New research unit unravels changing biodiversity by extracting patterns from data

The research unit seeks patterns within data that lead to insights about how bio
The research unit seeks patterns within data that lead to insights about how biodiversity can be restored and protected (click to enlarge).

Finding ways to make the best use of collected data to gain insight into biodiversity and how it changes over time. That is the goal of the new Quantitative Biodiversity Dynamics research unit. Yesterday, the unit, which is linked to the Botanic Gardens and the Department of Biology , presented itself to colleagues and students. Group leader Edwin Pos : "Ultimately, we hope that our fundamental research will contribute to guidelines on how to better protect and restore nature."

Pos readily acknowledges that the group’s name is a bit of a mouthful, but it does effectively convey their focus. "Our primary concern is examining biodiversity, the diversity of life in a given location, " Pos explains. "However, our scope is not restricted to a single moment in time; we are also investigating how biodiversity changes over time. This is why we use the term ’Dynamics.’ ’Quantitative’ refers to the fact that we mainly work from collected data. We actively develop methodologies to unearth patterns within this data, which help us to understand how biodiversity works and how it changes."

More and more data

The unit explores biodiversity at all levels, from variations within individual species to global biodiversity. Consequently, the array of data employed is quite extensive, including field observations, experimental and taxonomic records, historical sources, and satellite imagery. Pos: "The timing was opportune for the establishment of this group. Over time, more data is becoming available, partially owing to advances in techniques, and more and more of this data is becoming publicly accessible."

By bringing together information from the various levels and analysing it, the researchers aim to gain fundamental insights into biodiversity. They pose questions like: How precisely does the natural world operate? What mechanisms are at play, and how can we quantify the significance of these mechanisms? How does biodiversity change over time, and what are the underlying reasons for these changes?

Unique

Biodiversity research is not a novel pursuit at Utrecht University; several research groups already delve into this subject from various angles.

Within this group, different disciplines and their accompanying tools are integrated from the very outset.

Dr. Edwin Pos

What sets the new research unit apart is its inherent multidisciplinarity. The team is comprised of individuals with diverse backgrounds. Pos: "We have mathematicians, seasoned ecologists skilled in fieldwork, experts in biological systematics, and someone well-versed in spatial information - it’s quite a varied ensemble! Within this group, all these different disciplines and their accompanying tools are integrated from the very outset."

Botanic gardens

The research unit is affiliated with the Botanic Gardens of Utrecht University. Pos, a theoretical ecologist who enjoys going out into the field to collect data, took on the role of scientific director at the Botanic Gardens in 2020. His mission was to initiate academic research and educational initiatives within the Gardens. Soon it became clear to him that, to achieve this goal, the establishment of a distinct research unit directly affiliated with academia was imperative. Such a unit would enable researchers, for instance, to apply for grants and pursue their doctoral degrees. The unit’s formation was finalized in March 2023.

Teaching

In addition to their research activities, the unit places significant emphasis on teaching. Presently, they are in the process of coordinating various courses , including one that focuses on taxonomy and identification. Moreover, group members are actively engaged in developing a new course. The Botanic Gardens play a pivotal role in the teaching efforts: the plant collections housed within the Gardens are integrated into several courses, and students participate in practical assignments on-site that revolve around the plants in the Gardens. Furthermore, plants are cultivated in the Gardens that are utilized in the courses.

Proud

Pos expresses his satisfaction with the unit’s achievements, which extend beyond organizing and developing courses. "The curators from the Botanic Gardens, who are integral members of the new unit, played a crucial role in the development of the new Evolution Garden in the Botanic Gardens. It now aligns seamlessly with the most current scientific knowledge. Furthermore, we have initiated a formal collaboration with a foundation in Costa Rica for a multi-year research project in the tropical rainforests. In addition, we have already published fifteen scientific articles this year, secured an NWO museum grant, launched a regional project , and have garnered some media attention. The fact that we have accomplished all of this as a group in a relatively short time, is a source of collective pride."