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Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences - Biogeography

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Combining multiple sensors reveals distinct land-use impacts on woody vegetation in the Chaco

Mapping savannas and dry forests is challenging, but combining data from Landsat-8 and Sentinel-1 help mapping fractional tree- and shrub cover. Using these maps we revealed distinct impacts of land-use on aboveground woody vegetation.

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How much do European bison use forests?

The most comprehensive assessment of European bison habitat selection ever made reveals that European bison are pretty generalist in their habitat use. A new study, led by Tobias Kümmerle and just published in Landscape ecology used an extensive telemetry dataset from 45 individuals from five free-ranging hers in Poland to show that European bison are connected to forest, but use and select for open areas to varying degrees. This means that the potential for conflicts with agriculture is high, and that many bison populations may not be in a ‘refugee status’ (i.e., largely confined to forests). The study also highlights the pitfalls of generalizing from individual populations and the benefits of assessing habitat preference across populations.

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Location matters: Spatial determinants of agricultural abandonment in Europe

Agricultural abandonment is a common land-use trend in many regions worldwide. We identified the leading spatial determinants of abandonment patterns in Europe using model-based boosting. Climate, farm management, and socioeconomic settings mainly explained abandonment. Context-specific, regionalized policies needed to mitigate abandonment outcomes.

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Where are Europe’s last primary forests?
Photo: F. M. Sabatini
Where are Europe’s last primary forests?

Agriculture and forestry have transformed much of Europe – but truly wild places still exist. We have just published the map of remaining primary forest for Europe in the scientific journal ‘Diversity and Distribution’. This work is the result of a pan-European collective effort involving more than 30 researchers, NGOs and institutions. The map includes 1.4 Million hectares of primary forest, and represents the first attempt to get a clear picture concerning primary forests in Europe.

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Quantities matter! How dense time series improve the mapping of cropland abandonment
Fig.: Andrey Dara
Quantities matter! How dense time series improve the mapping of cropland abandonment

We show how dense time series of satellite data can help mapping the timing of cropland abandonment more accurately, and that more in-depth information on the time substantially influences the detail of subsequent analyses.

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How to map land abandonment from Landsat time series?

Agricultural land abandonment is a common land-use change, yet it is challenging to distinguish agricultural abandonment from transitional classes such as fallow land at high spatial resolutions due to the complexity of change process. A new study, published in Remote Sensing of Environment and led by He Yin, proposed a new approach combining spatial and temporal segmentation to map land abandonment from dense Landsat time series in the Caucasus. This approach is able to accurately separate agricultural land abandonment from active agricultural lands, fallow land, and re-cultivation. The timing of abandonment is well captured too.

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What does it mean to have many threatened mammals?

In relation to land use, concentrations of threatened species are associated to relatively little-transformed areas in the Tropics, whereas they occur in much modified areas in Europe. Considering different land-use metrics and looking at different regions separately help us to better interpret these global patterns.

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Profits are not always a driver of deforestation in Argentina

This paper shows that in Argentina profits explain agricultural intensification patterns well (e.g., ranching to soybean), but not deforestation patterns. This suggests that other factors, such as cultural ties to the land, land speculation or zonation, drive expansion frontiers in the Chaco - and that profit-related policies might not be very effective in influencing deforestation rates.

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Not all is lost! Mapping extinction debt can avert biodiversity loss in the Chaco

We highlight areas in the Argentinian Dry Chaco where future local extinctions due to unpaid extinction debt are more likely to happen. In these areas, up to 56% and 29% of the extant birds and mammals, respectively, may go locally extinct if conservation actions are not implemented soon.

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Collecting scats in the Gran Chaco - not an easy job!

Our PhD student Asunción Semper-Pascual has recently carried out her fieldwork in the Argentinian Dry Chaco to collect data for one of her thesis chapters. Here you can find a report of her experience.

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Low-hanging fruits for representing land use better in Earth System Models

Land use is a key driver of global environmental change but it remains poorly considered in the current generation of Earth System Models. A new paper, led by Julia Pongratz and just published in Global Change Biology, systematically evaluates ten land management practices, from forestry harvest, to crop species selection, tillage, and fire management regarding their importance as well as technological and data challenges in terms of the possibility of implementing them in Earth System Models. Several "low-hanging fruits" exist, particularly crop and forestry harvest and fertilization, but making use of these opportunities requires a closer collaboration between land use and modelling communities.

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How good are your maps?

Land-cover maps are the basis for many analyses in ecology, conservation and land system science. The quality of these maps is thus an important determinant of the quality of downstream analyses, but quantifying these impacts is often difficult. A new study, published in Global Change Biology and led by Lyndon Estes, uses a unique ground-truth dataset from southern Africa to systematically assess errors in land cover maps at various resolutions, and how these impact subsequent analyses – from understanding carbon stocks, evapotranspiration, to crop production and household food security.

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Ten candidate sites for European bison reintroductions in Germany

European bison (Bison bonasus) were historically part of the fauna of Germany, yet the species and the role it played in ecosystems were lost until their recent reintroduction. In a study using the largest dataset of European bison occurrence points ever collected we mapped habitat suitability and identified candidate sites for reintroductions throughout Germany. Our results suggest that suitable European bison habitat is widespread in Germany, but mainly occurs in small, and often isolated patches. However, we identified a few promising candidate sites for larger populations of European bison, characterized by low human population density and fragmentation, existing protected areas, and a high potential for nature tourism.

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Land Systems Version 2 & associated Biodiversity Loss

As part of our recent paper by Kehoe et al. (2017), we developed a global 1km land systems map that delineates between the major land use classes and includes low, medium, and intensive cropland and pasture. The map also includes natural areas suitable and not suitable for future cropland expansion.

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Call for applications for a PhD position in our lab starting in July 2018 the latest

We are now accepting applications for a new PhD position in our lab. The PhD position will be in the context of our newly funded European PhD Training Network COUPLED (http://coupled-itn.eu). The focus of this graduate school will be on operationalizing the telecouplings concept in order to assess and solve sustainability challenges connected to land use. Recruiting has started, the application deadline is 24 November, 2017.

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Classical land rent theory fails to explain land-use dynamics in the Chaco

We use land-use/cover change maps, interviews and expert knowledge to identify different agricultural frontiers across the Chaco. Analyzing these frontiers reveals that existing land rent theory does not explain the land-use dynamics in the Chaco without appropriately considering the different actors levels.

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Conference for protection of old growth forest in Europe – We go, do You?

In order to protect the last old-growth forests, you need to know where they are! We will present our 'Map of primary forests of Europe' at the Conference for protection of old growth forest in Europe (Brussels, 13-14th September 2017).

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Carving up the tropics for dinner

We highlight the hot spots around the world that are most susceptible to agricultural development. We find up to a one third loss of terrestrial species and abundance in the tropics. Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly at-risk and has only half the protected area coverage of potentially high risk agricultural development areas as Latin America.

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The global soybean boom drives deforestation in the Chaco

The South American dry Chaco is losing forests at an alarming rate. This new study provides more evidence that while cattle ranching appears to be the dominant proximate cause for deforestation, ultimately the global soybean boom may drive deforestation in the Chaco.

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The type of land tenure regimes affects the trade-off between production and environmental outcomes

Combining data on biodiversity, land-use change and production across different land-tenure regimes in the Chaco shows that no single land-tenure regime is able to minimize trade-offs between production and environmental outcomes best, emphasizing the need for spatially adapted zoning strategies to limit deforestation in the Chaco.

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Biogeography field trip to the Polish Carpathians

Here are some impressions of our lab excursion to the Polish Bieszczady Mountains in the outer Eastern Carpathians. As part of a study project, students were trained in field data collection. There was also time to experience the astonishing wilderness of the Bieszczady area with visits to beautiful landscapes, and exciting wildlife observations.

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European Training Network COUPLED will kick off in 2018

The network "Operationalising Telecoupling for Solving Sustainability Challenges for Land Use" (COUPLED) is a joint graduate school of HU Berlin, other European universities and partner organizations from business and civil society that is funded by the EU. The program is to run until 2022 and will train outstanding PhD students in trans- and interdisciplinary concepts and methodologies within the framework of excellent research projects. The focus is on the concept of telecouplings, which helps to explain drivers and outcomes of land use change by investigating the interrelationship between different actors, drivers, and feedback over long distances. The research will be conducted in close cooperation with companies, NGOs, international organizations and administrative bodies in order to better integrate research, innovation and social responsibility.

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New paper using Landsat 8 composites to derive large mammal corridors in the Caucasus

In this paper we used the Landsat 8 record to classify land cover for the entire Caucasus ecoregion (70 Mha). Based on the land cover we identified numerous large mammal corridors among protected areas, but also widespread bottlenecks within the corridors that indicate limited functioning. Our study highlights how remote sensing can support connectivity analyses across large areas, one of the key instruments in conservation planning.

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Letter published in Science on the importance of the Gran Chaco

Our letter in Science magazine highlights the importance of the large & diverse Gran Chaco, a dry forest ecoregion in urgent need of higher conservation attention.

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The Gran Chaco is a hotspot of deforestation and a major carbon emission source

Land-use change is a major driver of climate change, and in the South American Chaco agricultural expansion and intensification has been rampant during the last 30 years. Further, from a carbon perspective the Chaco is of similar importance as other global frontiers, though receives substantially less attention in policy arenas.

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Warfare affects land systems at multiple scales

Shocks can affect land systems in major ways. Warfare is a globally frequent shock, sometimes causing severe land-use change. This review suggests, though, that these changes are not unidirectional and much remains to be learned as the number of existing studies is low.

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PhD Position in Remote Sensing of Sub-Tropical Forest Degradation and Land Use

New PhD position open on remote sensing and forest degradation in the Chaco! The position is a joint position between the Conservation Biogeography Lab and the group of Prof. Eric Lambin at the Université catholique de Louvain.

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Logging threatens capercaillie in the Carpathians

Capercaillie are Europe’s largest grouse species and an umbrella species for biodiversity conservation. A new study led by Martin Mikolas and just published in Landscape Ecology shows that logging over the last 30 years, especially salvage logging following storm events, has resulted in diminishing capercaillie habitat in the Carpathians and declining connectivity among core habitat areas. Protection of remaining key capercaillie areas and more capercaillie-friendly forestry is urgently needed to halt the decline of this iconic species.

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The breakdown of the Soviet Union forges a beef telecoupling between Brazil and Russia

How do institutional shocks affect trade patterns and telecouplings? The breakdown of the Soviet Union provides an interesting example how such shocks can redistribute environmental footprints lastingly and over great distances. Florian Schierhorn and colleagues show in a paper just published in Global Food Security how Russia became the largest importer of Brazilian beef as a result of the collapse of its Russia’s livestock sector in the 1990s, and the emergence of Brazil as the leading global beef exporter in the early 2000s.

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Heterogeneous effectiveness of protected areas in the Carpathians

Protected areas are a cornerstone for forest protection, but they are not always effective during times of socioeconomic and institutional crises. A new paper by Van Butsic and co-authors just published in Conservation Biology analysed more than 1300 protected areas in the Carpathians to show that effectiveness varied substantially among countries, time periods, and protection levels. This indicates that the effectiveness of protected areas is transitory over time and space, and suggests that generalizations about the effectiveness of protected areas can be misleading.

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Agriculture rivals biomes in predicting global species richness

We find that agricultural land use performs as well as environmental variables in predicting global scale species richness patterns. This is an important finding, given that it is still unclear how important land use really is in driving global rather than local diversity patterns.

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Conflicting EU policies may hamper biodiversity conservation without mitigating climate change

In this paper, we reviewed the EU environmental policies and programmes aimed at mitigating climate change and conserving biodiversity, and questioned the common assumption that in addition to the perceived climate benefits increasing forest area will also support biodiversity, thus making afforestation a “win-win scenario”. Indeed, joined climate and biodiversity benefits are strongly context-dependent. For instance, when afforestation occurs on extensively managed, biodiversity-rich semi-natural grasslands, the environmental benefits of afforestation are highly questionable. We found a striking ambivalence between policies and funding schemes addressing grassland conservation on the one hand and those supporting afforestation on the others, and highlighted the risk that the EU may be paying to maintain these grasslands in some areas, while also be paying to convert similar grasslands into forests.

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Agricultural intensification trends differed substantially between Europe's East and West since the 1990s

Patterns of yield and nitrogen application trends for six crop-type groups in the EU between 1990 and 2007 reveals marked spatial differences with high intensity levels particularly in Western and Central Europe. Soil quality, labor productivity, and climate were identified as main determinants for these trends.

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Of Wolves, Bisons and Deportation. Wild Bieszczady Mountains

Report and impressions from the Biogeography field trip to the Polish Bieszczady Mountains.

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Hotspots of land use change in Europe

How changes in the extent of land uses and the intensity at which these land uses take place relate to each other remains often unclear. A new paper by Tobias Kuemmerle and co-authors, published in Environmental Research Letters, uses a comprehensive dataset of land-use indicators for Europe to highlight the marked spatial differentiation of land-use trends in Europe. Many areas fell into at least one hotspots of land change, and change processes often co-occurred (e.g., .area decline and intensification or area increase and disintensification) highlighting the need for regionalized, context-specific policy-making.

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Brown bear habitat connectivity in the Carpathians

Connectivity assessments typically assume that animals move preferable in suitable habitat. A new paper by Elżbieta Ziółkowska, just published in Landscape Ecology, shows for bears in the northern Carpathians, that this assumption can be simplistic. Corridors identified based on habitat models and movement models differed substantially, highlighting the value of movement data when assessing connectivity.

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New typology of European agricultural landscapes

Targeting land management, landscape planning, and conservation measures require identifying appropriate spatial units. A new paper by Emma van der Zanden, just published in Urban and Landscape Planning, does so in providing the first topology of European landscapes sensitive to land management, landscape structure, and land cover.

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Farmland recultivation patterns in Ukraine

Vast areas of farmland were abandoned in Ukraine after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Recently, much farmland is taken back into production, thanks to rising global prices and a recovery of Ukraine’s agricultural sector. A new paper by Anatoly Smalichuk highlights that the drivers governing recultivation are mainly economic in nature, as most recultivation happens where agricultural potential is high. This contrasts from abandonment patterns in the 1990s, when also land reform and institutional factors played a role, together suggesting that much land will remain abandoned.

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New maps on cropping intensity patterns in Europe

Understanding the intensity of cropping is important for identifying potentials to close yield and harvesting gaps, and thus to lessen pressure on further land conversions. A new paper by Stephan Estel, published in Environmental Research letters, shows new maps of cropping frequency, multi- vs. single cropping, fallow cycles, and actual time a field is under crops on MODIS image time series from 2000 to 2012 for all of Europe.

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Environmental trade-off and social constraints of recultivating Soviet farmland

Recultivating abandoned agricultural land is an attractive option for raising agricultural production, but the environmental trade-offs and socio-economic constraint of recultivation remain unclear. A new paper, led by Patrick Meyfroidt and published in Global Environmental Change assesses recultivation potential in the European part of the former Soviet Union. While nearly 50 million hectares (Mha) of cropland lay idle in this region, only 8.5 Mha of them had low environmental trade-offs and low socio-economic constraints, while more than 30 Mha are unlikely to provide important contributions to future crop production, highlighting that cropland reclamation is not a panacea to addressing global food security or reduce pressure on tropical ecosystems.

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Fusing optical and radar images improves land-use change mapping, but is rarely done

A review of existing studies combining optical and radar reveals that only a minority of the studies have a concrete rationale on the application of the methods in the context of the land-use science question.

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Explaining unexpected European bison dispersal

Reintroduced populations may sometimes not behave as predicted. A new paper, led by Elzbieta Ziolkowska, uses connectivity assessments based on circuit theory to highlight bottlenecks and barriers for European bison dispersal in Eastern Carpathians, and thus why bison are not colonizing apparently suitable habitat. Establishing a large meta-population of bison in the Carpathians will thus require to establish functional dispersal corridors for bison along the Carpathian ridge.

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Stronger polarization of land use in Europe until 2040, with a loss of multifunctional landscapes

Scenario-based land-change trajectories for the EU until 2040 revealed marked differences with regard to extent and spatial patterns. Results indicate strong polarization trends of land use along with losses of multifunctional landscapes, which have diverging impacts on ecosystem service provisioning.

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Impressions of field work in the Chaco

During the fall of 2015 the Biogeography-lab travelled through the Chaco for field work and to kick-off the new project PASANOA.

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