Towards a unified spatial theory of biodiversity

Activity Code: ERC-AdG-LS8 
Principal Investigator: Dr Thorsten Wiegand, thorsten.wiegand(at)  
Host Institution: Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ



One of the biggest and most persistent challenges in contemporary ecology is to explain the high diversity in ecological communities such as tropical forests, grasslands, coral reefs, or plankton ecosystems. The broad objective of our project is to understand the relative importance of processes and factors that govern the composition and dynamics of species-rich communities. Advances in this issue have important implications for efforts to protect terrestrial biodiversity.

Surprisingly, although most processes which are thought to contribute to species coexistence have a strong spatial component, the rich source of information on spatial patterns has only rarely been used. To accomplish our goal, we take a radically different approach than previous attempts and adopt a spatially explicit perspective that will allow us to take significant steps towards a Unified Spatial Theory of Biodiversity. We use large and high quality data sets of tropical forests, each comprising several hundred of species and >100000 trees that are mapped, monitored and censused every 5 years.

We proceed in three steps.

(1) We quantify the highly complex spatial structures found in forests using recent techniques of spatial pattern analysis.

(2) We build a range of individual-based spatially-explicit simulation models ranging from “pure” neutral models to detailed process-based models of tropical forest, such as FORMIND.

(3) We use pattern-oriented modelling to confront these simulation models with the set of patterns identified in (1) to identify the most parsimonious models that account simultaneously for all (spatial) patterns.

Project Details:

Start Date: 01.07.2009
End Date:  30.06.2014
EU Contribution: 2.18 Mio. Euro
Total Costs: 2.18 Mio. Euro
Funding Scheme: ERC Advanced Grants 2008
Administrative Contact Person: Annette Schmidt,
Project Website:

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    • Dr. Angela Richter
    • Delegate for the research area Earth and Environment
      Helmholtz Association