A thorough understanding of the diverse and complex processes underlying population and community structure is essential when aiming to study effects of habitat heterogeneity, fragmentation and degradation on demography, diversity and viability. Ongoing research projects focus on community assembly rules and dispersal ecology of plants and arthropods from fragmented habitats, community-wide shifts in plant and arthropod life history traits, and dispersal and settlement strategies of Afromontane and temperate bird species. In a more applied component, the suitability of species- and community-level traits as bio-indicator and early-warning tool for anthropogenic stress is studied.
The study of speciation and life-history evolution constitutes a central theme within the research program. Ongoing projects focus on (i) adaptive radiation and speciation of fruit flies and spiders in relation to environmental toxicity; (ii) adaptive life history changes and their effects on the viability of spatially-structured populations of spiders and butterflies; (iii) developmental stability, environmental stress and inbreeding in vertebrate and invertebrate species; (iv) evolutionary stability of sex-ratio distortion and evolution of dispersal strategies in arthropods. In all studies, molecular analyses are combined with behavioural experiments.
Interactions between plant and animal taxa comprise a wide range of ecological effects, both positive and negative, such as herbivory, pollination and seed dispersal. Plant community features may affect grazing patterns by herbivores, and conversely, herbivores may affect plant composition and fitness, for instance through endochorous seed dispersal. In small or isolated populations, plant species may suffer reduced pollination and/or seed dispersal due to lower abundances of specialized seed pollinators or dispersers. Ongoing research projects focus on effects of grazing by large and small herbivores on plant communities, endozoochorous seed dispersal by large herbivores and birds, and limitation of pollination in fragmented habitats.
Knowledge of ecological processes generates many potential applications in agriculture, industry and conservation biology. Ongoing research projects comprise the use of spider silk for soft tissue engineering, use of phenotypic markers (ptilochronology, fluctuating asymmetry) as stress indicator in nature conservation and agriculture, and potential roles of soil seed banks for plant community restoration.