Can we predict the future of ecosystems throughout the world?

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To what extent does human intervention influence the world’s biodiversity? And can we predict how biodiversity and ecosystems will change in the coming years? Our plans are ambitious: We aim to develop a system capable of predicting the spread of vegetation through a number of principles that are and will remain relevant for every corner of the globe. To do this, it is important to determine the characteristics that enable plants to adapt to changing environments. For a long time, the ecological and environmental sciences have focused on the diversity of organisms as an indicator of the health of an ecosystem, but I am turning this upside down. We are looking to define the common factors.

We want to protect the world’s biodiversity more effectively 

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Those common factors determining the spread of vegetation are partly hidden away in the characteristics of plants themselves. Nearly every plant relies on roots to absorb nutrients and moisture, on a stalk for support, storage and transportation, and on leaves to absorb carbon dioxide. But what characteristics are most important for the survival of which plants and at what time in their lives? To predict the future of vegetation in the Netherlands and throughout the world, we have developed a model-based approach to determine what characteristics plants rely on for survival during specific circumstances.

Plants growing in very fertile regions have leaves with high nutrient levels. Those leaves are broken down very rapidly, strongly influencing the ecosystem as a whole. In forests a large portion of the available biomass is in tree trunks and branches because tall trees need a lot of support. But this strongly affects the rest of the ecosystem, as these plants will need to live for a very long time before the ‘investments’ pay off.

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We have also succeeded in showing how relevant plant characteristics can be predicted on a global scale, and how these predictions can be used to further predict the spread of certain vegetation types throughout the world. But this isn’t all, as we are now turning its attention to the growing influence of human intervention in nature. I am currently trying to find out how exactly that interaction between man and the world of plants works.

When an environment begins to change, plants have three options: rely on other characteristics they have, develop genetically at a very rapid rate or, thirdly, succumb to the pressures, enabling another plant species better equipped for the situation to take its place. Why does the one happen, and sometimes the other? To answer that question, I will be focusing his attention on developing a virtual plant model relying on numerous plant characteristics. In that model, the ‘costs’ of plant survival, in terms of the carbon dioxide or energy needed for certain characteristics, will be compared to the ‘benefits’. And what will happen if those environmental conditions change due to human intervention?

Why is this so important

Through this model, we hope to discover why some types of vegetation seem to be far more adaptable than others. We are also trying to gain insights into the ‘strategic decisions’ in the plant world that follow very rapid changes in environmental circumstances. And by understanding the requirements of various plant species in a rapidly changing world, specific measures can be developed to more effectively protect the world’s biodiversity. 

Biography

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I am a professor in Environmental Biology and head of the department of Conservation Biology CML. Previously, I worked as associate professor at the VU University Amsterdam at the department of Systems Ecology.  I work at the interface of environmental sciences, ecology, microbiology and biogeography.

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My expertise

global vegetation modelling, soil-plant interactions, ecosystem services, ecosystem functioning, traits-based aproaches