Dark diversity

Spring finally arrived here in Belgium, and with that spring the  fieldwork vibe inevitably starts blossoming as well.

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The ‘Kalmthoutse Heide’, north of Antwerp, on a grey day just before the start of spring

To get that fieldwork vibe up to speed, we headed north of Antwerp, to the ‘Kalmthoutse Heide’, a large swath of semi-natural heathland on the border with the Netherlands, and – in my opinion – the jewel on nature’s crown around Antwerp. There, we had a meeting with a forester of the Agency of Nature and Forest (ANB) to scout for plots for a new and exciting experiment for this summer, with a fascinating name: Dark Diversity.

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A sandy road through typical heathland vegetation

No, we will not be monitoring orcs, trolls and other dark spawn, dark diversity simply refers to those species that are NOT present in a certain place, although they theoretically could be there. The absent biodiversity, so to speak. To get a formal idea of which species are not present in a certain area, we joined the global DarkDivNet Network, who will be monitoring this absent diversity all over the world.

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Some colour on that grey day: a garden variety of Erica tetralix, with Narcissus in the background

The idea is to monitor the vegetation in a typical natural or semi-natural ecosystem in your region, and compare that with the total plant species diversity in the whole are. That should show that only a subset of all species in a region can tolerate the ecological conditions of a given site. Of those, not all are realized in local communities. The absent part of the species pool forms the dark diversity of a community.

It is for this reason that we drove north to the heathland area in Kalmthout, a fascinating ecosystem with high conservation interest. Including this vegetation type as flagship of our Flemish nature into the global network sounded like a great decision.

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Dramatic landscape where recently a forest has been cut, aiming for heathland recovery

To study those processes that influence the dark diversity, we will compare the typical  heathland vegetation with a side that has seen recent anthropogenic disturbance. We went for a drastical disturbance: the complete removal of a pine forest – complete with invasive shrubs and all – for heathland restoration.

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This site is still far from the target heathland vegetation, yet will over time hopefully slowly converge. This should reveal some cool dynamics in the dark diversity as well.

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For now, we stuck to a short scouting mission. We will return in summer for the real deal: vegetation surveys and soil sampling, hopefully under a sunny summer sky! Stay tuned!

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