The evolution and ecology of wood formation

Why do plants evolve to be woody?

Woody plants grow in all biomes and trees and shrubs dominated large proportions of the terrestrial surface of Earth. Wood is an essential component of plants ecological strategies and critical for ecosystem services to humans, such as carbon storage, forestry and energy provision. Still the evolutionary history of wood formation in flowering plants is poorly understood. Especially the phenomenon of woody species in otherwise herbaceous groups–phylogenetically derived woodiness–has puzzled biologists since Charles Darwin. In a project with colleagues from iDiv, the Naturalis biodiversity Center the University of Goettingen and the University of Bayreuth we synthesize the evolutionary and ecological correlates of the occurrence of phylogenetically derived woodiness.

Big data’ methods in biogeography

How can we reliably use 300 year old data for modern science?

The public availability of species distribution information has increased drastically in the last 10 years. Public aggregators such as GBIF, IUCN, idigbio or BIEN provide more than one billion occurrence records across all taxonomic groups. This tremendous development has brought ‘big data’ into biogeography and enables an entire new perspective on macroscopic spatial scales. However the consequent use of this data has been hampered by issues on data quality and a lack of bioinformatics tools to process such large amount of data. One of my major interests is to develop tools to improve data quality in large scale species distribution databases and apply these data to biogeographic questions, in particular in the context of a similar revolution in data availability currently ongoing for genetic data. Recently I have developed tools for automatic geographic data cleaning and preparation of large scale distribution data for analyses in historical biogeography. Furthermore, I contribute to tools for bioregionalization based on large scale distribution data and to make biogeographic inferences from fossils.

Patterns and drivers of tropical diversity

Why are some regions species poor and others species rich — despite similar climate?

The unequal distribution of biodiversity has puzzled humanity for centuries.  Generally biodiversity decreases with latitude, but there are also large continental and regional difference withing the generally species rich tropical regions. For instance, the South American tropics harbor more than three times as many plant species as the African tropics! I am particularly interested describing patterns of tropical biodiversity, to identify co-variants (climatic or geologic) of high and low diversity areas in the American and African tropics and to investigate mechanisms of increases and decreases in diversity through time. Specifically, I am interested in the prevalence and effect of biome shifts and biotic connectivity. In a further study we have investigated the distribution of rare plant species in tropical America and compared diversification of angiosperms between Africa and South America.

Biogeography, evolution and conservation of the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae)

Where do wild pineapple relatives grow, and why are they so successful?

The plant family of the pineapple (Bromeliaceae) is a dominant element of the vegetation of tropical America with more than 3000 species. Bromeliaceae are adapted to a wide range of ecological conditions and occur from semi-deserts to the wettest rainforests. Due to peculiar morphological adaptations, especially the ability to absorb water through the leaves and to grow as tank forming epiphytes, Bromeliaceae are improtant ecosystem engineers, providing habitat form many animal species. In a project together with colleagues from the Senckenberg Research Institute, the University of Gothenburg and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro we are studying the spatial distribution of Bromeliaceae, the evolution of their environmental niche and ass their conservation status.

Vegetation dynamics, plant use and conservation in African savannas

Why are savannas not forests and where did savanna plants come from originally?

Savannas cover large parts of the African continent and provide the livelihood for hundreds of millions of people. West Africa is botanically largely understudied area particular impacted by Global change in the 21st century. The regional natural vegetation ranges from true rain forest on the Atlantic coast in the south, over various types of try forest and savanna to the Sahara desert in the North. Paleogeographic vegetation reconstructions and vegetation modelling suggests that the forest savanna boundary in the region has been particularly dynamic, and subject to cyclic changes in the Pleistocene. The current climatic and land-use change has potential sever effects on regional vegetation, in particular forest species. I am interested in current and past vegetation patterns in West Africa,  as well as the current conservation status and anthropogenic use of the flora in the region.