With the passing of Professor Sue Nicolson on 27 April 2023, South Africa’s zoological community has lost a respected and internationally acclaimed leader in the field of animal physiology. Sue was a warm and engaging colleague who led by example and enjoyed the deep respect of all who knew her.
Born in Dargaville, New Zealand in 1950, Sue went on to earn her PhD in insect physiology at the University of Cambridge, where she was one of the first women to be admitted to King’s College. After moving to Cape Town with her South African husband, John Sharp, she turned her attention to the physiology of Namib Desert beetles, her research revealing the physiological mechanisms that allow them to persist in this challenging environment. Sue’s interests in comparative aspects of osmoregulation evolved into a fascination with the interactions between nectar-producing plants and the insects, birds and small mammals that feed on them, a field of enquiry that would form the basis for most of her long and productive research career.
Sue’s research was integrative and multi-disciplinary, linking studies of nectar composition and production with research into the digestive physiology and nutritional ecology of nectarivorous insects and birds. Her work yielded novel and important insights into the coevolution of plant nectar and the digestive physiology of pollinators, particularly sunbirds, an Old World group evolutionarily convergent with the hummingbirds of the Americas. Upon hearing of Sue’s death, Carlos Martínez del Rio, a global leader in hummingbird physiology, remembered fondly how delighted he had been when Sue took one of his “pet hypotheses seriously enough to prove it wrong”.
Over the course of her career, Sue authored some 185 papers, achieving a B1 rating from the NRF and a WoS h-score of 48. The book she co-authored with Steven Chown, Insect Physiological Ecology: Mechanism and Patterns (Oxford University Press), was exceptionally well-received and rated as one of the top 10 academic titles for 2005. At both the University of Cape Town (1978-2000) and University of Pretoria (2001-2023), Sue was a role model for colleagues and students alike, always striving for excellence and expecting it from those around her. The many postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows who worked with her over the years received training and mentorship of the highest standard. The large number of scientifically rigorous and exceptionally well-written papers Sue published with her students and postdocs are a legacy of her influence as a mentor, as is the fact that many of those she trained went on to productive academic careers of their own.
Sue’s contributions and stature as a researcher were widely recognized by the South African and global scientific communities. The numerous awards and honours she received included the Gold Medal of the ZSSA in 2010, the University of Pretoria’s Chancellor’s Award for Research in 2013 and her election as Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, the Cambridge Philosophical Society and the Royal Society of South Africa. She was Editor of the South African Journal of Zoology (the predecessor of African Zoology) between 1991 and 1998 and served on the ZSSA council from 1991 to 2001.
Sue is survived by her husband, her children and grandchild.
Andrew McKechnie, Robin Crewe and Hannelie Human