Spatial Ecology and Evolution group

Prof. dr. Dries Bonte
Terrestrial Ecology Unit
Department of Biology
Ghent University
K.L. Ledeganckstraat 35
9000 Gent Belgium

Phone: +32 (0)9 264 52 13

Editor-in-chief of Oikos


We work on topic related to the integration of ecological and evolutionary concepts into a spatial perspective. We aim to answer questions on how the spatial configuration and diversity of habitats affect ecological dynamics, by scaling up from individual responses to macroscopic patterns like the emergence of food webs and range sizes. Similarly, changes in spatial structure affect evolutionary dynamics directly through its impact on demographic and community properties and spatial selection. We especially focus on understanding the relevance of interactions between, among and within species for the spatial (self-) organisation of biodiversity, e.g. by focusing on the diverse spectrum of symbiotic to antagonistic interaction. Examples comprise: arthropod symbionts associated with ants, microbiomes and their impact on adaptation and dispersal, kin-interactions in metapopulations and competition dynamics of plants at different scales. We study the interplay of these processes by integrating theoretical, correlative and experimental approaches, using a wide array of methodological techniques by collaborating with partners from multiple national and international research institutes and universities. Our research, while fundamental by nature, contributes to further developments of nature based solutions, nature management and species (mostly arthropod) conservation.

Field-based research is performed in a diverse array of terrestrial ecosystems (from coastal dune to forests); experimental evolution approaches are performed under controlled laboratory conditions using mite and arthropod mesocosms, and often combined with automatized tracking methods. Individual based models are developed (i) to generate generic insights into spatial eco-evolutionary processes, (ii) to disentangle the relative contribution of several jointly operating ecological and evolutionary processes on macroscopic patterns and (iii) for ecological forecasting. We use Python as a programming platform.

Major topics

Movement ecology & evolution

Understanding the mechanisms leading to variation in dispersal is of crucial importance to understand how changes in habitat- and resource distribution feedback on higher-level ecological processes and patterns. We use behavioural ecological and field-based approaches with arachnids, insects as model systems to study the ecological and evolutionary drivers of movement and dispersal, and mesocosms approaches to infer its impact on patterns of ecological specialisation and range expansion. We additionally generate solid theory on the eco-evolutionary aspects of dispersal by means of individual based modelling. Current projects focus on the importance of costs and trade-offs on dispersal during range expansion and invasions, condition-dependent dispersal in food webs and the evolution of information use during dispersal.

Involved researchers: Prof. Dr. Dries Bonte – Dr. Thomas Parmentier – Dr. Maxime Dahirel- Drs. Femke BatsleerDr. Frederik MortierDrs. Steven Goossens

Selected recent publications:

Parmentier, T., Claus, R., De Laender, F. & Bonte, D. (2021). Moving apart together: co-movement of a symbiont community and their ant host, and its importance for community assembly. Movement Ecology 9: 1-15

Goossens, S., Nybouw, N., Van Leeuwen, T. & Bonte, D. (2020). The physiology of movement. Movement Ecology 8:5

Dahirel, M., Masier, S., Renault, D. & Bonte, D. (2019). The distinct signatures of dispersal and stress in an arthropod model : from physiology to life history. Journal of Experimental Biology 222: jeb203596

Hillaert, J., Vandegehuchte, M., Hovestadt, T. & Bonte, D. (2018). Information use during movement regulates how fragmentation and loss of habitat affect body size. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B. 285 20180953

Bonte D. & Dahirel M. (2017). Dispersal: a central and independent trait in life history. Oikos 126: 472-479..

Bonte D., De Roissart A., Wybouw N. & Van Leeuwen T. (2014). Fitness maximization by dispersal: evidence from an invasion experiment. Ecology 95: 3104-3111.

Spatial selection and life history evolution

With the introduction of the concept of metapopulations the awareness that spatial structure affects demographic and population dynamical processes steadily grew. Such a variation in spatial structure generates typical disequilibrium conditions which are mediated by population extinction and variable demographic dynamics. In contrast to single, unconnected populations, local selection pressures are expected to operate in concert with those acting at the metapopulation level. Given the fact that the vast majority of theory on life history evolution neglects extinction-recolonisation dynamics typical for metapopulations and the complex connection among traits, we use experimental evolution approaches using spider mites as a model system to understand complex eco-evolutionary dynamics in controlled systems. We combine such research with field-based studies focussing on the life history evolution dynamics (arthropods, and recently snails) in function of urbanisation, habitat fragmentation and range expansion.

Involved researchers: Prof. Dr. Dries Bonte – Dr. Martijn VandegehuchteDr. Thomas ParmentierDr. Karen BisschopDr. Jens Joschinki Dr. Frederik Mortier – Dr. Maxime Dahirel – Drs. Jiao Qu – Drs. Katrien De Wolf

Selected recent publications:

Masier, S. & Bonte, D. (2020). Spatial connectedness imposes local- and metapopulation-level selection on life history through feedbacks on demography. Ecology Letters 23: 242–253

Alzate, A., Etienne, R. & Bonte, D. (2019). Experimental island biogeography demonstrates the importance of island size and dispersal for the adaptation to novel habitats. Global Ecology & Biogeography 28: 238-247

Mortier, F., Jacob, S.,, Vandegehuchte, M. & Bonte, D. (2019). Habitat choice stabilises metapopulation dynamics by enabling specialisation. Oikos 128: 529-639

Van Petegem, K., Moerman, F., Dahirel, M., Fronhofer, E., M. Vandegehuchte, N. Wybouw, T. Van Leeuwen, Stoks, R. & Bonte, D. (2018). Kin competition accelerates range expansion in an arthropod herbivore. Ecology Letters 21: 225-234

Jacob S., Legrand D., Chaine A.S., Bonte D., Schtickzelle N., Huet M. & Clobert J. (2017). Gene flow favours local adaptation under habitat choice in ciliate microcosms. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1: 1407-1410.

Van Petegem K.H.P., Boeye J., Stoks R. & Bonte D. (2016). Spatial selection and local adaptation jointly shape life-history evolution during range expansion. American Naturalist 188: 485-495.

Community ecology & evolution

The way local communities and ecosystems react to environmental change depends on interaction between local and regional responses at all scales of biological organisation. The spatial configuration of populations and communities is as such an important environmental driver as it determines rates of movement and the strength of local and regional regulatory processes.

We study how the community assembly of plants and animals is influenced by spatial structure and the eco-evolutionary dynamics among individual organisms. Current projects focus on:

  • the structure of arthropod metacommunities within the context of urbanization and habitat fragmentation – we use trait-based and network approaches to understand the underlying processes
  • the relation between above-and belowground parasites and mutualists on the one hand and keystone plant species on the other hand.

The importance of inter- and intraspecific variation in arthropods traits for ecosystem functioning is studied in coastal dunes and urban environments. We rely on citizen science to collect global data on orb web spider traits (SpiderSpotter App) and develop theoretical models to understand the importance of body size and movement (evolution), foodweb and metacommunity functioning. Recent projects focus on the organisation of communities associated with single arthropod species: arthropod nest symbionts in ants and microbial associations in spider mites. The importance of plant genotypes and drought stress for associated arthropod communities, herbivory and eventually plant fitness is studied in the Biodiversa project PlantCline, using woodland strawberries as a model.

Involved researchers: Prof. Dr. Dries Bonte – Dr. Martijn VandegehuchteDr. Thomas ParmentierDr. Nicky WybouwDr. Karen BisschopDrs. Ruben Van De WalleDrs. Garben Logghe

Selected recent publications:

T. Parmentier, T., F. De Laender & Bonte D. (2020). The topology and drivers of ant-symbiont networks across Europe. Biological Reviews

Hertzog, L.R., Boonyarittichaikij, R., Dekeukeleire, D., de Groote, S.RE., van Schrojenstein Lantman, I., Sercu, B.K., Smith, K., de la Peña, E., Vandegehuchte, M.L., Bonte, D., Martel, A., Verheyen, K., Lens, L. & Baeten, L. (2019). Forest fragmentation modulates effects of tree species richness and composition on ecosystem multifunctionality. Ecology 100: e02653

Merckx, T., Souffreau, C., Kaiser, A., Baardsen, L., Backeljau, T., Bonte, D., Brans, K., Cours, M., Dahirel, M., Debortoli, N., De Wolf, K., Engelen, J., Fontaneto, D., Gianuca, A., Govaert, L., Hendrickx, F., Higuti, J., Lens, L., Martens, K., Matheve, H., Matthysen, E., Piano, E., Sablon, R., Schön, I., Van Doninck, K., De Meester, L. & Van Dyck, H. (2018). Body size shifts in aquatic and terrestrial urban communities. Nature 558,113–116

Dahirel M., Dierick J., De Cock M. & Bonte D. (2017). Intraspecific variation shapes community-level behavioral responses to urbanization in spiders. Ecology 98: 2379-2390.

van Noordwijk C.G.E., Verberk W., Turin H. Heijerman T., Alders, Dekoninck W., Hannig K., Regans E., McCormack S., Brown M.J.F., Remke E., Siepel H., Berg M. & Bonte D. (2015). Species-area relationships are modulated by trophic rank, habitat affinity and dispersal ability. Ecology 96: 518-531.

Ecological restoration and forecasting

Anthropogenic disturbance and nature management have severe effects on the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms that eventually local diversity and ecosystem functioning. We use these insights to study the impact of climate change on plant-plant, plant-herbivore and plant-arthropod interactions using experimental approaches. We further collaborate in other applied ecological projects that aim to understand and predict the specific impact of connectivity restoration and nature management on the conservation and restoration of arthropod and plant communities. Current projects focus on the ecological restoration of heathlands, chalk and dune grasslands with a special focus on connectivity. We have a specific expertise in coastal dune ecology and develop predictive models to assess the impact of climate change on coastal dune functioning (see interview) and the development of dunes as nature based solutions (presentation and video on creating dunes in front of dikes). Much conservation-oriented research is performed in close collaboration with INBO.

Involved researchers: Prof. Dr. Dries Bonte – Dr. Martijn VandegehuchteDrs. Ruben Van De WalleDrs. Garben Logghe

Selected recent publications:

Van der Biest, K., Meire, P., Schellekens, T., D’hondt, B., Bonte, D., Vanagt, T., Ysebaert, T. (2020). Aligning biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services in spatial planning: Focus on ecosystem processes.  Science of The Total Environment 712: 1879-1026

Batsleer, F., Bonte, D., Dekeukeleire, D., Goossens, S., Poelmans, W., Van der Cruyssen, E., Maes, D. & Vandegehuchte, M.L. (2020). The neglected impact of tracking devices on terrestrial arthropods. Methods Ecology and Evolution 11: 350-361

Proesmans, W., Bonte, D., Smagghe, G., Meeus, I ., Decocq, G., Spicher, F., Kolb, A., Lemke, I., Diekmann, M., Bruun, H.H., Wulf, M., Van Den Berghe, S. & Verheyen, K. (2019). Small forest patches as pollinator habitat: oases in an agricultural desert? Landscape Ecology 34: 487-5

Van De Velde H., Nijs I. & Bonte D. (2017). Warming affects different components of plant–herbivore interaction in a simplified community but not net interaction strength. Oikos 126: 285-295.

van Noordwijk C.G.E., Baeten L., Turin H., Heijerman T., Alders K., Boer P., Mabelis A.A., Aukema B., Noordam A., Remke E., Siepel H., Berg M.P. & Bonte D. (2017). 17 Years of Grassland Management Leads To Parallel Local and Regional Biodiversity Shifts Among a Wide Range of Taxonomic Groups. Biodiversity and Conservation 26: 717-734.

Publication list (UGent affiliations only)