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EcoChange Newsletter N. 1

Jul 10, 2009

First newsletter of the EcoChange project, which assesses the capacity of ecosystems to supply humans with required goods and services and to buffer against climate and land use change.


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Dear reader,

we are pleased to publish the first edition of the electronic EcoChange newsletter. Almost reaching mid-term of the project, the newsletter aims at providing interesting, easy to read news from the project. It addresses policy makers, NGO representatives, researchers from related projects and other interested groups.

The newsletter will be published every six months, containing an interview with one of the researchers, a ‘hot topic’ and short news from the project’s activities. For this first newsletter, we have asked the project co-ordinator Pierre Taberlet to give some information on the background and expected outcomes of the project. The hot topic describes how molecular biology can contribute to study biodiversity and climate change!

Enjoy reading!

Please forward this newsletter to colleagues who might be interested and encourage them to subscribe on our website:

In case you have any comments, questions or feedback, please do not hesitate to contact
the newsletter team: ecochange [at] seri [dot] at.



1) The EcoChange Project - A short introduction

2)  EcoChange's contribution to science and policy - Interview with the Project Coordinator Pierre Taberlet

3) How ancient DNA explains future changes in ecosystems and biodiversity - Hot topic

4) Short news from the project's activities

5) (Un)Subscribe and Imprint


1) The EcoChange Project


The EcoChange project assesses the capacity of ecosystems to supply humans with required goods and services and to buffer against climate and land use change. It concentrates on the improvement of models and the generation of new data and will combine the findings with socio-economic analysis.

Various advanced modelling approaches have been used so far to assess the impact of global change on biodiversity and ecosystems. The EcoChange project proposes to improve some of these approaches by:

  • integrating different modelling approaches currently in use (niche-based, dynamic, dispersal, etc.) and by developing robust methodologies to estimate uncertainties associated with these projections.
  • generating necessary new data (paleo & migration) by using innovative DNA-based approaches and global change scenarios.
  • testing niche conservatism and temporal evolution of biological communities.
  • using the new data in improved and integrated models to make projections more robust and realistic.
  • testing these approaches in case study areas and expanding the current projections to Europe.


Download the EcoChange project flyer from our website:


2) EcoChange's contribution to science and policy

Interview with the Project Coordinator Pierre Taberlet


The project coordinator Pierre Taberlet explains why and how EcoChange can help to learn more about changes in biodiversity and ecosystems and how it contributes to support decision making.

P_taberl_kl21. How did the idea to develop the EcoChange project come up?

We identified four main limitations in ecological modelling for estimating the impact of climatic change on biodiversity:
(i) knowledge and data of past species’ distribution were still limited, yet necessary for testing the models in the past before projecting them to the future;
(ii) sound estimates of species’ long distance migration rates were missing to assess whether species will be able to migrate fast enough to follow the shift of their climatic habitat;
(iii) some key assumptions of models, such as niche stability over time and/or space, were not well tested;
(iv) more reliable estimate of uncertainties in model predictions were needed.

As many important scientific advances are made at the interfaces between different fields, we decided to work on these limitations by enrolling scientists from different disciplines, including ecological modellers, population geneticists, ancient DNA specialists, palaeobotanists, statisticians, climatologists and socio-economists.

2. How can the expected results help politicians and stakeholders to improve their decision making?

Using the novel data and improved models, we will provide environmental stakeholders with more informative and more reliable projections at different scales. We strongly hope that it will help politicians to take sound management decisions to better cope with the possible consequences of climate change on ecosystems goods and services.

3. How would you sum up the results and outcomes that have been achieved so far? Is there something like a big surprise?

We already demonstrated that it will be possible to list the plant species that were present in an Arctic region a long time ago, based on DNA found in permafrost (frozen soil). We produced such list for permafrost samples more than 20,000 years old, and we will analyze hundred of samples, including even permafrost cores as old as half a million years.

Comparison of climatic habitats of plants between the Alps and the Arctic also revealed that these species maintained same thermal requirements in the two regions despite they became separated tens of thousands years ago. Such conservatism of the climatic niche, as the scientists call it, provides supporting evidence that species should also retain their climatic niche in the future, hence allowing reliable niche-based projections to be made in a context of global warming.

4. Where do you see the biggest challenge(s) within EcoChange?

Clearly, the biggest challenge will be to properly integrate all the new data produced during the course of the project by scientists coming from very different disciplines with different scientific cultures. We are optimistic in reaching this goal, as such integration is already effective within many different tasks of EcoChange.


3) How ancient DNA explains future changes in ecosystems and biodiversity

A hot topic from the EcoChange project (by Mary Edwards, University of Southampton)


During the summer of 2009, a team of EcoChange scientists will visit the remote science station at Cherskiy in northeast Siberia. They will collect samples of frozen sediment exposed in high cliffs along the Kolyma, one of Siberia’s largest rivers. Here in the Arctic, the ground is permanently frozen, and in the lower reaches of the Kolyma the landscape is underlain by deep deposits of frozen silt. This material is, in essence, a stack of ancient soil horizons, and within it is preserved — due to the permanently cold temperatures — the DNA of the plants that grew in those soils and the animals that inhabited the ancient landscape.

This ancient DNA (aDNA) is the target of our studies; analysis of the aDNA can indicate the nature of past arctic environments at times when the climate was very different from today — such as the height of the last ice age, about 20,000 years ago, and a period warmer than today, which occurred about 10,000 years ago.

DNA is used increasingly as a basis for the classification of organisms. Rapidly developing laboratory techniques and computer-based information systems allow for the collection and analysis of large quantities of data that can be used to identify different species via unique sequences of DNA. In addition, DNA is preserved after organisms die and is now used as a ‘forensic’ tool, for example, to study the diets of modern animals and the ‘last meals’ of fossilized organisms. These scientific advances mean that we can combine the concept of barcoding —setting up a catalogue of DNA sequences that characterize particular groups of species — with that of a forensic approach to the environments of the past, in which aDNA is classified by barcoding and the ancient communities of plants and animals can be reconstructed.

Such a reconstruction can provide e.g. unparalleled detail about the composition of past plant communities, and this, in turn, allows us to learn more about the ways that organisms respond over time to environmental change. Such information allows us to test various aspects of the theory that underlies the modelling of organisms’ response to climate change, and it thus contributes to the modelling efforts at the heart of the EcoChange project.

Our main focus to date has been the flora of the Arctic (the flowering plants and gymnosperms such as pine and spruce). The first step was to create a DNA database of circum-arctic plants, based on DNA sequences that are found in chloroplasts. Our catalogue currently includes 856 species (289 genera in 84 families), which is over half the arctic flora. We also developed new methods of isolating and amplifying the aDNA molecules from soils so that many sequences can be rapidly processed and identified using state-of the art DNA sequencing technology.

The next step is calibration: testing whether DNA recovered from soil accurately reflects the overlying vegetation. Modern soil samples have processed for DNA, and the resulting DNA dataset was compared with records of the modern vegetation growing at the study location. Our first calibration study, carried out in the tundra of Varanger, north Norway, provided highly encouraging results. In study plots there was an 85-95% match between modern species and species derived from the soil DNA. Statistical analysis showed that different plant communities were clearly distinguished in both modern vegetation data and soil DNA data, and that soil DNA can capture the same patterns of variation as a conventional ecological survey. This indicates that soil-based surveys may accurately reflect vegetation composition and that we should be able to use aDNA from frozen soils to reconstruct past assemblages of plants. Pollen is typically used to make vegetation reconstructions, and a comparison with pollen data derived from the same samples indicates that the DNA-based approach yields realistic data and a greater insight into plant diversity.

Having established the relationship between modern plant sedimentary DNA, plant communities and pollen sequences, we have started to apply the ancient plant sedimentary DNA approach to ancient permafrost sediments. The first ancient soil samples to be studied, taken from a location in eastern Siberia, have provided rich species lists that reflect the composition of plant communities during the past ice age. Comparison with pollen samples indicates that the DNA-based approach yields realistic data and a greater insight into plant diversity. Such studies provide an otherwise unobtainable high-resolution window into past plant diversity and distribution, showing how plant communities change over time and place.

We hope to apply the barcoding approach more widely in the future. It is proving particularly useful with groups such as soil fungi (which include mycorrizae - fungi that become integrated with the root systems of plants and enhance their nutrition and growth) and the soil fauna, which include many groups of invertebrate animals that have important roles in maintaining soil quality and nutrient cycling. Such organisms are difficult to study and classify through conventional methods of describing and naming. Thus, there is the potential use DNA/aDNA in modern soils and ancient sediments to describe important properties of the soil-vegetation system such as nutrient cycling and diversity levels; these in turn reflect properties of ecosystem health and resilience that are important to monitor as the environment rapidly changes.

For further information please contact Mary Edwards (M.E.Edwards [at] soton [dot] ac [dot] uk)


4) Short news from the project's activities


Please click on the titles to get more background information.

Activity 1 (Gathering existing and sample new data): One of the main collaborative results of A1 is a large list of climate, land cover, land use and remote sensing maps, available in different resolutions. For land use and climate, IPCC-based future scenarios are available, too. Additionally, databases were developed of, namely: (1) species distributions (in the Alps, in Norway, and for some species for all of Europe, and (2) for species traits for >3500 plant species of Central Europe. In 3 case study areas, socio-economic field surveys were conducted in order to collect the necessary information for activity A6.Starting in September some of the collected data will be publicly available from the EcoChange Website.

Activity 2 (New DNA-based paleo-data): The initial work involved successfully creating a barcode catalogue of over 800 species of arctic plants and the development of a high-throughput system for the amplification and sequencing of soil-based DNA. Modern soil samples were then processed for DNA, and the resulting DNA barcoded dataset was compared with records of the modern vegetation. Preliminary results indicate a good match between DNA and modern vegetation, suggesting that soil-based surveys may accurately reflect species composition. The first ancient soil samples to be studied, taken from a location in eastern Siberia, have provided rich species lists that reflect the composition of plant communities during the past ice age. Comparison with pollen samples, which are typically used to make such reconstructions, indicates that the DNA-based approach yields realistic data and a greater insight into plant diversity.

Activity 3 (New DNA-based data on plant dispersion): The theoretical part of this Activity is now finishing up. The first task was to investigate how best to spread the sampling effort, i.e. number of samples (individuals) per locality, spacing of samples within localities, spacing and numbers of localities, and number of genetic markers. It showed that estimation of dispersal rates can be done, but only when sample sizes are high. We therefore decided to focus the practical aspect on only two species, Arabis alpina and Dryas octapetala. At the moment of writing, we are busy with the preparations for the sampling, which will take place during the field season of 2009.

Activity 4 (Assessment of spatial and temporal stability of niches and communities): The main attention within A4 has been on stability of thermal niches of arcto-alpine plant species in space. The distribution of 26 plant species, occurring in both in the Subarctics (Norway) and temperate alpine zone (Switzerland) was studied along thermal gradients. The thermal niches of plant species were basically stable in space, although sometimes the length of the gradient studied was obviously not long enough to make firm conclusions in all cases. In addition, a valuable experience was gained how to characterize microclimatic conditions in mountainous regions. For instance, it was found that the sum of degree days might still be not the best proxy to study thermal niche and other factors like the duration of the snow cover etc. may be even more important determinants of plant distribution. Within a frame of method development, we controlled the transferability of niche based models. Other teams, focusing on niche stability in time and assembly rules, we preparing their activities to be started in the third project year.

Activity 5 (Improvement of modelling and uncertainty assessment): During the first year of the project the research groups involved in Activity 5 have already published a number of papers, mainly related to (1) the importance of considering dispersal in habitat suitability models, (2) the effects of spatial scales on species distribution models, (3) the development of ensemble modeling approach. Moreover, three new modeling software (BioMove, BioMod, and MigClim) have been proposed to help the scientific community in using the most advanced techniques currently available. The main focus for Activity 5 is now shifting from model development to model evaluation, as well as to uncertainty issues that are associated with any modeling exercise.

Activity 6 (Integrating data and models to derive final projections and link results to humans): Within the first year standards for integration have been developed within Activity 6. Moreover the implementation of an integrated sustainability assessment (ISA) of the impacts of environmental change on ecosystem goods and services has been started in three case study areas (Brabant-Wallon in Belgium, Aargau in Switzerland and Poieni and Sacuieu in Romania). Modelling will be done by an agent-based-model (ABM). We developed integrated ABM/ISA framework and carried out a social survey in all three case studies among farmers (focus of ABM) and other stakeholders. Moreover, scenario development has been started in all three case studies. The conceptual design of the ABM is progressing, based on the input from the initial surveys and anticipating input from a more detailed survey including a conjoint analysis section.

Activity 7 (Scientific and non-scientific dissemination of results): Besides setting up the EcoChange website ( and this newsletter, a first series of briefing sheets has been elaborated (for download at A project flyer was printed and will be distributed at various occasions - an electronic version can be downloaded from

Activity 8 (Training of (young) researchers): A first EcoChange summer school on “Predictive habitat distribution models: tools for building projections of global change impact on biodiversity” will take place in Lausanne September 7-10, 2009. Further information at


5) (Un)Subscribe and Imprint


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