Ecology and Biodiversity



Current ecological research conducted at the Biology Department falls under the following major research themes:

1. Conservation Ecology
2. Community Ecology
3. Plant Biology and Nature Management
4. Functional Ecology of Plants and Ecosystems
5. Marine Biology


1. Conservation Ecology

(led by Prof. Dr. Ludwig Triest)


The biodiversity and ecology of macrophytes (aquatic- and wetland plants, seagrasses, mangrove trees) in Europe, Africa and Asia is investigated. The topics on ‘Conservation Ecology’ we experience together with our bachelor-, master- and Ph.D. students on the field and in the lab, comprise several biological levels of organization and research methods. DNA markers allow insights in gene diversity, dispersal and evolution of plant species in lakes, rivers, lagoons and coastal areas. Field techniques and sensor measurements inform about the ecological status of aquatic habitats. Five topics actually deserve our upmost attention:

  • 'Conservation Genetics’ because gene diversity is important for the survival of populations. Inbreeding, drift, gene flow and hybridization are estimated on basis of DNA polymorphisms.
  • 'Population and Dispersal Ecology’ closely relates to these aspects with further analyses on seed dispersal and pollen exchange between populations. Short and long distance dispersal is examined in experimental field designs.
  • ‘Biological Invasions’ are extreme situations of unstoppable dispersal. Aquarium and field experiments deliver new information on the degree of such impact on native biodiversity.
  • ‘Pond restoration and management’ focuses on the relationship of submerged vegetation with phytoplankton, zooplankton and fish. Our research at pond level delivers new insights for appropriate management of Brussels ponds.
  • ‘Freshwater Bio-indicators’ allow us to update ecological evaluation methods of rivers and lakes.

Selected publications:

De Backer S, Van Onsem S, Triest L (2010). Influence of submerged vegetation and fish abundance on water clarity in peri-urban eutrophic ponds. Hydrobiologia 656: 255–276.

Stiers I, Crohain N, Josens G, Triest L (2011) Impact of three aquatic invasive species on native plants and macroinvertebrates in temperate ponds. Biological Invasion 13: 2715–2726.

Triest L, Sierens T (2011) Is the genetic structure of Mediterranean Ruppia shaped by bird-mediated dispersal or sea currents? Aquatic Botany 10.1016/j.aquabot.2011.09.009.


2. Community Ecology

(led by Prof. Dr. Bram Vanschoenwinkel)


In this research group we study ecological and evolutionary processes both in natural and artificial island habitats (ponds, lakes, mountains, mesocosms, vegetation fragments ...). For this we often use animal communities as models. This research is relevant because many natural habitats are fragmented either as a result of natural processes or anthropogenic impacts. Populations and communities may rely on dispersal and gene flow between fragments for persistence. As a result it is necessary to study ecological communities and their interactions in a regional 'meta' context.

A prime research objective is assessing the importance of spatial processes as drivers of diversity patterns at different spatial and temporal scales. Other research lines include work on the evolution of dispersal and the importance of risk spreading strategies populations may use to buffer against environmental stochasticity. Finally, we are also involved in developmentally relevant projects in Southern and Eastern Africa, which focus on the link between ecological processes and ecosystem services.

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Selected publications:

Vanschoenwinkel B, Buschke FT, Brendonck L (2013). Disturbance regime alters the impact of dispersal on alpha and beta diversity in a natural metacommunity. Ecology 94: 2547–2557.

Vandam R, Kaptijn E, Vanschoenwinkel B (2013) Disentangling drivers of human settlement - an eigenvector based variation decomposition. PLoS One 8: 1–11 e67726.

Vanschoenwinkel B, De Vries C, Seaman M, Brendonck L (2007). The role of metacommunity processes in shaping invertebrate rock pool communities along a dispersal gradient. Oikos 116: 1255–1266.


3. Plant Biology and Nature Management

(led by Prof. Dr. Nico Koedam)


Selected publications:

Appeltans W, Ahyong ST, Anderson G, Angel MV, Artois T, et al. (2012) The magnitude of global marine species diversity. Curr Biol. 22: 2189–2202.

Robert EMR, Schmitz N, Boeren I, Driessens T, Herremans H, De Mey J, Van de Casteele E, Beeckman H, Koedam N (2011) Successive cambia: A developmental oddity or an adaptive structure? PLoS One 6: e16558.

Merken R, Bazigou F, Koedam N (2010) Is the message from Athens being heard? Science 327: 1453–1454.

Polidoro BA, Carpenter KE, Collins L, Duke NC, Ellison AM, Ellison JC, Farnsworth EJ, Fernando ES, Kathiresan K, Koedam N, Livingstone SR, Miyagi T, Moore GE, Nam VN, Ong JE, Primavera JH, Salmo SG, Sanciangco JC, Sukardjo S, Wang Y, Yong J (2010) The loss of species: mangrove extinction risk and geographica areas of global concern. PLoS ONE 5: 1–10.


4. Functional Ecology of Plants and Ecosystems

(led by Prof. Dr. Harry olde Venterink)


This research theme focuses on the functioning of plants and ecosystems in relation to environmental changes. We study the influence of availabilities of carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P)—and the balance between these elements (C:N:P stoichiometry) —on plant growth and species interactions (plant-plant, plant-microbe, and plant herbivore). We have observed patterns between plant species diversity, extinction, or alien invasion and the stoichiometry of N and P (Eurasian wetlands, Brazilian Cerrado). Next, we want to evaluate the general validity of these patterns (e.g. biomes, global regions, soil types), and investigate the underlying mechanisms. Plant species differ greatly in their traits to acquire N or P (e.g. root morphology, symbiotic N2-fixation, mycorrhizae, root enzymes and other exudates), and also in the use of these nutrients for growth, maintenance and reproduction. We aim with studying these plant traits, as well as plant-plant, plant-microbe, and plant-herbivore interactions, in order to understand how plants and other organisms compete with, or facilitate, each other for these nutrients. Studies in this theme generally aim with answering one or more of the following questions:

  • How do environmental factors and changes influence the balance between C, N and P availabilities?
  • How does N:P stoichiometry affect the composition of plant communities (e.g., functional groups, biodiversity, endangered species, plant invasions)?
  • Can patterns in vegetation composition, and interactions between plants and other organism, be explained from their functioning in relation to N:P stoichiometry?

Selected  publications:

Fujita Y, Olde Venterink H, van Bodegom PM, Douma JC, Heil GW, Hölzel N, Jablonska E, Kotowski W, Okruszko T, Pawlikowsk P, de Ruiter PC, Wassen MJ (2014) Low investment in sexual reproduction threatens plants adapted to phosphorus limitation. Nature 505: 82–86.

Sitters J, Maechler MJ, Edwards PJ, Suter W, Olde Venterink H (2014). Interactions of C:N:P stoichiometry and soil macrofauna in controlling dung decomposition of savanna herbivores. Functional Ecology 28: 776–786.

Cech PG, Kuster T, Edwards PJ, Olde Venterink H (2008). Effects of herbivory, fire and N2-fixation on nutrient limitation in a humid African savanna. Ecosystems 11: 991–1004.

Wassen MJ, Olde Venterink H, Lapshina ED, Tanneberger F (2005). Endangered species persist under phosphorus limitation. Nature 437: 547–550.


5. Marine Biology

(led by Prof. Dr. Marc Kochzius)


The research group of marine biology has a focus on tropical marine ecology, including coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrasses. The main research topic is the connectivity of populations by pelagic early life history stages (eggs and larvae), which can potentially drift with ocean currents hundreds of kilometres. Since adults of most animals in these ecosystems are sedentary and do not migrate, dispersal by early life history stages is the only possibility to replenish exploited populations or to re-colonise disturbed habitats. Knowledge about these processes is important in the context of the design of marine protected area (MPA) networks and ecosystem resilience after natural or anthropogenic disturbance. Exchange among populations is investigated by using molecular genetic techniques (PCR, DNA sequencing, and microsatellites) and population genetic analysis. These genetic techniques can also aid species delineation (molecular systematics), species identification (DNA barcoding), and the reconstruction of evolutionary relationships (molecular phylogenetics). Another area of research is the multivariate analysis of community structures in comparison with environmental parameters. Natural and anthropogenic disturbances can have profound negative effects on the faunal community structure and function of marine ecosystems. Such studies can give insights into sometimes subtle responses of these communities to stressors.

Selected publications:

Rumisha C, Elskens M, Leermakers M, Kochzius M (2012) Trace metal pollution and its influence on the community structure of soft bottom molluscs in intertidal areas of the Dar es Salaam coast, Tanzania. Marine Pollution Bulletin 64: 521–531.

Kochzius M, Seidel C, Antoniou A, Botla SK, Campo D, Cariani A, Garcia Vazquez E, Hauschild J, Hervet C, Hjörleifsdottir S, Hreggvidsson G, Kappel K, Landi M, Magoulas A, Marteinsson V, Nölte M, Planes P, Tinti T, Turan C, Venugopal MN, Weber H, Blohm D (2010) Identifying fishes through DNA barcodes and microarrays. PLoS ONE 5: e12620.

Kochzius M, Nuryanto A (2008) Strong genetic population structure in the boring giant clam Tridacna crocea across the Indo-Malay Archipelago: implications related to evolutionary processes and connectivity. Molecular Ecology 17: 3775–3787.