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European biodiversity and ecosystem scientists merge and gear up for long-term research

Measures to tackle the human impact on biodiversity require long term research and collaboration between many countries working with common goals and frameworks. This emerged from a recent workshop organised by the European Science Foundation (ESF), which moved towards establishing an ESF Research Networking Programme (RNP) for ecosystem and biodiversity analysis on the back of existing initiatives.

Before finding conservation solutions, the big challenge is to understand how human activities and their possible consequences, such as climate and land use change, interact with ecosystems and alter biodiversity, according to Markus Fischer, convenor of the ESF workshop.

The big first step will be to bring key researchers within Europe into a single “big tent” focusing on the whole field of biodiversity and associated ecosystem processes, from the molecular to the ecosystem level and across all groups of organisms. Until now, research into biodiversity and research into ecosystems have tended to be conducted separately even though the issues and underlying science are closely related.

Thus, “the most important result of the workshop was the rapid consensus that the two previously separated fields - biodiversity and ecosystem research - should team up and integrate their results more intensively,” said Fischer. “The best way to arrive at a better integration is by harmonising methodological protocols and agreeing on a sampling design for joint investigations on diversity and ecosystem processes.” The workshop has laid the ground for such harmonisation.

The workshop identified the need to understand what features enable some species to benefit from changes and others to be driven out following various kinds of human activities, over both the short and long term.”We can learn a lot about functional consequences of changes in biodiversity by comparing ecological traits of rare and endangered species with those from increasing or invasive species, or by comparing how these two groups of species respond to changes in the environment,” said Fischer. “However, biodiversity research cannot be successful if it limits itself to the species level. Clearly, evolutionary biology must be integrated within innovative biodiversity research. Moreover, biological interactions need to be considered, including pollination, seed dispersal, predation, and decomposition, all constituting integral elements of ecosystem functioning.”

All these objectives can only be met through a common approach linking suitable local projects on the ground across the whole of Europe. “It was generally agreed that functional biodiversity research requires a network of field sites distributed across Europe to cover different types of habitats, landscapes and land-uses,” said Fischer. “Furthermore it was recognised that all facilities must allow the conduction of long-term research because of the non-linear, slow and often delayed response of ecological systems.” In the long run, an integration of the network into currently emerging European research initiatives such as ANAAE and LIFEWATCH will allow the full potential for synergy to be realised.

The ESF workshop, Large-scale and long-term functional biodiversity research in Europe, was held in Werder (Potsdam), Germany in June 2008.

Thomas Lau | alfa
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