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The biodiversity and functioning of the ecosystems on Earth are essential to human livelihood and human persistence. Over 40% of the world’s economy and 80% of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources, while ecosystems play vital roles in the provision of clean air and water and provide us with an environment that promotes our own well-being. At the same time, the detrimental impact of humans on our natural environment is undeniable and unprecedented.

At IBED, we combine expertise in biology, ecology, evolution, earth and environmental sciences to understand the drivers of biodiversity change and of the functioning of geo-ecosystems, and how these are impacted by human activities. Our research forms the basis for sustainable management strategies to maintain and restore biodiversity and geo-ecosystem functioning, profiting both national stakeholders (e.g. Amsterdam Municipality, Dutch Water Authorities, Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality) but also international stakeholders (e.g. EU, American Department of Defence). Our work encompasses laboratory experiments, fieldwork, theory development and computational modelling, is often inter-, trans or multidisciplinary, and is intimately linked with applications in science and society.

Ecosystems under threat: changes in climate, land-use and exploitation

Human-induced impacts on our natural environment are multi-faceted and occur on all spatial scales. Increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have resulted in global warming of the climate system at an unprecedented rate. As a result of changing weather patterns, rising sea levels, floods, droughts and heat waves, rates of biodiversity loss and species extinctions are increasing rapidly, which poses significant risks to humans and the ecosystems they inhabit. Equally dramatic consequences result from the modifications by humans of the land they live on. These land-use changes have been going on for millennia but have accelerated at an ever-increasing rate in recent decades. Human exploitation, especially of forests and animal populations, has significantly changed the flora and fauna on all continents in the last 10,000 years, whereas similar changes have taken place in our oceans especially in the last century.

At IBED we investigate the effects of these threats on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and contribute to devising mitigation strategies to cope with these threats. We study how ecosystems respond to rising temperatures, increasing frequencies of droughts and floods, rising CO2 levels and an increasing amount of chemical contaminants. We investigate the factors that determine whether natural and human engineered-ecosystems, such as terrestrial forests, peatlands, agricultural areas, wetlands and oceans, are sources or sinks of CO2, and how to promote carbon uptake and retention by ecosystems (both terrestrial and aquatic). We furthermore investigate how landscape diversity, fragmentation and modification of habitats, due to infrastructural works such as windfarms, solar farms, and dams or due to changes in agricultural practices, affect the functioning of ecosystems and the persistence and evolution of species. Lastly, we develop strategies to sustainably control biological pests and harvest natural food resources.

Life in flux: Changing, emerging and evolving biological communities

Biological communities consist of many animal and plant species that interact with each other and their abiotic environment, and need each other for their own persistence. Humans are no exception as we depend on our interactions with these biological communities, and our ability to maintain the integrity and functioning of the ecosystems that these communities are part of. Throughout Earth’s history, species and communities have evolved, adapted, or perished as their abiotic environment changed around them. Never before, however, were changes in the biotic or abiotic environment as rapid as now. The culprit are human activities, like pollution, habitat fragmentation and the introduction or expansion of invasive and harmful species. At the same time, we continuously create novel ecosystems: environments that are constructed, modified, or engineered, and that often lack natural analogues. Examples of such novel ecosystems in The Netherlands are the many urban environments and man-made wetlands.

At IBED, we investigate the causes and consequences of how species relationships determine the structure and stability of biological communities, and how the integrity of these communities is influenced or compromised by species extinction, the introduction of non-native invaders and the growth of harmful species. We furthermore investigate how the structure, composition, or functioning of communities in novel ecosystems develop, within the Netherlands (e.g. Lake Markermeer, city of Amsterdam) and abroad (e.g. artificial reefs ). We also study how species adapt to such changing conditions through evolution, and whether the time scale of these evolutionary processes allows species to adapt to the rapid changes in their environment. The insights gained from these studies are used to inform national stakeholders about how to combat e.g. algal blooms and invasive pest species, and how to promote the health of the biological communities of our natural environment.