organisms were the way they were, and found the explanation that they “simply are the way they are” unsatisfactory and uninteresting. It was only once I took biology at university again—this time in the light of evolution—that everything sparked for me. Evolution was the origin story that finally explained all the natural phenomena I had observed my entire life. I was hooked, especially on coevolutionary relationships between organisms: I completed my undergraduate degree and subsequent honour’s and master’s degrees at the University of Pretoria where I studied the effects of light pollution on interactions in the bat–moth coevolutionary arms race. This time was fundamental in forming my approach to science which has been strongly influenced by the works of Chamberlin (1890) and Platt (1964) on multiple working hypotheses. These papers struck me as a more intuitive method to discovering the truth than traditional null-hypothesis testing. My current, and evolving, approach to science is to confront every question with a set of multiple potential answers, testing them through manipulative in situ experiments and supportive mathematical modelling.

Science has become more than an occupation for me, it is—in the combined words of Carl Sagan and Rosalind Franklin—a way of thinking that cannot, and should not, be separated from everyday life. I do however enjoy purely creative pursuits as well, like writing and playing music on any instrument I can get my hands on. I also enjoy creating graphic art, a skill which I’ve adopted to science through scientific illustrations of my work, which has added greatly to my ability to communicate my science in papers and presentations.


When I started my PhD with Bruce Anderson, I was relatively new to the field of pollination biology. I was fascinated by the work on coevolution that Bruce had done and wanted to do a PhD that strongly addressed the role of pollen vectors in shaping floral evolution. Pollen vectors are clearly vital to the reproductive success of most flowering plants, so understanding how they transfer pollen between flowers is crucial in understanding the coevolution between plants and their pollinators. I soon realised, however, that up until now, pollination biologists have been unable to fully understand the role of pollinators in floral evolution because they have been unable to track pollen grains as they are transferred from flower to flower. In essence, most of what we know about floral evolution has been based on female fitness only. Male fitness in flowering plants, which depends on pollinator-mediated pollen movement, has remained largely unexplored. Bruce and I realised that we had to solve this problem one way or another. I therefore embarked on trying to develop a technique which would allow us to track individual pollen grains. We had a lot of failures and ideas that didn’t pan out, but with Bruce’s unwavering support I eventually came up with a technique that allows us to tag individual pollen grains and therefore track their placement on pollinators and their subsequent placement on the stigmas of subsequent flowers visited by pollinators. We hope to publish our technique soon, and use this technique to determine the role of pollinator-mediated male fitness in the evolution of floral traits by focusing our work on stylar polymorphic systems. Stylar polymorphisms are thought to be primarily under selection through male fitness and therefore provide the perfect platform for us to explore questions surrounding the role of male fitness in floral evolution.

Current Research

Peer reviewed papers

Minnaar, C., J. G. Boyles, I. A. Minnaar, C. L. Sole, and A. E. McKechnie. 2015. Stacking the odds: light pollution may shift the balance in an ancient predator-prey arms race. Journal of Applied Ecology 52:522–531.


Popular media features of my work

Nature News: Spotlights flip the switch on an evolutionary arms race

IFLS: Light Pollution Shuts Down the Anti-Bat Defenses of Moths

Sensory Ecology: Light at Night May Be Short-Circuiting Eared-Moths’ Evolutionary Gains


Published Scientific Illustrations

Box 1 & 2 illustrated by C. Minnaar in: Ladybirds: successful invaders in small packages. Susana Clusella-Trullas, Michael Logan and Ingrid A Minnaar. 2015. Quest 11:2