The Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) has a new research specialisation in biology. As of today, researcher Thomas Merckx will start the group ‘Global Change Biology’ within the biology department. The researchers will study, among other things, urban evolutionary ecology. This includes the various aspects of environmental change caused by urbanisation and their effect, genetic or otherwise, on fauna and flora. The effects of urbanisation will be studied globally, but also locally, in Brussels.
Merckx: “The intention is to use Brussels too as a ‘living lab’. Since Brussels is a big city, one can expect numerous ecological changes and evolutionary adaptations,” says Merckx. “We will also use the city for educational purposes. I’ll venture into the city with students so that they can discover it as a unique biotope.”
Battle against urban heat islands
The group’s ambition goes even further. They want to translate their research results into practical advice for urban planners. For example, Merckx and his team want to mitigate the urban-heat-island effect and urban biodiversity loss:
“Natural solutions are usually more effective than high-tech technology because they simultaneously offer various ecosystem services. Trees, for example, provide a cooling effect, purify the air and are essential links within numerous biological processes. Urban ponds too are able to reduce ambient temperatures, while providing an entire ecosystem at the same time. However, it is crucial to take measures that result in the desired effect. Which tree species are best planted in a particular spot? What makes for functional connections between green spaces? Good science provides the best answers to such questions.”
A global approach
Because urbanisation is a global phenomenon, the group will study its effects in a global framework; this in order to better understand the global impact of urbanisation on biological communities and biological processes. To this end, the group will use citizen-science data and sampling, as well as experimental work, in cities both inside and outside Belgium.
“The Global Change Biology group will focus on studying the mechanisms behind the impact of urbanisation on species, communities and biological processes, such as pollination. In order to do so, we will look at individual urban drivers, such as light and air pollution, habitat fragmentation, and the urban-heat-island effect. This will allow us, for example, to gain better insights into how species adapt to urbanising environments. We will also investigate links between human mental well-being and the quality of green infrastructure.”
Thomas Merckx gained Global Change Biology expertise at the universities of Leuven, Antwerp, Oxford, Lisbon, Louvain-la-Neuve and Oulu, where he studied effects of and adaptation to environmental change, such as forest fragmentation, agro-ecological management, rewilding and urbanisation. As a study model, he mainly used butterflies and moths, which are particularly suitable for studying the effects of global environmental change, as these insects play a key role in terrestrial ecosystems, are relatively easy to sample, and respond quickly to environmental change.