The students conducting their fieldwork near Balgstädt.

Measuring nature

Crickets chirp at the edge of the forest, otherwise all is quiet in the Nature Park Saale Unstrut Triasland. Nine students from the University of Halle are working intently despite the midday heat. It is their last day in the field and there is still a lot left to do. In the master’s module Outdoor Ecology the up-and-coming biologists are learning what it means to conduct fieldwork in four investigation areas near Freyburg.

On this warm and humid summer’s day the participants of the master’s module Outdoor Ecology are feeling the heat. Nicole Schindler and Sam Levin are fighting their way through the forest. The two biology students bend aside a few branches in order to count and measure the gas plants better. Dictamnus albus is the Latin name for the one-meter-high shrub with large pink flowers. The plant is at home from Europe to China and everywhere it is under protection – in Germany since 1936. In some states the rutaceous plant is even extinct.

However, several populations of the species can still be found in the Nature Park Saale Unstrut Triasland. “We are in one of the most species-rich regions in Germany. Because of the dry climate, it has extrazonal vegetation and some of the plants that grow here are rather atypical for Central Europe,” says Professor Isabell Hensen. Mediterranean shrubs can be found in this area, one hour’s drive southwest of Halle, along with Eastern European steppe plants. “South-facing hillsides and soils rich in lime are particularly favourable locational conditions that have a positive impact on the biodiversity,” the professor of plant ecology explains.

Isabell Hensen mit Diptam-Pflanzen (Foto: Maike Glöckner)

Isabell Hensen with gas plants (photo: Maike Glöckner)

For twelve years she has been returning to the same gas plant populations with her research associate Dr Monika Partzsch. Some are so well hidden that you wouldn’t find them without knowledge of the area. The students are conducting field research in small groups at four locations this year: Ennsberg, Langer Berg, Nüssenberg and near Balgstädt. Hensen and Partzsch keep in contact with everyone via mobile phone. Nicole Schindler, Sam Levin and Martin Andrzejak are studying the gas plant population near Balgstädt.

They work along a previously determined transect – a marker from which all measuring points are oriented. Their investigation area is on a hillside and runs through several habitats: gas plants grow here in shady woodland, at the edge of the forest and scattered throughout the adjacent dry grassland. “We have the longest transect and I don’t know whether we’ll be able to finish up today,” says 25-year-old Andrzejak. All three students went to Portugal this year for a field week together with Professor Henrique Pereira, who was appointed by the University of Halle and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig in 2013.

The students profit from the centre’s reach which has been attracting biodiversity researchers from around the world since its foundation in 2012 by the three universities in Halle, Jena and Leipzig and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ). All are studying global biodiversity. “Ecology is currently facing three major challenges: climate change, nitrogen loading through too much fertilising, and a loss in biodiversity. The latter is a particularly urgent problem, above all because organisms are affected,” says Hensen.

Martin Andrzejak beim Kalibrieren des Porometers (Foto: Maike Glöckner)

Martin Andrzejak calibrating the porometer (photo: Maike Glöckner)

Field studies are an important instrument for studying the complex relationships between species: “Plant species, like the ones we’re studying, grow outdoors under much different conditions than in the lab or greenhouse. In nature they interact with animals and with other plants which can decisively influence their development.” For the students this means that not only the gas plant is of interest; the pollinators of the plants also have to be recorded as well all the other vegetation in the investigation area.

It’s important that the biology students know what awaits them during their working lives if they decide to conduct research outdoors. “Even those who do not choose the scientific route will often spend a lot of time outdoors – whether as consultants or as botanists,” explains the professor. The field weeks help the students test whether they like this kind of work because there’s no room for outdoor ecologists to be squeamish. “If you want to be active in this line of work later on you have to be able to carry a load for long distances and sometimes sleep overnight in open terrain,” says Hensen, who has led many field studies in the South American Andes.

> read on for more about identifying plants and other field tasks >>

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