EAB2017 – plant ecology in Germany, Austria and Switzerland

In the run up to Ecology Across Borders, we hear from Niek Scheepens, speaker of the GfÖ-Specialist Group Plant Population Biology, about some of the plant ecology projects happening in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

The scientific community is a global community and the rise of internet has obviously advanced communication among researchers tremendously. Nevertheless, it is always good to look what happens across borders by simply going there and meeting the people behind the scientific publications. The joint annual meeting of BES, NecoV, EEF and GfÖ in Ghent 11-14 December, ‘Ecology Across Borders‘, will bring together ecologists from a variety of countries.

As one of the organising societies, the Ecological Society of Germany, Austria and Switzerland (GfÖ) represents ecology in German-speaking countries, promoting basic and applied ecological science. It was founded in 1970 to support exchange among ecologists working on a wide range of topics. The GfÖ’s Specialist Groups (SGs) cover many ecological disciplines, of course including plant ecology, which is most prominent in the work of the Plant Population Biology Group.

The SG Plant Population Biology (‘PopBio’) was founded in 1988 and has since had its own annual meeting, visited yearly by about 100 mostly young participants. The covered scientific fields are not restricted to plant population biology alone but also include population genetics, evolutionary ecology, biogeography, conservation biology, community ecology and other subdisciplines of ecology. Moreover, its members are not confined to Germans, Austrians and Swiss, but e.g. Czech plant ecologists are particularly well-represented, too. The annual PopBio meeting has often been held outside the DACH region, and also Oxford was visited in 2011. This year, Jane Catford and Rob Salguero-Gómez, both Journal of Ecology Associate Editors, featured as keynote speakers and you can read their review of the conference also on the blog. PopBio 2018 will be held in Innsbruck, Austria, 3-5 May 2018.


Delegates of PopBio 2016 in Třeboň, Czech Republic. (Photo: Dept. Functional Ecology, Inst. Botany Třeboň, CAS)

Many members of the SG Plant Population Biology are involved in large-scale and/or long-term ecological projects. For instance, a well-known project is the Jena Experiment, a long-term ecological experiment devoted to investigate the effects of plant species richness on community functioning. This experiment, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), was initiated in 2002 and is thereby one of the longest running biodiversity experiments in Europe. Various research groups have performed measurements on the very same plots over the course of the project, achieving a high knowledge output from a single experiment. Long-term experiments such as the Jena Experiment are very important since ecological processes often unfold over many years, and particularly beyond the time available in regular three-year PhD projects.


Aerial view of the Jena Experiment. (Photo: The Jena Experiment)

In a similar way, the Biodiversity Exploratories brings together hundreds of researchers, from mostly German institutions, to work on the same 150 grassland and 150 forest plots distributed across three regions (the so-called Exploratories) in Germany. The project’s main aims are threefold: to understand (1) the relationship between biodiversity of different taxa and levels, (2) the effect of grassland and forest management on biodiversity, and (3) the role of biodiversity for ecosystem functioning. This DFG-funded project was initiated in 2006 and has by now acquired millions of data points from variables such as weather, species occurrences across the tree of life, soil chemical properties and many others. Each new project adds to this wealth of data, which is stored in its BExIS system which is accessible to all participating scientists.


A weather station on one of the Biodiversity Exploratories plots. (Photo: Niek Scheepens)

Several large research projects initiated and coordinated by research institutions from DACH countries extend beyond German-language borders. For instance, FunDivEUROPE is funded through the European Commission’s Framework Programme 7 (FP7) since 2010 and aims to quantify the role of forest biodiversity for ecosystem functioning and services. It is coordinated by the University of Freiburg, Germany, and includes 24 partner institutions in 15 European countries. Intercontinentally, BEF-China is a joint Chinese-German-Swiss research project running since 2008 to study relationships between forest biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in a subtropical forest in Jiangxi Province, China, using experimental and observational approaches.

Research in high mountain ecosystems is also well-represented in DACH countries. To name a few endeavours, the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA) is coordinated from Berne and is a platform for the assessment, conservation and sustainable use of mountain biodiversity. The Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments (GLORIA) was set up in 1999 in Vienna to track plant species distribution changes in mountain systems. Finally, the Swiss-American coordinated Mountain Invasion Research Network (MIREN) was initiated in 2005 to track non-native plant species in mountain systems worldwide.

Bringing researchers together is key to scientific progress. Within the field of ecology, this counts for large-scale and long-term research projects, such as the ones highlighted above, as well as for annual meetings of our societies and their specialist groups. The upcoming BES-NecoV-GfÖ-EEF meeting is an excellent opportunity to take a look beyond our horizon, to meet the colleagues whom you otherwise may only know from their publications, and – who knows – to sow the seeds for future ecological research projects across national borders. And if you have to miss the joint meeting in Ghent, your next opportunity to meet many continental ecologists is the annual GfÖ meeting in Vienna 10-14 September 2018.

J.F. “Niek” Scheepens, Speaker of the SG Plant Population Biology of the GfÖ


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