European tree species in decline

Close to half of Europese tree species are threatened, according to a recent report by the IUCN, the groupin charge of the so-called ‘species red lists’. Causes of this dramatic number? Ongoing forest cutting of course. Yet, most importantly and rather surprisingly: invasive species topped the list of suspected culprits.

Horse chestnut: early autumn for the species all over Europe

Both invasive deseases (for example the horse-chestnut leaf miner, a little moth living in the leaves of the chestnut) and invasive tree species (like the American cherry, ruler of the forest understory) are threatening our native trees. Once again, this highlights the critical impacts of our diversity on the move.

Largest problems are in southern Europe: there, we find the highest amount of threatened tree species, among others due to the much higher tree species diversity in the south, especially in mountain regions. Additionally, however, important knowledge is lacking on many of these southernmost species, making their future particularly hard to predict.

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Young beech seedling (Fagus sylvatica). Invasive tree species can cause fierce competition for the native tree seedlings (yet for now, the beech is safe).

So what to do now? More space for forests, and aiming for diverse, natural forests will be key. Botanical gardens can also help conserving endangered genotypes, while we frantically keep working to improve the knowledge of our most threatened tree species.

I got interviewed about this report by our local newspaper recently (here, yet in Dutch and behind a paywall), a great opportunity to spread these important warnings to the broader public.

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Scaling the elevation gradient of mount Nuolja, Abisko, northern Sweden

I might not have been able to enjoy the breathtaking wildness of Mount Nuolja myself this summer, yet I am getting the next best thing: its soil.

Set-up for pH analyses on mountain soils

We received a precious package in the mail last month, with more than 30 kg of soil. Soil dug out from the mountains of northern Scandinavia, to help us open that black box: what’s happening belowground that defines where our mountain plants are growing?

With this particular 30 kg of soil, we have some important plans, together with our colleagues at the Climate Impact Research Center of the Abisko Research Station: we want to use it to get a better understanding of the rapidly changing tundra and its plant communities.

Weighing in soil samples for nitrogen analysis

The big question: how much is the local plant community defined by the climate – and thus prone to more rapid changes now climate is warming – and how much by the growing conditions in the soil?

The latter part requires a lot of digging, but our team is on it to uncover the truth hiding under the soil surface!

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Introducing: Dovrefjell


Lichens, lichens everywhere in the mountains of Dovre

Wide views, rolling hills, rocky mountain tops: we are proud to introduce you to Dovrefjell in the Norwegian mountains, backdrop of a new branch of our fascinating mountain research.


At high elevations: rocks as far as the eye can see

It provides the wild scenery enjoyed by Ronja, Ilias (thank him for the pictures!) and the Norwegian team this summer, when they were up there to dive deeper into the effects of mountain trails on the fragile alpine vegetation.


A mountain trail running through the wide landscapes of Dovre

I had introduced the area already in an earlier blogpost, when we visited the place for a kick-off meeting of Ronja’s PhD research. That time, however, the mountains were covered in a soft, white blanket.


Dovrefjell in winter, an otherworldly beauty

Little did I know how beautiful the place would look in summer, up till the pictures from the fieldwork crew started seeping through.


Studying mountain plants up close – a dedicated fieldwork team at work in the mountains

Of course it is more than just pretty pictures we hope to get from the area, these only form the stunning decor for even more breathtaking science: Ronja is leading several observational and experimental studies on species distribution dynamics along mountain trails.


Little flowers of Antennaria and Erigeron in the rocky alpine zone

Yet the results have to wait till later – after a deep dive into the statistics. Until then, we offer you these pictures to make you think ‘damn, I wish I was a mountain ecologist!’


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SoilTemp – interactive

Proudly presenting: an interactive (!) map of our SoilTemp-project. Click on the image to start exploring the what, how and why of our database initiative, and get warmed up for the real work to come!


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PhD Position on Forest Microclimate and Biodiversity Under Anthropogenic Climate Change

This gallery contains 7 photos.

Originally posted on Jonathan Lenoir:
The research unit “Ecologie et Dynamique des Systèmes Anthropisés” (EDYSAN) is launching an open call for a PhD position in Ecology & Biostatistics. We are looking for a PhD candidate interested in climate change biology,…

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Communication is key

If you want to do science with impact, communication is key. Thanks to the Flemish PhD Cup, a ‘scicomm’ competition for recent PhD graduates, I got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn this from professionals.


When you see this tower on a crisp sunny morning, you know that magic is going to happen. It is the old broadcasting tower of the VRT, the Flemish public-service broadcaster, and it towers over the city of Brussels. And the VRT, that is where we were heading for the second weekend of intensive media training.


The banner of the Flemish PhD cup in the hallway of the VRT

There, you can learn communication skills from those who know how it works: telling stories that grab people by the troath, facing the news camera without freezing into a cramp, or talking with a voice that breaths authority. They know the tricks, and showered us in them.


A session on story telling from Tim Verheyden, chief storyteller of the Flemish broadcaster

Even better, we learned how to think like a journalist, to facilitate the transition of our message from our heads to the little screen or the pages of the newspaper. We were trained in fascing sceptical interviewers and how to use tricky questions to strengthen our message.


Learning how to face the cameras, in a real studio

And most of all, we were given opportunities: to write an article (here, in Dutch) about our work, for example, and give a 3-minute pitch about the core pointof our research.

Those presentations were judged yesterday, and 8 of the most convincing ones were given the opportunity to continue the competition and broaden their impact. I was not one of those lucky ones – dear lord were there many amazing presentations, yet for me the main reward was already won.


The 8 finalists of the Flemish PhD cup, each of them presenting their science with a bang

That main reward was in the whole learning process, and that was something all 16 participants earned the benefits from: they provided us all with the tools, the knowledge and the experience to step up our communication game in the future. And, oh boy, do I look forward to that!

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Nothing says pink like the Flemish heathlands at the end of summer. I was lucky enough to spend one of the last hot summer days on the vast pink plains of the ‘Kalmthoutse Heide’, where we have our sites for the global Dark Diversity Network.


Fieldwork was of the type that I love the most: randomly selecting a plot, roaming throug it, and writing down the plant species that grow there.


We have a good idea now of the species that occupy this harsh environment; and there is not that many. The heather species, of course, the stars of the show, and a handful of grass species. Birches and pines, the occassional fern and blackberry. Only the toughest ones of the bunch, that can deal with the poor soil conditions in the sandy soils of the Campina region.


For now, this fieldwork chapter is closed again. We boxed our sandy soil samples and send them on their way to Estonia and Spain for analysis. Now it’s just typing out species list and submit them to the growing global network to explore what’s up with this Dark Diversity.


Good thing is: we’ll have to go back to the field soon, hopefully on a crispy cold winter day, to replace our temperature loggers. That’s our luck, as it is those occasional days in the field that do keep an ecologist sane.



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