History in the making

What you see brightening up my garden on the picture above is what we hope will be the future of microclimate monitoring: a TMS-logger with connection to the internet! Yes, you read that correctly, TOMST is currently working on a new version of their beloved logger that allows real-time data transmission, opening up a world of possibilities towards remote monitoring, science communication, and climate network management.

What I have here, is the first prototype (serial number …00000 of this new device!), ready to test it out in the garden. For the first time, we’ll see if data transmission from the field to the database works out as planned, bringing that bright future another step closer.

The prototype in all its glory, with see-through casing!

So this prototype now joins the army of microclimate loggers already occupying my garden, all in full preparation of what’s coming to us in Flanders next year: the biggest community science project on climate change ever!

Some other members of the army of TMS-microclimate loggers between the daisies in my garden – these ones measuring the impact of depth of device placement on the surface temperature

Fingers crossed for smooth testing!

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Welcoming Stijn

Last week, we had a new PhD candidate starting in the lab! His name is Stijn, and he is here to pull our fabulous citizen science project ‘CurieuzeNeuzen in de Tuin’, in which we will measure summer heat and drought in 5000 gardens, parks and farms across Flanders.

Stijn in action last summer – installing our microweather stations in a grassland

He will be doing the big data crunching on this one: modelling drought and heat indices over the summer, making pretty maps of temperatures across the region, and disentangling what drives the small-scale variation in our temperature and soil moisture. Exciting stuff to say the least!

Mysterious mushroom circles in the gardens, that’s the trial project of ‘CurieuzeNeuzen in de Tuin’ Already looking forward to see these mushrooms popping up all over Flanders next spring!

You will definitely hear more from him, as not only is he tremenduously motivated to get things rolling, he also fell in love with science communication already. And let that be exactly the kind of thing we love to do around here!

To be continued…

Posted in Belgium | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chicken or egg?

Guest post by Jan Clavel

By now we know quite well that non-native plant invaders are fond of human disturbances. We have seen many times, across many different ecosystems, that these foreign plants use the more welcoming disturbed sites as their entry points towards new ecosystems. Roadsides and trails in particular make for great pathways for these non-native plants, which use them to spread out to new ranges that would have otherwise remained unattainable.

While this pattern clearly exist, we are still in the process of trying to understand exactly what it is about these disturbed sites that makes them so welcoming for non-native plants. Is it due to reduced competition? Abiotic changes to pH and nutrient availability? Or maybe increased seed availability thanks to transport by cars and blissfully unaware hikers? As is often the case in ecology the answer is most likely: “a bit of all of the above”.

Cars are known to transport seeds of non-native species along mountain roads, like here in northern Norway.

However, there is another factor that could prove to play a large role in facilitating non-native success and that has remained largely unstudied. That is, the relationship between plants and their fungal mutualists: mycorrhizas. This crucial symbiosis between plants and fungi, in which plants exchange sugars for precious nutrients, is a difficult one to study as it takes place wholly belowground and at microscopic level. However with ongoing improvements to our methods, it is becoming clear that these little fungi are instrumental in shaping the processes and composition of ecosystems all across the world. And as such, it is not unreasonable to think that they could shape how non-native plants benefit from human disturbance. 

To test for that hypothesis we went back to our trusty roads in the beautiful northern Scandes. The great thing about these roads is that not only do we already know that they favor non-native species thanks to our previous surveys (see chapter 2 here), there is also a clear distinction between the type of mycorrhizas that naturally associate with the local plants (called ericoid and ecto-mycorrhizas) and the type that non-native plants like to associate with (arbuscular mycorrhizas or AM). This clear distinction in mycorrhizal types is really helpful as we can simply track the changes in AM and have an idea of how impacted our non-native plants are going to be.

Part of the team digging for roots of non-native species along Norwegian mountain roads

After many a day of root collecting, soil sampling and mosquito swatting, we sent a few hundred of samples taken all over our mountains roads to our home base in Antwerp, where we went looking for mycorrhizas. We did so both visually, under the microscopes, to know the quantity of mycorrhizas there was in each root, as well as through DNA analysis, to know which ‘species’ of mycorrhizas were present . 

Figure 1: we found many more roots with arbuscular mycorrhizae in the roadsides than in the natural vegetation (left), as well as a much high diversity, with 23 OTUs (‘species’) unique for roadside roots.

By far the clearest result that came from all that work is that there is a very clear effect of the road disturbance on AM. There are way more of these arbuscular mycorrhizas in roadside roots than in the natural vegetation and they are also much more diverse! More AM in the roadsides means more non-native plants in the roadside, thus disturbance impacts mycorrhizas which in turn facilitate invasion success. Question answered, right? Well, if you have been around ecology for a while, you will know that things are never that easy. After all, the higher presence of AM could be a consequence of non-native plant success instead of a cause, or maybe these two things are wholly unrelated and they are both the consequence of some third factor, changes in pH for example. That’s what’s both fun and sometimes frustrating about ecology, it always keeps you guessing. But what we have found for sure is that this big difference in mycorrhizas is truly there. And that opens many exciting future research opportunities that are only asking to be seized! That chicken-and-egg problem of who’s driving what? That needs to wait till next summer, when we’ll get back to see how things have changed over time.

So we can be clear here, roadsides are full of mycorrhizae that can benefit our non-native plant species. Yet, there is something rather funny with this observation: while non-native plants have not yet reached the highest elevations of our mountain roads, that is not for a lack of adequate mycorrhizas. Indeed, contrary to our expectations we found AM to be present all over our elevation gradient, even well above the highest elevation reached by non-native plants. Moreover, the difference in mycorrhizas between roadside and natural vegetation was also constant all over that gradient. That tells us that adequate mycorrhizas are already available for non-native plants climbing up the roads, which is one less potential barrier to further invasion. So that is another chicken-and-egg problem for which we do have the answer already: while we don’t know who came first in the system, non-native plants or their mycorrhizae, the mycorrhizae where clearly first to reach the top. That non-native plants haven’t colonized highest elevations yet, is thus not from a lack of mycorrhizae. At least one potential explanation we can erase from the drawing board.

Fieldwork with a view, above a Norwegian fjord close to the city of Narvik

More information:

Clavel, J., Lembrechts, J., Alexander, J., Haider, S., Lenoir, J., Milbau, A., … & Verbruggen, E. The role of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in non‐native plant invasion along mountain roads. New Phytologist.

Posted in Norway, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A fresh look on nature

Introducing the world to a child gives conflicting feelings.

We started using the GR-routes – meandering throughout Europe – to discover the beauty of the world around us

On the one hand, there is a feeling of doom: how do I dare adding another child to this deteriorating world, without asking her if she wants to live in it – and without being able to promise her the safe and happy live I got myself, when our nature wasn’t on the brink of destruction yet. It is an argument recently more frequently used to restrain from procreating at all.

If the best nature around her is straight and artificial canals like this one – what is left to love?

Yet, perhaps a bit surprisingly, what I feel is mostly hope. Introducing the world to this fresh set of eyes, filled with wonder and curiosity, made me realize much more clearly that all is far from being lost. Even in our heavily populated corner of the world, between Brussels and Antwerp in the heart of Western Europe, there is natural beauty around us that fills my child with aw.

In a recent survey of more than 1200 Belgians and Netherlands, we asked if people experience a decline or increase in nature around them. 75% reported the former: they had the feeling that nature had deteriorated over their lifetime. This paints a gloomy picture at first sight, and the decline over time is undeniably there.

The open horizon with view of the church tower – a landscape that has been getting harder to come by in Flanders over the last decennia

Yet what that babies amazement made me realise more clearly is that we shouldn’t dwell too much in the past. Observing what has been lost is important to see the gravity of the situation we are in, but what matters is what we do with that knowledge, now and in the future. She did not observe a decline yet over her lifetime, and we can do our absolute best to keep it that way.

Impressed by an oak leaf

What I also realized this way, is that nature can be in the smallest things – an oak leaf, a bird or a meandering stream. It is not only about the forests or mountains, or the world heritage sites those lucky few on your Instagram feed get to visit. But that’s another thing we asked our 1200 survey respondents: what IS nature to you? Results are mixed: those agricultural landscapes that made me and my baby so thoroughly happy this weekend, would you call those nature? For us, at that moment, it most definitely qualified.

A Flemish agricultural landscape. Nature? Or not? The definition is far from clear on the matter, but dear lord that place was beautiful!

This baby has given me lots already, but one important present is a fresh look on nature around me. I am ready to fight harder than ever before to save this precious resource for her and everybody.

Want to help? You can start by giving us your opinion on your definition of nature (if from Belgium or the Netherlands), via www.natureornot.be!

Posted in Belgium | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Belgians see nature in their municipality deteriorating

This is the main preliminary result of a large-scale survey conducted by the Universities of Antwerp and Liège among more than 1200 Belgians. 60% indicated that the quality of nature in their municipality has decreased over the last 5 years, 75% observed a decline during their lifetime.

But on what exactly defines as nature, respondents showed much less agreement. The researchers asked which types of landscape were considered ‘nature’ by the participants and which were not. Respondents as expected strongly agreed that forests could be considered nature – and most found them beautiful. Wastelands however resulted in much more disagreement: they could either be seen as Noah’s arks where nature can express itself, or as abandoned areas craving for a clean-up.

“The definition of such a simple word as nature is far from obvious,” Jonas Lembrechts, one of the researchers, explains. “There is a large grey zone, landscapes on which everyone has a different opinion. It is precisely this grey zone that the researchers want to map out with this large-scale survey. Lembrechts explains: ‘we can expect that the definition will differ from one person to the next, depending on their experiences with the greenery around us’. For example, your place of residence can strongly influence your definition of nature: those who live in the city have a completely different picture of green space than those who have spent their entire lives in the countryside. In addition, age can also play a role: the older generation, for example, remembers how you could hear a lark chirping above almost every field. For young people on the other hand, it is a surprise that no noisy parakeets flew through the parks of Brussels a decade or two ago. Often we are hardly aware of these differences in perception.

The researchers also asked how people experienced nature during the Covid-19 lockdown period. Interestingly, a high proportion of people (60%) participating did not feel they had to miss nature, with about 70% saying they had spent more time in nature during lockdown than before. Although most respondents live in urban and suburban areas, most of them did consider themselves surrounded by nature on a daily basis. As about 80% of respondents reportedly has a garden, and 50% of them visit a green area in their municipality at least once a week, the importance of these local green patches cannot be underestimated.

A better understanding of what we experience as nature can explain what we hope nature will look like in the future. Even more importantly, it gives nature managers the opportunity to take this range of personal definitions into account in their policy and communication and increase support for much-needed nature management. Indeed: the definition might be vague, but survey participants showed strong agreement on at least one topic: that nature conservation matters.

You can still express your opinion about nature! The survey runs until November 1st and can be found at http://www.natureornot.be.

The #NatureOrNot project is an initiative of the University of Antwerp and Liège. For more information, contact Jonas Lembrechts (jonas.lembrechts@uantwerpen.be, 0471475321) or visit http://www.natureornot.be.

Nature or not, that’s the question! Do the typical heathlands, agricultural areas and fallow lands fall under the definition of nature for you?  

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Belg ziet natuur in zijn gemeente achteruitgaan

Meer dan 1200 Belgen en Nederlanders namen al deel aan de grootschalige natuurenquête #NatureOrNot van de Universiteit Antwerpen en Luik. 60% geeft aan dat de kwaliteit van de natuur in hun gemeente de laatste vijf jaar is afgenomen, 75% vindt dat er tijdens hun leven een verslechtering is opgetreden.

Maar wat die natuur is, daar zijn we het veel minder over eens. De onderzoekers vroegen namelijk ook welke landschapstypen voor de deelnemers onder het begrip ‘natuur’ vielen, en welke niet. Dat een beukenbos of een heidevennetje mooi is en als natuur geldt, daar waren zowat alle respondenten het over eens. Maar als het bijvoorbeeld gaat over het opschietende groen op een braakliggend stuk grond, lopen de meningen sterk uiteen – tot 50% vindt dan nog dat we van natuur kunnen spreken.

“Je zou het niet verwachten, maar de definitie van een eenvoudig woord als natuur is helemaal niet zo vanzelfsprekend”, vertelt bioloog Jonas Lembrechts, een van de onderzoekers. “Er is een grote grijze zone, landschappen waar iedereen een andere mening over heeft.”

Grijze zone

Het is net die grijze zone die de onderzoekers in kaart willen brengen met deze grootschalige enquête. Lembrechts legt uit: “We kunnen verwachten dat de definitie zal verschillen van persoon tot persoon, afhankelijk van hun ervaringen met het groen om ons heen. Zo kan je woonplaats je definitie van natuur sterk beïnvloeden: wie in de stad leeft, heeft een heel ander beeld van groen dan wie zijn hele leven ‘op de boerenbuiten’ heeft door­gebracht. Daarnaast kan ook leeftijd een rol spelen: de oudere generatie herinnert zich bijvoorbeeld nog wel hoe je boven haast elke akker een leeuwerik kon horen kwinkeleren. Voor jongeren is het dan weer een verrassing dat er vroe­ger géén luidruchtige parkieten door de Brusselse parken vlogen. Vaak zijn we ons nauwelijks bewust van die verschillen in perceptie.”

De onderzoekers vroegen ook hoe mensen de natuur ervaren hebben tijdens de Covid-19-lockdown. Interessant: een groot deel van de respondenten (60%) gaf aan de natuur niet te hebben gemist, en 70% bracht juist meer tijd in de natuur door tijdens de lockdown dan voordien. Hoewel het merendeel van de respondenten in (rand)stedelijke gebieden woonde, voelden de meesten zich op dagelijkse basis toch door natuur omringd. Vermits 80% rapporteerde een tuin te hebben, en 50% aangaf wekelijks een lokaal groengebied te bezoeken, wordt hiermee het belang van dat lokale groen nog eens extra onderstreept.

Broodnodig natuurbeheer

Een beter begrip van wat we als natuur ervaren, kan uitklaren hoe we hopen dat die natuur er in de toekomst zal uitzien. Lembrechts: “Nog belangrijker: het geeft natuurbeheerders de kans om in hun beleid en communicatie meer rekening te houden met die waaier aan persoonlijke de­finities, en zo het draagvlak voor broodnodig natuurbeheer te vergroten. Want de definitie zelf mag dan niet altijd duidelijk zijn, over één ding zijn zo goed als alle respondenten (98%) het toch eens: natuurbeheer is belangrijk.

Wil jij ook je mening laten weten over de natuur, dat kan nog! De enquête loopt nog tot 1 november en kan je vinden op www.natureornot.be.

Natuur of niet, dat is de vraag! Vallen de typische Vlaamse heide, landbouwgebieden en braakliggende terreinen voor u onder de definitie van natuur?  
Posted in General | Tagged , | Leave a comment