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Understanding ecological changes

More than 150 years after the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, we still know surprisingly little about why animals vary the way they do, and even less about how these changes affect fundamental processes in nature. A new SFF centre will take on the challenge of increasing our knowledge.

Researchers at the Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics (CBD) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim are putting their reputations on the line, admits the centre’s director, Bernt-Erik Sæther. They will be trying to predict how various drivers in nature cause changes in biological diversity.

“Yes, that is how ambitious we are,” confirms the director.

Biology is a young science. Much of the research being conducted still consists of case studies of single species.

Researchers at the centre will instead design an overarching theoretical framework that makes it possible to understand – and thus predict – what may happen with individual stocks and populations and how this may affect a community of several species and, in the final analysis, entire ecosystems.

Photo: IBI/NTNU Bernt-Erik Sæther (Photo: IBI/NTNU) Stochastic processes

“We want to make biology more quantitative. Our mantra is ‘try to understand the apparently random changes in nature’,” says Dr Sæther.

“Stochastic” is a term being used by a growing number of researchers. In Greek the word means guesswork. However, in research it refers to seeking the help of statisticians and their increasingly effective tools. There are many stochastic processes in the animal world as well – meaning that they occur with a frequency or probability that is possible to express in quantitative terms. Thus it is also possible to perform probability calculations. This is what the researchers in Trondheim will use to predict the development of species and ecosystems.

“Until now we have understood surprisingly little about nature. Basically, we hardly know what is out there. If we can figure out the stochastic effects, then we will understand a great deal,” the centre’s director boldly promises.

With the speed at which humans are changing the earth, it is high time that we find out more about how nature is changing.

“If the authorities are to draw on biologists and others for input on human intervention into nature and the ramifications for biological diversity, we need to know more than we do today. We must gain a better understanding of general biological processes.”

Sparrows in the Helgeland district

The CBD researchers are not starting from scratch. With Bernt-Erik Sæther at the helm, the interdisciplinary group, which is primarily centred around the Department of Biology and the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, has been collecting data and developing new knowledge for many years. The researchers from Trondheim now have data in several areas at a far more detailed level than any others have obtained.

This detailed knowledge is allowing them to make some general statements.
In the Sparrow Project in the Helgeland district, for instance, the researchers have marked every single sparrow and followed them from island to island over vast distances since 1992. Today the researchers know the significance of each bird and its genetic makeup for the dynamics of the entire population. Now they know why some individuals become “super sparrows” while others are inferior.

“Now that we have learned so much about this one system, we can see if we find the same results other places. We are cooperating with research groups around the world, so we can test out whether our methods have general application.”

“Easier than we thought”

The projects at the centre range from reindeer and Arctic fox on Svalbard to butterfly communities in Ecuador. The scientists have consciously sought diversity in the research portfolio.

“Now that the results are starting to pour in, we see that our methods are more resilient and predictable than we had dared to hope. It is strikingly easy to explain apparently complicated systems in nature,” says Dr Sæther. This in turn makes it easier to predict processes in nature.

Photo: Henrik Jensen SPARROW FOR SPARROW: Master’s students are capturing, marking, measuring and observing the gray sparrow on Gjerdøya in the Helgeland district. Pictured here: Ørjan M. Skoglund, Malene Vågen Dimmen and Marlene Wæge Stubberud. (Photo: Henrik Jensen)

For example, the researchers have learned how to explain fluctuations in populations by looking at the life history of a species – which is relatively easy to measure. If you know how many calves a moose gives birth to, how many eggs a bird lays or when the animals are sexually mature, then you know a lot about the species at the population level. A central challenge will be to find out how these characteristics of the population affect the genetic composition. With this knowledge the researchers can then predict something about how the species may develop or adapt to changes in the environment.

Today the CBD researchers also have concrete knowledge about thresholds for various populations. If the number of individuals falls below a certain threshold, the population may decline very quickly, dramatically increasing the risk that the species will become extinct.

“Surprisingly simple parameters underlie processes like this,” explains Dr Sæther.

Give specific advice

Activities at the centre are based on the extensive work already carried out at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. A key objective now is to be able to give the authorities specific advice about how to manage various animal populations, whether they are fish, moose or other animals. The researchers will also provide targeted input about how to manage the natural landscape in order to safeguard biological diversity.

Last but not least, researchers at the CBD are seeking new knowledge about how climate change affects species and ecosystems.

“This is research that we as biologists would never have been able to conduct on our own. Our cooperation with other researchers is absolutely essential, and multidisciplinarity is a critical component of our centre,” emphasises Dr Sæther.

Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics (CBD)
  • Objective: To serve as a research centre at the interface between biology and mathematical sciences with the objective of studying the impacts of human activity on biological diversity.
  • Centre director: Bernt-Erik Sæther
  • Annual allocation from the Research Council: NOK 10.5 million
  • Total person-years: 45
  • No. of doctoral degrees planned: approximately 15


Written by:
Bård Amundsen/Else Lie. Translation: Connie Stultz/Carol B. Eckmann
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