Biology Research Day

The study of biology at the University of Antwerp is surprisingly diverse. With research groups covering all scales, from the smallest cell to the largest ecosystem, and all aspects of biology, from behavioral ecology till molecular physiology, the department can be proud of its significant role in local and global advancements in the field.

I am thus honoured to co-organise the 3rd Biology Research Day, a yearly meeting bringing together all scientists and students from across all biological research groups within our university.

Poster_BRD2017

Such a research day is not only a great way from students to get an idea of everything what is going on here. It is also from major importance for the science itself, as the field is broad (making one less likely to look over the fence to his neighbour and ask what he is doing), yet parallels and shared interests are everywhere. Science makes most progress at the edges between different fields, as unexpected yet fruitful collaborations open up different ways of viewing our world. And with such collaborations getting more established within the department, the study of biology in all its facets within the department becomes more alive, and more relevant, than ever.

Impatiens - 3

Studying Impatiens glandulifera (Himalayan balsam) for its hormonal components, for its intriguing way of distributing seeds, for its rapidly changing distribution or for its impacts on ecosystems? It’s all biology!

It is every year a surprise to see who else is working on climate change, for example, and how they are approaching the issue from an ecosystem, plant or animal perspective. I am thus awaiting this event with high anticipation!

Posted in Belgium, General | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Worth it

Just imagine: your commute to your office includes a one hour drive, followed by a six kilometer hike with a 600 meter elevation increase. Two hours of consecutive hiking, if you follow a decent pace. And then your office day still has to start. And after 8 hours you still have to head back.

Heavy? No doubt, but imagine now that this would be the view from your office:

Rombak - 1

Then it does not matter anymore how long the hike, how high the climb, how hard the work, this view is worth it all.

This was exactly what we got on the last day of our second 10-day-fieldtrip to Northern Scandinavia this summer. We had had some disappointments along the way: closed road barriers, whole valleys shut down due to a broken truck on the only access road, hours of rain… All of these disappointments added up to us having to include a pretty hard day at the very end of our trip.

Rombak - 3

Luckily, weather was (finally truly) on our side that day, offering us a morning with the brightest, nicest, sunniest Arctic summer weather one could imagine. If that doesn’t make your day, nothing will.

With morning unfolding around you, slowly hiking up towards and above the treeline, and seeiing the beauty of the northernmost Norwegian mountains unfold around you; it is those things that make you fall in love with the mountain ecology everyday.

Rombak - 6

As soon as we reached the top, we spend the rest of our day monitoring plants up there, overlooking fjord Rombaken and the wild mountains surrounding it.

Rombak - 5

Fieldwork with a view over fjord Rombaken in northern Norway

I have to apologise to you now: this story is not building up to any kind of punchline. Even worse, you might have read the best of it already; it just serves as an opportunity to share the beauty of our workspace with you. After this, the story will only go down again. As we did. Down the road to the valley in the evening, following the setting sun and admiring the changing colors.

Rombak - 7

Evening in the mountains

It was definitely a day to remember, this last day of our 2017 field campaign in the north, thanks to the mountains and weather playing together to set up an incredible show. Probably just to make sure I’ll be back next summer.

Rombak - 2

Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) overlooking fjord Rombaken

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

Checking in again

Landscapes evolve rapidly when humans are around. Plants move, environments change, over a period of more than 15 years, a whole ecosystem could turn on its head. Especially when invasive species are involved.

Finding such a long-term window is however not always easy to find in ecology, especially not for a science-newbie as I am. Thus, when we gathered with the MIREN-network in the Greater Yellowstone area, Montana (more on that here), we grabbed the opportunity to project ourselves back in time.

Lunaria - 2

Linaria vulgaris: beautiful, yet vigorously spreading

In the early 2000s, areas around the west entrance of the Yellowstone National Park were highly invaded by Linaria vulgaris (yellow toadflax), a beautiful yet vigorously growing weed introduced in the area in the late 1800s as an ornamental species for ranches and lodges. This nice flower was the subject of the PhD-thesis of one of our colleagues, Aníbal Pauchard, who performed a detailed mapping and analysis of the spread of the species in the area (see this paper and this one, for example).

111-1186_IMG

Aníbal Pauchard himself in a 15 year old picture at the same location

Linaria vulgaris turned out to be a specialist in spreading, as one of the few species successfully invading both disturbed and natural vegetation. The 15-year-old research revealed how vigorously the species grows in newly disturbed patches (like new forest clearcluts). But Linaria was also proven to be highly persistant, especially when environmental conditions did not change. Only in older clearcuts, where environmental circumstances changed with trees growing back, the invader saw its cover decreasing.

Lunaria - 1

An old clearcut, with regrowing pine trees, yet a yellow-dotted Linaria-infested understory.

So how is the situation now, 15 years later? We returned to an old clearcut, where trees have been allowed to regrow since the observational study in the early 2000s. And yes, the yellow toadflax was still there. It still covered vast areas, seemingly untouched by time.

Yet within the forest, density of the invader was significantly reduced, as predicted 15 years ago: regrowing pine trees might not be able to fully outcompete our species, yet they strongly affect their density. The cover of the native understory did however not recover either, even not after all these years. Several native species could be observed, yet all of them in very low numbers only, illustrating the persistent effects of the invader.

Lunaria - 6

So what do we learn from this? Non-native species invasions can have decade-spanning impacts. They can be highly persistant, although rapidly changing local conditions can strongly influence the dynamics. The paper from 2003 already described a temporal dynamic, in which yearly changes in weather conditions influenced the performance of the yellow toadflax. Another example highlighting that long-term observations are needed in concert with short-term assessments to finetune management decisions. Aníbal – or an enthusiastic volunteer from our audience here – will have to come back to make some true measurements for sure!

Lunaria - 3

Checking in again with the research plots 15 years later

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

The roadside effect: visual proof

36617930131_0359b1e0b2_o

Garden angelica (Angelica archangelica) in a roadside in northern Norway, profiting from the wet conditions caused by the roadside ditch.

Mountain roadsides, the most fascinating places on earth. That is, if you believe a PhD-student who has been studying them for more than 5 years now.

35923134604_22ab61a2a1_o

Alpine species like the pincushion plant (Diapensia lapponica) and the alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpinus) enjoy a roadside ‘rock garden’.

We returned safely from our fieldwork season in the northern Scandes, with suitcases full of data proving the fascinating role of mountain roads in plant species distributions. Whether they are non-native species advancing in cohorts from the valley, or alpine species exploring the rocky conditions, countless species seem to profit from this peculiar ecosystem.

36710778286_1aa9559c65_o

Yellow mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides), a plant typical for rocky alpine environments, thriving in between the roadside gravel.

This pattern is strikingly visible with the naked eye already: next time in the mountains just look at the roadside and admire the differences with the natural vegetation next to it. But we aim for more than visual proof only, of course.

We have never been more ambitious in trying to get to the ‘why’ behind it: why is this plant exactly here, and not a few meters further away from the road? What is it that attracts alpine species in roadsides below the treeline? Why is it that fireweed is so extremely common in roadsides, and plays only a minor role in the natural vegetation

36587247852_11dea00a95_o

Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), the most common roadside forb in the Scandinavian subarctic.

Now we dive into the lab and the data, aiming to answer all questions that popped up. Most important one of all: what has happened in the 5 year period since our first survey in exactly the same plots?

A tip of the veil? A lot!

36710684786_3bd932b081_o

The pincushion plant (Diapensia lapponica) within one of our study plots, bordered by the yellow measurement tape.

 

Posted in Norway | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blessed

DSC_7886

Our second fieldwork trip of the summer has been blessed; several rainbows have been guiding our way. Yet there is this thing with rainbows, they force you in a difficult position: do you experience the glass to be half full or half empty? Do you cheer for the sun, or groan for the rain, as both of them together bring the rainbow?

DSC_7898

I prefer to do the former, and today was a perfect day for cheering. We were offered some clear skies and perfect views of the mountains in the distance, which showed off their little white hats from last night’s freshly fallen snow.

DSC_7877

Yes, winter is coming again already in the north, but it makes the wilderness even more attractive.

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

A plot visit

36265157471_87354a7e70_o

Not often do we get the chance to visit the sites of our colleagues at the other side of the world. Even though I am working with their data day after day at the office, the beauty of the actual nature behind these numbers in Excel files has always been a mystery.

35594451483_32a57cc5f4_o

Epilobium angustifolium

For those wondering: most of my work is based on a dataset of plant distribution data from along mountain roads all across the world, gathered by the MIREN network (www.mountaininvasions.org). Within our own group, we are taking care of the research site in northern Norway, yet this is only one of a growing number of amazing mountain regions where people are applying the same observational protocol.

35594520553_e952373fce_o

Rumex crispus

Our recent meeting in Montana (more on that here) gave us the chance to get a feel of one of the roads of our network, within the Yellowstone National Park. And what a beauty it was! It spanned several hundreds of elevational meters, all the way to the top of one of the highest peaks in the National Park.

36005586580_034d8d43b6_o

Sedum lanceolatum

Not only did it offer us great views and fantastic wildlife (see here for another example), the vegetation alongside it also had a special interest to me, as a botanist from Europe: it turned out they have several species in common with our Norwegian flora, as well as several closely related species.

36234362192_92a04514c2_o

Finding these species back in this totally different environment was very intriguing, and illustrated once again the countless links between mountain vegetation all over the northern hemisphere.

35594513033_fa6334efb1_o

Campanula rotundifolia

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

The Yellowstone experience

Sheep - 3

The last day of our MIREN-meeting in Montana (more on that here) brought us to Yellowstone National Park, a place of endless wilderness and wonder.

Sheep - 4

We paid a visit to one of the field sites of our colleagues, on one of the tallest mountains of the National Park. Breathtaking views guaranteed, but a visit to Yellowstone would not be complete without some big mammal encounters.

Sheep - 2

Close to the top of the mountain, we got what we earned: a herd of bighorn sheep, not more than a few meters from the road, and obviously too proud to care about us, their admires.

Sheep - 1

Bighorn sheep are native sheep of the Rocky Mountains, roaming the alpine meadows, grassy mountain slopes and cliffs at the highest elevations. As such they serve as a reward for those brave enough to climb their way to the top.

Sheep - 5

This is just one of the countless highlights of the park (and our whole meeting in general), so stay tuned for more!

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