Plant bud. Photo: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Department of Physiological Diversity

In 1959, GE Hutchinson posed one of ecology’s most important and enduring questions: Why are there so many species? Answers to this question have a new urgency because of human-driven global change. New questions we address are: how will multiple global change factors impact species diversity, and what are the effects of species loss on ecosystems? How do the numbers and types of global change factors interact to affect species coexistence, and what level of dimensionality and complexity do we need to understand in order to predict species loss?

The work of the Department of Physiological Diversity (PhyDiv) addresses biodiversity resilience in a changing world and integrates species’ traits, coexistence mechanisms and team-science approaches to address global-scale environmental challenges. Our research program is centred on testing and developing biodiversity theory using experimental and observational studies of plant communities in the field, in the lab and with models. PhyDiv is one of 8 new research groups making up the recently established UFZ and DFG-funded German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, or iDiv: “iDiv…is a hub for international biodiversity science whose central mission is to promote theory-driven synthesis and data-driven theory.”

More specifically, our research focuses on developing and testing ecological niche theory to understand the interactive effects of multiple global change drivers on biodiversity and ecosystem function. Because nearly every global change factor that is of societal and environmental concern can be cast as a change in the factors that limit biological growth and constrain organismal fitness, they can be understood theoretically and studied experimentally through a focus on their relationships to physiological, ecological and evolutionary species traits. One major aim of our work is to address globally-relevant environmental challenges. To address global-scale ecological challenges requires novel inter-disciplinary team-science approaches.

The Nutrient Network (NutNet) plays a central role in our research programme, and is an example of how we can rapidly and flexibly take on global-scale ecological questions through a grass-roots collaborative research approach.

To understand biodiversity requires understanding the highly dimensional interplay between the species’ traits and tradeoffs that are associated with maintaining fitness under multiple environmental and biotic constraints, and to scale these mechanisms to address global challenges. Our goal is to understand biodiversity in a changing world, which requires new, interdisciplinary approaches.