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Biodiversity and ecosystem change across the Earth’s abandoned land

The global human population is growing and at 7.7 billion, there are currently more humans walking the Earth than ever before. Simultaneously, but far less conspicuously, rural populations have plummeted by nearly a quarter in the last 50 years. Because the processes of abandonment and depopulation are rarely monitored firsthand, their effects on ecosystems and biodiversity have largely remained unquantified. As a Schmidt Science Fellow, I am testing how ecosystems and biodiversity change following abandonment as well as their possible interactions with other global change drivers like shifts in climate.

To study the ecological fingerprint of land abandonment and human depopulation, I am conducting research on two scales – global and country-specific (Bulgaria). First, I am using a global-scale data synthesis bridging the disciplines of ecology, remote sensing and human demography to quantify the types of ecosystems that develop on abandoned and depopulated land. Second, I am zooming in and studying abandonment and depopulation in greater detail using drone and audio surveys and field monitoring in Bulgaria. Overall, the goal of my fellowship research is to determine the potential of abandoned land for biodiversity conservation and how that is influenced by global change.

My host labs for my fellowship are the Biodiversity, Ecology and Conservation group at IIASA in Vienna and the SILVIS lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Biodiversity change & global change drivers

All around the world, populations and ecological communities are changing, creating a complex mix of increases, decreases or no changes in population abundance, species richness and species composition. The aim of my PhD was to find what drivers explain the variation in these heterogeneous patterns. Specifically, I focused on global change representation, rarity and land-use change and global change driver interactions. By testing how human activities affect populations and biodiversity over time, I quantified both immediate and temporally delayed impacts, which together allow us to predict how Earth’s biota will change across the Anthropocene.

Supervised by Dr Isla Myers-Smith, Dr Maria Dornelas and Dr Anne Bjorkman

IMG_3359The specific research questions I addressed in my PhD are:

1. How representative are biodiversity data of global change variation around the world?

Preprint: Daskalova, G.N., Myers-Smith, I.H., Bowler, D., Dornelas, M.A. Representation of global change drivers across biodiversity datasets.

2. How do vertebrate population trends vary globally, across biomes, taxa and rarity metrics?

Published: Daskalova, G. N., Myers-Smith, I. H., Godlee, J.L. (2020) Rare and common vertebrates span a wide spectrum of population trends. Nature Communications, 11, 4394.

3. Do forest loss and gain influence population and biodiversity change over time?

Published: Daskalova, G. N., Myers-Smith, I. H., Bjorkman, A. D., Blowes, S. A., Supp, S. R., Magurran, A. E., & Dornelas, M. (2020). Landscape-scale forest loss as a catalyst of population and biodiversity change. Science, 368, 1341-1347.

4. What are the impacts of recent land abandonment across EU countries on land cover and bird and mammal population trends?

In prep manuscript: Daskalova, G.N., Pereira H. M. Herbivorous mammals and carnivorous birds benefit from land abandonment in EU countries.

5. What are the cumulative and interactive effects of global change drivers on population and biodiversity change around the world?

In prep manuscript: Daskalova, G.N., Bowler, D., Bjorkman, A.D., Blowes, S.A., Magurran, A., Dornelas, M.A., Myers-Smith, I.H., et al. Cumulative and interactive effects of global change drivers on population and biodiversity change.

Population change across vertebrate populations part of the Living Planet Database.

Biodiversity change across Europe’s land abandonment hotspots – talk at the British Ecological Society annual meeting in 2020

Species pool & the landscape context of biodiversity change in the Arctic

The relationship between the regional species pool (all species present in a region) and local biodiversity trends, such as species turnover (the change in the species composition of a site over time) is a major research unknown for biology, particularly in the Arctic tundra, one of the biomes most sensitive to climate change. We are recording all the plant species we could find in two distinct vegetation communities on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island to determine how the regional species pool influences plant diversity at different landscape scales. Next, we will combine our ground observations with drone imagery to determine where across the tundra landscape we find the hotspots of biodiversity, and the source of potential future changes in plant community composition. This project is part of the larger ITEX network and our protocol is published on the Open Science Framework:

Rixen, C., Daskalova, G.N., Bjorkman, A.D., and Normand, S. (2019). Species Pool Protocol for the International Tundra Experiment Network (ITEX). Open Science Framework. DOI: 10.17605/OSF.IO/AGDFQ

In prep manuscript: Daskalova, G.N., and the ITEX species pool consortium. Dark diversity across the tundra biome.

The Arctic’s Hidden Biodiversity

In 2019, I headed back to the Arctic to discover the tundra’s hidden biodiversity, supported by a National Geographic Early Career Grant. Our goal was to capture the species that are often missed by traditional small-scale monitoring and determine where across the landscape they are most often found. Linking across the plot and landscape scales, we will be able to make better predictions about how the Arctic’s biodiversity will be altered in a warmer climate. You can read more about the Hidden Arctic project in this blog post.

Tundra vegetation change

(Team Shrub collaborative research projects)

flagsAs part of my previous job as a lab and data manager for Team Shrub and now as a PhD student in the lab, I’m involved with some of Team Shrub’s collaborative research projects, including research on active layer depth changes on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island and how detection of vegetation attributes differs across scales, from field observations to drone imagery.

Myers-Smith, I.H., Grabowski, M., Thomas, H., Angers-Blondin, S., Daskalova, G.N., et al. Eighteen years of ecological monitoring reveals multiple lines of evidence for tundra vegetation change. (Accepted in Ecological Monographs, manuscript available on request)

Population responses of farmland bird species to agri-environment schemes and land management options in Northeastern Scotland

(Undergraduate dissertation, supervised by Dr Ally Phillimore and Dr Allan Perkins)

IMG_7852.jpgThe decline of farmland birds in the UK is one of the most well-documented cases of biodiversity loss globally, and despite land stewardship supported by funding from agri-environment schemes (AES), the negative trends have not yet been reversed. To investigate AES contribution towards farmland conservation, we compared the rates of population change of five priority farmland bird species across 53 farms in Northeastern Scotland. We documented a weak effect size of participation in agri-environment schemes on farmland bird abundance, and recommend that future monitoring studies be designed after consulting a power analysis. Among different land management options, we found that species-rich grasslands, water margins and wetland creation enhanced breeding bird abundance, highlighting the importance of relatively undisturbed herbaceous or grassland vegetation for farmland conservation.

Daskalova, G. N., Phillimore, A. B., Bell, M., Maggs, H., & Perkins. A. J. (2018) Population responses of farmland bird species to agri‐environment schemes and land management options in Northeastern Scotland. Journal of Applied Ecology.