Islands of diversity – new research group on biodiversity at the University of Oldenburg
How do food webs and biodiversity develop in landscapes that are subject to constant change – for example the Wadden Sea on Germany’s North Sea coast? What role do the dispersal of organisms and the interactions between them play? A new research unit led by biodiversity expert Prof. Dr. Helmut Hillebrand of the University of Oldenburg’s Institute for Chemistry and Biology of the Marine Environment (ICBM) hopes to find answers. The German Research Foundation has approved three million euros in funding for the project over the next three years. The scientists’ research will also focus on putting theoretical environmental models that make it easier to predict changes in ecosystems to the test.
“Oldenburg’s biodiversity research is internationally renowned. The German Research Foundation’s approval for the research unit underscores this success,” said University President Prof. Dr. Dr. Hans Michael Piper. “The interdisciplinary cooperation among the participating scientists will considerably advance our understanding of the processes in dynamic ecosystems.”
In addition to the ICBM scientists, researchers from the University’s Institute for Biology and Environmental Sciences (IBU) will work on the project titled DynaCom (Spatial community ecology in highly dynamic landscapes: from island biogeography to metaecosystems). Partners from the Senckenberg am Meer Institute in Wilhelmshaven, the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (SBiK-F), Goethe University Frankfurt, the University of Göttingen, the University of Münster and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig will also collaborate. In addition, the scientists will cooperate with the administrative department of the Lower Saxon Wadden Sea National Park.
More than 50 years have passed since scientists first established a successful ecological concept with the so-called “Theory of Island Biogeography”. This theory has made it possible to analyse the role that the dynamic equilibrium between immigration and extinction rates of species plays in terms of the total number of species on an island. “This theory has acquired great significance – also for practical nature conservation – because the fragmentation of landscapes has led to the formation of many island-like, isolated habitats,” says Hillebrand. “The theory cannot, however, be used to predict which species will colonise such island habitats, or how they will interact.” Yet as the scientist explains, this information is vital to predict how environmental changes, for example those induced by climate change, will affect an ecosystem’s dynamic.
This is where the researchers come in: they want to take a closer look at which traits enable organisms to establish themselves in an ecosystem and what role they play in a food web. In this “trait-based” approach to ecological research, rather than studying individual species the scientists focus on typical traits or functions in different species, for example how they disperse – by flying or swimming, or passively – or how they ingest food. The advantage of this approach is that the results can be more easily generalised and applied to other food webs and ecosystems worldwide.
The DynaCom researchers plan to use the Wadden Sea ecosystem as a case study for examining different traits. Environmental conditions change rapidly here, both on a regular basis because of the tides and as a result of random factors. “Because terrestrial and marine organisms come together in the Wadden Sea we can analyse the spatial and temporal dynamics of both these components of the food web and test our theoretical concepts,” Hillebrand explains. The researchers also have access to an existing body of basic knowledge about the distribution of organisms in the region. In addition, the consortium will use a group of twelve artificial islands set up in 2014 near the island of Spiekeroog in the Wadden Sea for their observations and targeted experiments. Here, the researchers will be able to study on a localised scale how quickly organisms colonise certain habitats and what impact factors such as storm tides have on biological communities.
In order to be able to make more general statements about the development of ecological communities the scientists will also use mathematical models and data compiled by experts across the globe in studies of island ecosystems. “We want to gain a comprehensive understanding of the role that the distribution of the different organisms and the interactions between them plays in the establishment of food webs and biodiversity in dynamic landscapes,” Hillebrand concludes.