Research

My lab’s research integrates between macroecology and several other disciplines, from land-system science to economics. Our main focus areas are global spatiotemporal biodiversity patterns and how these relate to human societal changes. We mostly use quantitative approaches, typically relying on statistical methods to analyze large datasets. If you are interested in collaborating or joining the group, or if you just want to know more about our work, feel free to contact me.

Motivation: big picture science for biodiversity

Over recent decades, the science of biodiversity has produced tremendous evidence regarding the natural and anthropogenic factors shaping the distribution and dynamics of life on earth and has emerged into a major field within the broader family of environmental and sustainability-related sciences. Most biodiversity scientists care deeply about biodiversity for various reasons, and most of us feel that contributions from biodiversity science should influence the major policy directions and societal developments of the 21st century. Yet, biodiversity rarely features prominently in societal debates or international development agendas. A simple comparison of the numbers of Google hits as a proxy for societal relevance and Google Scholar hits as a proxy for overall research effort illustrates that “biodiversity” is a fairly marginal issue compared to, e.g., “economy”, “energy”, “nutrition”, “piece”, or “poverty”. Not only are there much fewer hits for overall, but the much-lower ratio between general and scholarly web content also illustrates that biodiversity scientists are particularly ineffective in influencing society.

I believe that in order to do better, we must ask ourselves how can we be more strategic in the additional data we collect, the methods we develop, and the questions we phrase. How can we organize our subdisciplines’ data and theories in a way that they can effectively communicate with those from other disciplines? How can we tailor our interdisciplinary questions more closely to real-world societal problems, such that our results can contribute to providing solutions for the grand sustainability challenges that are both ecologically effective and politically feasible?

My lab’s research is organized around such big-picture questions at the intercept between macroecology, socioeconomics and sustainability. We approach our questions via quantitative and theoretical approaches, interdisciplinary research collaborations, and stakeholder engagement. Both as a researcher and as an advisor, I value quality much more than quantity of research outputs. I place emphasis on establishing large bodies of empirical evidence, often comparing across different scales and levels of organization (e.g., taxonomic, spatial/administrative, temporal), and carefully addressing data limitations and resulting uncertainties. I seek to maximize the relevance of my work for other researchers and resource managers by carefully prioritizing the questions to which I devote my time, and by taking great care about the accessibility of my results in publications, outreach, workshops, and teaching.

These are some of our overarching questions:

  • How can the most pressing ecological and social-ecological questions be addressed effectively, given the reality of incomplete and biased information, and limited capacity to improve it? Which additional evidence (data and analyses) would most effectively improve our ability to confront these questions?
  • Which of the myriad linkages between societal developments and biodiversity matter most? In other words, which social-ecological relationships are more important than others according to empirical data? Which relationships are found consistently, are predictable, and thus serve for developing robust expectations and theory?
  • How can the biggest impacts of human activities on biodiversity be averted effectively? In particular, how can the quest of 7-11 billion people for ever more energy- and resource-intensive lifestyles be managed sustainably, under real-world governance and economic systems and assuming realistic societal behaviours and political agendas?

Addressing challenges in the basic information about life on earth

Global information on where and when specific species occur is extremely biased, incomplete and full of uncertainties. These limitations (the so-called Wallacean shortfall) seriously impair opportunities for addressing central questions in ecology and evolution, as well as for using available information in conservation and resource management. Accordingly, improving and openly sharing such information are considered priorities by the political and the scientific arms of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Over the past years, I carried out comprehensive global analyses of these limitations in order to assess what sort of data applications are realistically feasible and what places and activities could be prioritized for improving information effectively. I integrated 0.3 billion occurrence records for plants and vertebrates with independent information on taxonomy, distributional ranges, and biological attributes of species. I worked with experts on plant and vertebrate macroecology, macroevolution and biodiversity informatics, to analyze these limitations along different dimensions (e.g., taxonomic, spatial, temporal) and to compare the relative importance of predictors of data bias (e.g., socioeconomic, environmental, geometric, biological). These analyses lay empirical foundations for better accounting for such limitations in ecological analyses, and for prioritizing activities to advance the global information basis.

In a study published in Ecology Letters, I developed a conceptual framework for analyzing gaps in data coverage, data uncertainties, and biases along taxonomic, geographical and temporal dimensions, and applied this framework to comprehensively study multidimensional limitations in global occurrence information for land plants. In another study (published in Nature Communications), I studied the taxonomic completeness of inventories of global species assemblages as well as the environmental and socioeconomic drivers across different vertebrate taxa and spatial grain sizes. I also assessed species-level biases in different metrics of data coverage as well as their socioeconomic, geometric and biological drivers across different geographical extents (published in Global Ecology and Biogeography).

I am currently working with colleagues at Yale University to develop a series of web tools for tracking spatiotemporal trends in various indicators on biodiversity data mobilization and completeness (see a beta version on the Map of Life website). This project has won the 2nd prize on the 2016 Ebbe Nielsen Challenge.

As of October 2016, I am supervising the PhD student project iADIDAS (improving Alien species Distribution knowledge by Integrating Data Across Scales) to assess data limitations in global information on alien species distributions, and to test and compare various cutting-edge statistical modelling approaches for improving fine-scale predictions of species occurrences by combining heterogeneous data types. Biological invasions have become a key driver of global environmental change, but research and management remain hampered by the typical limitation in available distribution information. Recent progress in mobilizing alien point-occurrence records and species checklists, as well as the emergence of new statistical modelling approaches for their integration, offer exciting opportunities. However, limitations in available data and the applicability of different modelling tools for alien species remain largely unknown. This project will integrate distribution data for various taxonomic groups to address three central challenges in invasion biology: i) to assess various data limitations in alien species occurrence records, ii) to extend and test models for integrating disparate data types to improve fine-scale predictions of alien occurrences, and iii) to analyze how integrating available data changes perceptions of alien species richness patterns and drivers.

Addressing the fundamental drivers of global biodiversity change

This research is funded by the Volkswagen Foundation through a ‘Freigeist’ Fellowship.

Global biodiversity is changing, which threatens the integrity of ecosystems and ultimately human well-being. It is increasingly clear that changes of natural habitats (e.g. loss or fragmentation) are the main direct cause. Although climate change is anticipated to increase in importance, habitat changes will likely continue to play the most important role in determining the fate of biodiversity throughout the 21st century. Identifying the dominant proximate drivers of biodiversity change, however, does not suffice for facilitating effective biodiversity management. Such proximate drivers can rarely be managed directly by decision-makers, nor are they under the immediate influence of civil societies. Therefore, a central goal of our work is to link biodiversity changes with their ultimate societal drivers.

Most habitat changes happen because humans change the way in which they use land and associated natural resources. Humans use land in many different ways, including for agriculture, forestry, mining, infrastructure development, and environmental protection. To study relationships between biodiversity and land use, I regularly engage in collaborative research projects with land use scientists, earth system scientists, ecological economists and agricultural ecologists. Results of these collaborations have been published, e.g., in Global Change BiologyGlobal Environmental ChangeDiversity and Distributions and Regional Environmental Change.

Where, when and how humans use land may, in turn, be determined by a multitude of environmental, demographic, economic, technological, governance-related, political and cultural drivers. Part of our research aims at disentangling these indirect drivers of biodiversity loss. As part of this work, we are currently synthesizing hypothesized relationships between various societal developments and land-use changes in different parts of the world. We are working towards this goal through reviews of available literature, expert workshops, and surveys. In case you have expert knowledge of any factor that might be connected to human use of land or associated natural resources, you could be of great help to us by participating in this survey.

In my lab, we are working towards establishing empirical evidence on such social-ecological relationships from regional to global scales. This requires dealing with large amounts of data. To this end, we are producing global, multi-resolution datasets on 1) current biodiversity patterns and their recent changes, 2) the land-use and habitat changes putting immediate pressure on biodiversity, and 3) the indirect socioeconomic drivers of land-use changes.

As of October 2016, I am supervising the PhD student project Influence of land governance on global land cover and biodiversity change“Land governance” describes the system of policies and institutions by which land and associated natural resources are managed. This includes access to land, tenure rights, land use, and land development. The quality of land governance systems differs greatly among countries and is believed to affect the severity of environmental changes such as deforestation or biodiversity loss. However, partly because land governance research has traditionally been dominated by qualitative and highly contextualized studies, we lack empirical information and a quantitative understanding of how different aspects of land governance determine global environmental changes, such as changes in land use, land cover, or biodiversity, over broad spatial scales.

The central scientific aim of this research project is a better understanding of the influence of land governance systems on global land-cover, land-use and associated biodiversity change. Using a global information basis, we will empirically test key hypotheses on land-governance – environment relationships that emerge from various scientific disciplines. We will further study the role land-governance systems in determining trade-offs and synergies between environmental protection and other societal goals, such as food security or economic development.

Comparisons of biodiversity with cultural systems

I am also interested in the development of analogies between biodiversity and different cultural systems, with the aim of advancing ecological theory in light of biodiversity data limitations, in cross-fertilizing theories across different scientific disciplines, as well as in mainstreaming biodiversity to a wider audience. In a first collaborative project, we developed analogies between biodiversity and the universe of GNU/Linux computer operating systems and investigated whether the structural and functional analogies would result in the emergence of classical macroecological and macroevolutionary patterns in the Linux universe. Results of this study are published in Ecography.


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