How does nature renew itself?

A research group led by TU Darmstadt is looking for answers

2021/03/29 by

Over the next four years, the DFG (German Research Foundation) is to finance a consortium that wants to know how nature renews itself. This is nothing less than the script for the natural regeneration of the rainforest and how this process can be strengthened from the outside.

Throughout the history of our planet, ecosystems have been destroyed and then reclaimed by nature. However, the situation has now worsened. Rainforests are disappearing at an alarming speed and with massive clearcutting. The rate at which living beings are dying out has tripled in the past hundred years. “In the light of these developments, we must ask ourselves whether we are prepared for the complex regeneration of our planet,” says Nico Blüthgen, Professor of Ecological Networks at TU Darmstadt and head of the consortium. “Because only complex ecosystems are ultimately resilient. Biodiversity alone is not enough. The diverse and close-knit relationships within an ecosystem are just as important. And we don't know how or at what speed nature makes these relationships. ”

Blüthgen and 24 other scientists from twelve universities and foundations are therefore to spend the next four to eight years investigating the natural regeneration of the Chocó lowland rainforest in Ecuador. Which species will be the first to come back? How long will the natural regeneration take? Will the old biodiversity be regained? Will all the complex interactions be re-established? How close will the new rainforest come to the functionality of the old one? Blüthgen and the teams are not concerned with merely producing an inventory, but want to measure the complexity in the depths of the resurgent ecosystem.

Global ecosystems essential for survival

To this end, the consortium will collaborate with the non-profit foundation Fundación Jocotoco and two universities in Ecuador. The managing director of the foundation, evolutionary biologist Martin Schaefer, designed the project together with Blüthgen, and the two are also managing it. Fundación Jocotoco has been buying land in the region for 20 years. Many areas were used as pasture, others for cocoa farming. Some areas have been regenerating for decades without external intervention, while others are only just beginning.

The researchers will look at important processes: the relationships between predators and prey, between trees and pollinators, between mammals, seeds and dung beetles, and between ants, termites and deadwood – to name but a few. These processes play a crucial role in the natural regeneration of the forest. Part of the funding will also go towards training Ecuadorian students and the establishment of local structures which can then be used permanently.

Blüthgen and the teams will also use targeted disturbance experiments to test how the newly-created networks stabilise the ecosystem. “We won't be looking only at the complexity itself, but at the interplay between the networks and the recovery process after a small-scale disruption. It is a look at resilience on two scales: the regeneration of entire forest areas, and the repair within the forest.” The scientists are urging for speed: “Ultimately, our own survival depends on the survival of the global ecosystems. We need more information if we want to strengthen the natural regeneration process in a targeted manner.”