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Biodiversity to reflect the state of the environment

Three research sites were established in 2006; the biosphere reserve Schorfheide-Chorin in Brandenburg near Berlin; the Hainich-Dün National Park in Thüringen near Jena and the Swabian Alb biosphere reserve in Baden-Württemberg near Ulm. They were established to address the relationship between biodiversity change, ecosystem functioning and land-use intensity, with a particular focus placed on the area of tension between biodiversity, ecosystem processes and different types and intensities of human land use in forests and grassland areas.

What is the great fascination of humans from time immemorial? The diversity of living things! Humans are constantly looking at the cycle of life and hope to better understand it one day. But, what exactly is diversity? Biological diversity can be seen from different angles: the diversity of organisms at the genetic, species and biosphere levels. It should not be forgotten that humans are also an integral part of these levels and human responsibility for biodiversity is of particular importance. But why is biological diversity of such great importance? These are the questions a new German project - "Biodiversity Exploratories for large-scale and long-term functional biodiversity research" - seeks to answer. Three interdisciplinary research platforms - the "Biodiversity Exploratories" in northeast, central and southwest Germany - are focusing on high-level biodiversity research. A major goal of these platforms is to obtain a greater understanding of how species diversity affects important processes and the functions of different habitats, including substance flows, carbon storage and biomass production.

The three Exploratories focusing on functional biodiversity research are part of a cooperative project that has been funded and staffed by the German Research Foundation (DFG) since 2006. The steering committee of the "Biodiversity Exploratories" comprises five scientists from the Universities of Berne, Potsdam, Ulm, Würzburg and Jena as well as the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena.

Prof. Dr. Elisabeth K.V. Kalko: principal investigator of the Swabian Alb Biodiversity Exploratory and a member of the executive board. © BIOPRO/Schnepf

Biosphere reserve: Swabian Alb (Schwäbische Alb)

Prof. Dr. Elisabeth Kalko is based at the Institute of Experimental Ecology at the University of Ulm. As the principal investigator, she is in charge of the Swabian Alb Biodiversity Exploratory and the co-ordination of the research efforts and projects conducted within the Exploratory by the members of the Institute and with regional co-operation partners. "This project is a unique opportunity to achieve groundbreaking results in biodiversity research. We want to explore the influence that different land-use intensities have on biological diversity," said Dr. Kalko. The Swabian Alb biosphere reserve was selected for the project because of its specific landscape structure that is determined by small-scale cultivation and the presence of many different animal and plant species.

Over the last three years, experimental areas have been established in continuously cultivated forests and grasslands. Scientists from a broad range of disciplines are working together with farmers and forest rangers in order to find answers to questions such as: "What is the impact of pollinating insects on the vegetation?" or "What kind of effect have climatic changes on metabolic cycles and ecological systems?"

Green dots: experimental forest plot (N=50); red dots: experimental grassland plots (N=50)
Green dots: experimental forest plot (N=50); red dots: experimental grassland plots (N=50) © BIOPRO/Schnepf
View of an intensively studied grassland plot used for extensive sheep pasture – the meteorological measurement station is enclosed by a 3 x 3 m fence to protect it. © BIOPRO/Schnepf

Selection of the study plots

To start with, a grid of a total of 1,000 plots was selected in the Swabian Alb reserve. These were used to record the number and variety of land use types, the intensity of land use, plant species and soils. One hundred plots (50 in the forest and 50 in the grassland) were subsequently selected for more intensive studies undertaken jointly by all the groups involved. These areas are referred to as intensively studied plots and represent a broad range of land use types with varying levels of intensity.

These intensively studied plots must fulfil the following criteria:

  • Different degree of land use intensity
  • Similar areas to allow for statistical analysis
  • Sufficiently long distances between the plots in order to be statistically independent. 

The management teams could select six or seven different habitat types for each of the forest or grassland areas. In order to enable a significant comparison, these habitats needed the largest possible degree of overlap regarding the other intensively studied plots.

The different investigations (e.g., soil samples or survey of insect species) depend on certain climatic conditions and seasons. "We are currently focusing on monitoring. This means that we are gradually updating the bird species list. This is carried out by using a standardised procedure where the number of birds is repeatedly counted in the intensively studied plots at specific times. Some groups of researchers systematically collect and identify insects. These groups also determine the function of these insects. Other groups focus on other aspects. For example, some researchers selected some trees, performed a number of experimental manipulations, for example predator exclusion experiments, where  predators of herbivores (e.g., bats and birds), were excluded from trees with nets in order to assess their importance for arthropod diversity and damage to trees," said Prof. Kalko.

Data analysis is based on complex logistics
The Exploratories investigate biotic (e.g., species) as well as abiotic (e.g. climate and soil moisture) factors. Importantly, the development of the forest areas will be monitored over a long period of time, involving the determination of biomass, sowing experiments and fencing. "We have a database that was specifically established for analysing the huge amount of data," said Prof. Kalko adding that "all the research groups have access to these data. The exchange of information and data between the individual research groups is very important, as the data will be collected in all three Exploratories and subsequently analysed at the participating research institutions and universities. This will guarantee that none of the research groups deals with the same data. The platform makes the results available for all other research groups."

First results show the effect of agriculture on biodiversity
Two years after the start of the project, the scientists have obtained the first results. They found that mowing cycles and varying fertilisation have an effect on the presence of animal and plant species. The researchers have been catching birds and bats in order to assess the effect of these species on insects and other organisms in tree crowns. The lack of predators and and their specific effect on the environment will subsequently be analysed in detail. There is also evidence that heavily fertilised areas lead to a reduction in bat activity. It is assumed that this is the result of reduced quantities of food. "The investigation of different habitat types shows that the less fertiliser used on grassland, the higher the bat activity in those respective areas. The comparison between the Schorfheide-Chorin and Swabian Alb reserves showed that a larger number of bat species was present in the Schorfheide-Chorin reserve. We assume that this is the result of the higher water content of the Schorfheide, as the Swabian Alb primarily consists of karst, which enables the water to run off quickly," said Kalko. In contrast to the Swabian Alb, the vegetation in the Schorfheide-Chorin reserve is rather varied, in which the substrate comprises outwash plain and end moraines (stony areas) as well as lakes and wetlands.

Excellent acceptance among farmers
"We were quite surprised to see the positive reaction of many farmers towards this large project. We are very interested in being in personal contact with the land owners," said Prof. Kalko. A local area management team was put in place to focus on this type of public relations work and is in regular contact with the farmers and forest rangers to provide them with information about forthcoming experiments. Prof. Kalko points out that the mutual confidence leads to an excellent result and that both sides benefit from each other. By communicating the data of what can be found on their lands, the farmers can adapt the usage intensity and strategy of the land that they farm. As a result, they are able to improve the cultivation of the areas at the same time as protecting rare species. In return, information on how the farmers cultivate their land is of great importance to those scientists who will incorporate the farmers' experience into their research.

Swath and care of a fenced area of an intensively studied plot being carried out by the local area management team. © BIOPRO/Schnepf

It is most important for this type of research that the natural course of things is disturbed as little as possible. Every intensively studied plot contains instrumentation to measure soil and air temperature and soil humidity, which is why these areas can no longer be used as a pasture or for mowing. However, in order to be able to compare these areas with the other areas investigated, the areas containing measurement instruments are cultivated by the local area management team. Subsurface markings and bamboo poles guarantee that the individual researcher teams can precisely remain within their allocated areas, at the same time as making sure that the cultivation of the areas by the farmers is disturbed as little as possible. The farmers can, and in fact should, cultivate their areas normally, so that the researchers can obtain a realistic picture of normal land use.

An important aspect of our lives must not be destroyed

The preservation of biodiversity is an important goal. Across the world, in these times of a changing climate and the growing population in many countries, particularly in China and India, many animal and plant taxa are threatened with extinction. It is envisaged that the Germany-wide biodiversity research project will increase public interest in biological diversity. At the same time, the initiators hope that the project will provide important insights for people interested in learning more about the complex factors that affect biological diversity and their function in cultural landscapes.

People are an important factor that affects biodiversity. For example, changing land use can lead to a varied cultural landscape to which many organisms can become adapted. In order to counteract the dramatic loss of genes and species, it is important to realise that biological diversity cannot be replaced once it is lost. Many plants and animal species with a potential healing effect might be lost forever. The preservation of species diversity must be given greater priority than is experienced at the moment. It is the responsibility of every one of us to contribute to the preservation of biodiversity.

Germany has 14 regions that UNESCO selected as biosphere areas in order to protect unique cultural landscapes that have been created by humans. These areas can be seen as models that show how the created landscape, including its biodiversity, can be preserved and further developed for people in a financially viable way.

The Exploratories are three research platforms in Germany, in which experiments and observations are merged to investigate biodiversity and ecosystem processes by interdisciplinary groups of scientists. They form a platform that shows the relationship between land use in forests and grasslands as well as the diversity of animal and plant taxa. It is important to understand the ecosystem processes and their importance in species diversity. Each of the three Exploratories comprises more than 1,000 study plots (grid plots) that include different habitat types and different land use intensity in forests and grasslands on a grid with a distance of 100 x 100 metres from each other. One hundred more intensively studied plots (50 in the forests, 50 in the grasslands) were selected for further investigations and experiments.

This large-scale project has been funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) with a total of approximately 13 million euro up until 2010. The Biodiversity Exploratories will follow a long-term perspective in order to obtain a better understanding of the long-term effects and the mutual links of the fluctuations seen in biological diversity, climate and land use.

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/biodiversity-to-reflect-the-state-of-the-environment