Ahoy there me mateys! And welcome aboard the “Green pearl”, the ship of the “Ecosystem Ecology Lab» from the University of Cádiz! Do ye want to know more about us?
Then ye keep reading!
The “Ecosystem Ecology Lab» from the University of Cádiz covers many aspects related to the biodiversity, structure and functioning of terrestrial ecosystems within a framework of plant-soil-microbial interactions. In our lab, we seek to understand how ecosystems are structured and function in a global change context, for which we use a wide range of experimental and analytical approaches. We also seek to develop applied nature-based strategies to stop or even reverse negative environmental impacts, particularly in the context of managed ecosystems such as grasslands and agroecosystems. At the “Ecosystem Ecology Lab”, we currently coordinate two global sampling initiatives, one in vineyards (Grapevine Microbiome Survey) and one in grasslands (SpatialNet).
The lab is based in Puerto Real, Cádiz, literally next to the “Natural Park of the Bay of Cádiz”, and thus surrounded by a wealth of species-rich ecosystem types such as marshes, seasonally flooded grasslands, and Mediterranean forests and shrublands. And the Atlantic Ocean. The climate of our region is oceanic Mediterranean, with mild winters and summers, which means that soil, plant, and animal communities find particularly suitable conditions to thrive most of the year. This fact, together with the role as climate refugium during the last glaciations and its crossroad position between the European and African continents, contributes to explain the high levels of biodiversity found in our area. Due to this fact, we are also committed to describe and preserve the biodiversity and ecological and cultural value of these unique ecosystems. Moreover, given that our teaching expertise is linked to Botany, we are always keen to work with administrations and other groups of interests in the development of vegetation studies and floras.
Grasslands and global change
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Considered as a whole, natural, seminatural and anthropogenic grasslands cover approximately 40% of the world’s terrestrial surface (~25% of the Iberian Peninsula), where they provide important ecosystem services and are of great economic value. For example, they store 20-30% of the terrestrial carbon, most of it in the soil, and support large populations of vertebrate and invertebrate animal communities. However, grassland ecosystems and the services they provide are now severely threatened by global change, including land-use change (abandonment, intensification, and urbanization), biodiversity loss (e.g., defaunation), eutrophication (fertilization, nutrient deposition) and climate change. In Spain, grasslands are particularly important for local economies, particularly in rural areas. For example, pasture-fed livestock for both meat and milk production are a highly valuable source of income in many Spanish localities that greatly depends on high-quality seminatural grasslands; this free-roaming livestock includes those used to produce the world renowned Iberian dry meat. Moreover, grasslands are a source of nectar for bee honey and raw materials for many traditional activities, including the use of fibres from Stipa tenacissima to make mats, ropes, and baskets.
Ecosystem and biogeochemical coupling
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An implicit assumption of natural and ecosystem scientists since the times of Humboldt and Darwin is that highly sustainable and functional ecosystems are those with a more tightly coupled transfer of energy and materials. This transfer of energy and materials is driven by the architecture of ecological networks and by coupled biogeochemical processes that occur at different spatial and temporal scales. This relates to the concept of coupling in ecosystems, which broadly refers to the degree of connection among all organisms/taxa of an ecosystem (microorganisms, fungi, plants, animals) through different types of biotic interactions, and of these organisms/taxa with their surrounding physico-chemical environment through abiotic interactions. Biotic interactions can be mutualistic (e.g., pollination, symbiosis), antagonistic (e.g., predation, parasitism, pathogens) or neutral and are widely recognized as key to maintain stability in healthy ecosystems. Likewise, the tight biogeochemical coupling of elemental cycles, many of which are key to maintain species diversity and for animal, plant and microbial nutrition, is another inherent characteristic of healthy ecosystems.
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Vineyards are a particularly important perennial woody crop globally. The world surface of this type of cultivation is 7.4 million hectares. The leading country in terms of vineyard area worldwide is Spain with 969,000 hectares, followed by China and France. Traditionally, vineyards have hosted high levels of biodiversity at different taxonomic levels, including plants, birds, and insects. However, vineyards are currently among the most intensively managed agroecosystems due to the regular use of agrochemicals such as fungicides, herbicides and insecticides, as well as frequent soil tilling, which has negative consequences for their biodiversity. These intensive practices have thus resulted in biologically impoverished and highly eroded vineyards with an ever-increasing demand for agrochemicals. For this reason, we need to develop innovative nature-based management strategies and practices that make it possible to make a sustainable use of the land and conserve and even regenerate the biodiversity and ecosystem services such as soil fertility (supporting services), carbon sequestration (regulating services), and the control of pests and diseases (regulating services) in agroecosystems such as vineyards.
Experimental and lab facilities
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Nuestra parcela de pastizal experimental, ubicada en el Parque Metropolitano Marisma de los Toruños y Pinar de la Algaida, es un ejemplo único en la Bahía de Cádiz de pastizal inundable, y por tanto es de gran interés para la conservación de la biodiversidad. Esta parcela forma parte, además, de una red global de experimentación (DRAGNet) coordinada desde la Universidad de Minnesota que pretende evaluar la dinámica de ensamblaje de las comunidades de plantas, así como su capacidad de recuperación, en respuesta a dos factores de cambio global: perturbación del suelo y eutrofización. Las perturbaciones físicas se encuentran entre los impactos más generalizados de los humanos en la Tierra. Por ejemplo, la pérdida de hábitat a través de la conversión de tierras para la agricultura es una causa principal de extinción, y la biodiversidad en los sistemas de pastizales se ve particularmente afectada por el cambio en el uso de la tierra. Aunque las perturbaciones son un importante impulsor de la dinámica y el ensamblaje de la comunidad, ahora ocurren simultáneamente con otros impactos humanos, incluido el cambio climático y la deposición de nutrientes. Para obtener más información sobre DRAGNet, así como sobre el protocolo experimental, se puede visitar su página web.
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La infraestructura experimental «Viñedos andaluces del futuro», ubicada dentro de los límites del “Parque Natural de la Bahía de Cádiz” y ligada a los Servicios Centrales de Investigación “Salina La Esperanza” (SCISE), está dedicada a la investigación experimental sobre el uso sostenible del suelo en viñedos y zonas aledañas de pastizal a través del uso de: (i) cubiertas vegetales con especies nativas, (ii) animales para el control de la vegetación herbácea, y (iii) comunidades microbianas. Se pretende que la plataforma «Viñedos andaluces del futuro» de cobijo a multitud de proyectos de investigación en ecología, agroecología, y agroalimentación en el seno de la UCA y que sea, además, polo de captación de recursos económicos y humanos a través de convocatorias competitivas. Además, los resultados derivados de esta infraestructura experimental contribuirán a cumplir los objetivos de la Agenda internacional 2030 de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo Sostenible, en particular los Objetivos 2 y 15, cuya principal misión es “aumentar la productividad agrícola de forma sostenible”, y «proteger, restaurar y promover el uso sostenible de los ecosistemas terrestres, detener y revertir la degradación de la tierra, y detener la pérdida de biodiversidad”. Al promover la conservación y buen manejo de los suelos, el mayor reservorio de carbono a nivel global, este proyecto también contribuirá al Objetivo 13 de la agenda internacional, que tiene como misión «tomar medidas urgentes para combatir el cambio climático y sus impactos».
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This experimental site, located within the Puerto real campus of the UCA, belongs to a global collaborative experimental network –the URBANFUN experiment. This network aims to assess the impacts of climate warming and lawn management regime on the biodiversity and ecosystem services of urban greenspaces. Important ecosystem services provided by urban greenspaces include carbon sequestration, microclimate regulation, biodiversity conservation, and recreation. Urban greenspaces can also be used as observatories to study the impact of biological, physical and chemical stressors, such as high-frequency disturbance, species invasion, and air pollution.
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At the lab, we have the necessary equipment to perform basic analyses related to the biogeochemistry and functioning of soils.
BMG Fluostar microplate reader. This reader is equipped with absorbance monochromator, which allows us to quantify nutrients such as nitrate, ammonium and phosphate, and dissolved organic carbon in soil and water samples, as well as DNA concentrations. The microplate reader is also equipped with a filter-based florescence reader that allows us to carry out enzymatic assays. Measuring enzymes is particularly important in our lab, as they represent a key soil health indicator given their involvement in the processing of soil organic matter by microbes.
Automatic sieves. Sieving through a 2-mm mesh is a basic step prior to many biological and physicochemical assays involving soils. Moreover, sieving through a set of screens of decreasing mesh size allows us to understand the particle size distribution of a given soil (up to silt and clay combined [0.45 microns], hence allowing us to understand the basic functioning of soils. This is because particle size and pore space greatly determine the ability of soils to retain nutrients, the structure of soil microbial and faunal communities, as well as the ability of roots to grow. Wet sieving can also be used to determine the stability of soil aggregates, critical for soil functioning and carbon storage.
pH meter. Despite being one of the most basic parameters that one can measure in the lab, pH remains to be of enormous interest for soil scientists as a driving variable of soil activity, nutrient solubility, and mineral formation and structure. The pH of a soil represents the negative natural logarithm of proton concentration and is thus linked to the presence or absence of dissolved cations in the soil solution. Our pH meter is also capable of measuring other important soil parameters such as conductivity, salinity and ORP.
Berlesse-Tulgren funnels. These are a basic equipment for the extraction and subsequent determination of soil fauna. Important groups that can be extracted using Berlesse-Tulgren funnels are collembolans (also known as springtails), acari (mites), and some nematodes. We have a custom-made shelf equipped with 24 lamps that allows us to extract several samples simultaneously.