Research

This is a guide to the different fields of research covered by our Department. As your interest may be focused on a certain approach, we offer different gateways to what we do.

Consequences of anthropogenic drivers for biodiversity and ecosystems

Climate change impact

Climate climate change will be one of the most pressing actual and forthcoming challenges to humanity, and will have a most devastating influence on the ecosystems of the world. The consequences for biodiversity are evident by shifts of abundance and distribution ranges of species leading to new communities. Range shifts may drive certain species up the mountains or up north both of which will lead to a decreased area which can be inhabited as range. These species will hence loose habitats, decrease in range size and/or abundance and eventually may face extinction. On the other hand, new species will follow from southern or lowland regions. The exchange of species may result in different functions of the ecosystem these species are associated with. Further, the impacts on biotic interactions such as competition, facilitation, parasitism, predator-prey or host plant-herbivore relationships are mostly unclear. It is hence unknown whether these may buffer against or accelerate the risks imposed by climate change.

Land use impact

Human needs determine land use and hence the composition and configuration of landscapes. The resulting landscape qualities like fragmentation and networking are important drivers for biodiversity turnover and loss. Forthcoming issues are land use conflicts arising from competition between food plants, energy plants, recreation and conservation. This sets the frame for the management and development of biodiversity.

Biological invasions

Human activities lead to the translocation of species from their home range across biogeographic boundaries into new regions. While most species do not manage to maintain self-sustaining populations, some may and become established. Few of these may even be harmful to native species, ecosystems or to forestry, agriculture, fisheries or other societal actors. This process is called biological invasions. Because some of these species have other suits of traits and serve different functions in an ecosystem compared to native species, biological invasions can have impacts on ecosystem functions and resulting services. To mitigate the impacts of biological invasions and prevent new invasions, it is crucial to properly understand the mechanisms of invasions and the impacts on native diversity and ecosystems.

Nature conservation

The conservation of nature and species aims to stop the decline of species and communities with special emphasis on rare and endangered species. A precondition for efficient conservation is the knowledge of the relevant processes that determine individual growth, population persistence and metapopulation functioning. Thus conservation biology encompasses studies on life history, demography, site conditions, population genetics and landscape ecology.

Dynamics and distribution patterns

Species show a specific spatial pattern of occurrence, their range. This range is usually delimited by specific environmental (biotic and abiotic) parameters. Furthermore, not only species are characterised by a range but certain traits respond to specific environmental filters and hence vary in their composition. To better understand the relationships between both traits and species, we model their response to the environment. This is a prerequisite to asses impacts of climate change, land-use change or biological invasions on species and communities and their consequences for the functional composition of ecosystems. We will also use this knowledge to developi adaptation and mitigation measures buffering against these pressures.

Microevolution in populations and ecosystems

Biological systems are never static. Species continuously evolve due to mutation and complex interactions of selection and genetic drift. Genetic variation that is continuously passed on and mixed within populations by sexual reproduction is the raw material for microevolution, e.g. due to altered selection regimes like climate change. Evolution may also involve hybridization of previously separated species or populations, e.g. after introduction of alien species, or introgression of genes from crops into native species.

Species interactions

In the given setup of abiotic conditions of a landscape, species interactions between same (intraspecific) and different (interspecific) species are important drivers for biodiversity, as activity of any organisms affects the environment in which it lives. Within such a dynamic environment interactions like competition, predation, parasitism, mutualism, and detritivory moulding the composition of communities and populations take place.

Ecosystem functions and ecosystem services

Ecosystem functions are defined as biological, geochemical and physical processes occuring and interacting within an ecosystem. They form the basis for e.g. water purification, oxygen production, soil formation, biomass production, biological pest regulation, pollination and many more. The performance of these functions is expressed as ecosystem services, the products of the functions like e.g. clean water, clean air, erosion protection, crop production etc. The components of Global Change, such as climate change, land-use change or biological invasions, alter the functional components of an ecosystem and therefore affects ecosystem services too. The resulting ecosystems are likely to differ to various degrees from previous systems or may be even completely novel. We aim at understanding these functions and at developing tool and management options to mitigate the impacts on ecosystems or find appropriate substitutes for beneficial functions and the corresponding services.

METHODS

Genetics

We use molecular genetic methods to describe genetic patterns within and among populations and to uncover ecological processes like dispersal or inbreeding. Various genetic marker systems are used, depending on the organisms studied and research question: microsatellite markers, AFLP (amplified fragment length polymorphism), chloroplast microsatellites, plastid DNA sequences, allozymes. Most of these markers are selectively neutral. However, sometimes it is possible to directly target variation at the gene level, like MHC in vertebrates.

Ecological experiments

Experiments run by our department are conducted in glasshouses in our field station Bad Lauchstädt and in the field.The most prominent facility is the GCEF (Global Change Experimental Facility) in Bad Lauchstädt. Moreover, long-term experiments are running at an experimental site near Kreinitz (Saxony).

Monitoring

In order to assess the impacts of global change on biodiversity and ecosystems we use standard methods to regularly monitor the changes in species combination and abundance. In particular we have established an online-based monitoring scheme for German butterflies TMD which relies upon voluntary recorders and enthusiastic colleagues. It is constantly enlarged and updated. Furthermore we are engaged in long-term monitoring of specific organism groups (vascular plants, wild bees, hoverflies, butterflies, birds) in six agriculturally dominated landscapes belonging to the Terrestrial Environmental Observatories (TERENO) Harz / Central german Lowland run by the UFZ.

Modelling

We use a plethora of different techniques to model species or trait responses to the environment as well as populationdynamics of selected species. Especially population dynamics are modelled by process-based (or rule-based) models whereas distribution patterns are mainly modelled statistically. Here we use simple niche-based models based on generalised liner models as well as advanced techniques such as autoregressive models, wavelet revised methods, generalised estimating equations or generalized boosted methods. As far as possible, we consider phylogenetic or spatial non-independence in our models.

Risk assessment

Based on a better understanding of terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, we develop and test methods and protocols for the assessment of large-scale environmental risks in order to minimise negative direct and indirect human impacts. Research is heavily integrated into the ALARM project (www.alarmprojet.net) focuses on assessment and forecast of changes in biodiversity and in structure, function, and dynamics of ecosystems. This relates to ecosystem services and includes the relationship between society, economy and biodiversity. In particular, risks arising from climate change, environmental chemicals, biological invasions and pollinator loss in the context of current and future European land use patterns are assessed.

INFRASTRUCTURES

Data bases

Naturalists and professional ecologists analysed different aspects of ecology over the past decades across a complete range of different species, habitats or regions. Therefore, for many though far not all questions data are already available. To be analysed smoothly, it is necessary to store these data in an ordered manner, i.e. in databases with easy access. We collated and host data for public access on plant traits of the German flora (i.e. BiolFlor ) and analyse databases on plant distribution in Germany (i.e. FLORKART , hosted by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation) together with databases on land-cover, soil, geology and climate which are to our disposal by courtesy of other institutes.

GCEF

The Global Change Experimental Facility GCEF is a part of the UFZ field station Bad Lauchstädt. GCEF is a large field experiment for the investigation of the consequences of climate change for ecosystem processes under different land use options. The GCEF consists of 50 plots with a size of 16 m x 24 m. The experiment started in 2014 and is planned to be conducted for at least 15 years.

TERENO

The Terrestrial Environmental Observatories TERENO are a network of four observatories funded by the Helmholtz Association. The UFZ is running the TERENO Harz / Central German Lowland observatory where our department covers biodiversity related investigations.