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Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences - Biogeography

Research profile

Humankind is rapidly transforming the planet, with drastic consequences for natural ecosystems and biodiversity. These transformations also impact on human well-being in major ways – both positively and negatively. Finding ways to using natural resources sustainably while protecting biodiversity is perhaps the greatest challenge we face in the 21st century. Land use is central to these challenges, as it is essential for human survival, yet intimately linked to many sustainability problems. Importantly, land-use change is also the main driver of biodiversity loss and has large synergistic effects with other key drivers of the extinction crisis such as overexploitation and climate change.

Against this background, the Conservation Biogeography Lab strive to carry out cutting-edge, sound, and typically quantitative and spatially-explicit research to address three overarching research questions:

  1. Where, when and why does land use changes?
  2. How does land-use change impact biodiversity, and how does it interact with other threats?
  3. Which conservation strategies balance biodiversity and land-resource use at different spatial scales?

Land systems are typically in the center of our research. A focus on land systems (= coupled human-natural systems on the land) enables us to put emphasis on the interactions between people and their environment, to explore dynamics in space and time, and to assess linkages and feedbacks across spatial scales. We are convinced that precisely these systemic aspects of land use are key for understanding biodiversity loss, trade-offs between resource use and conservation, and what characterizes successful conservation interventions.

Our research can be broadly grouped into three research themes:

Land system dynamics: This research theme explores where, when and why land use changes. Key topics in this research theme include assessing patterns and drivers of commodity frontiers, changes in land-use intensity, the impact of shock events on land use (e.g., warfare, economic crises), and identifying archetypical patterns and pathways of land system change. Within this research theme, we also develop methods to map and reconstruct land-system change across large spatial extents, using high-resolution satellite images.

Threats to biodiversity: This research theme focuses on understanding the outcome of land-use change on biodiversity - relative to other drivers of biodiversity loss such as overexploitation. At the species level, we often focus on past and future changes in habitat and populations. At the community level, we assess how communities restructure in response to increasing human pressures, and how these responses vary across environmental gradients. We are particularly interested in understanding interactions among different threats to biodiversity.

Conservation strategies: This research theme assesses whether conservation tools, such as protected areas, reintroduction programs or supply-chain interventions, are effective in addressing the threats to biodiversity. We explore trade-offs and synergies between biodiversity and land use, and we assess the biodiversity outcomes of alternative management options (e.g. different livestock systems) and land-use pathways (e.g., agricultural expansion vs. intensification). A final focus in this research theme lies on spatial priorization to identify key areas for biodiversity, corridors between them, as well as promising conservation interventions to mitigate conflicts between conservation and land use.

The Conservation Biogeography group develops and applies approaches grounded in spatial ecology, geography, social science, conservation planning, spatial statistics, econometric modeling, and remote sensing. We work in strong collaboration with researchers and science institutions worldwide, and are active contributors to a range of international science networks such as FutureEarth’s Global Land Programme. We also generally maintain close ties with conservation organizations and stakeholders. We do this in the hope of producing a science basis that can inform policy making and conservation action in order to navigate land systems towards sustainable futures.

Geographically, we work in many different places and systems, but current key regions of our work are in the Caucasus Mountains and tropical dry forests and savannas in South America.