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Posts from the ‘bromeliads’ Category

The effects of distant predators – new paper in Journal of Animal Ecology

Two years ago, Beth Turner did a MSc thesis in the lab and performed a field experiment in Nicaragua together with PhD student Mathil Vandromme. The goal was to demonstrate that prey species do not just respond to predators that are present in a certain habitat, but also to predators elsewhere in the landscape. To test this we used landscapes of bromeliads that have a central tank that provides aquatic habitat.  As a predator we used a caged predatory larva of the mosquito Toxorynchites, a ferocious predator of mosquito larvae including members of its own species.

We could confirm that effects of predators in a natural ecosystem can extend beyond the patch in which the predator is present and that the presence or absence of remote predator effects on habitat selection depends on the distance to predators. The notion that perceived habitat quality can depend on conditions in neighbouring patches forces habitat selection studies to adopt a landscape perspective and account for the effects of both present and remote predators when explaining community assembly in metacommunities.

The work has been published in Journal of Animal Ecology


Bromeliads as habitats for cacao pollinators

In a new paper, we report the presence of cacao pollinators in bromeliad plants and identify factors that influence their abundances.

Bromeliads are common plants in the Neotropics. Being epiphytic, they are often incorrectly considered as parasites and removed from agroforestry systems. However, their water-filled leaf axils provide habitats for a diverse group of aquatic organisms, potentially including cacao pollinating dipterans which could be beneficial to local farmers. Thus far, it is unclear how frequently and abundantly potential pollinators occur in bromeliads in cacao plantations. Therefore, we investigated the aquatic fauna in different types of bromeliads in Nicaraguan cacao agroforestry systems. Our main goal was to study the impact of bromeliad morphology and vertical position on aquatic biodiversity with particular attention for larvae of presumed cacao pollinators. Aquatic biodiversity was higher in larger bromeliads and in bromeliads positioned closer to the ground. Particularly invertebrates without flying life stages were deficient in elevated bromeliads suggesting dispersal limitation. Potential cacao pollinators occurred in 66% of the bromeliads and were most abundant in bromeliads with larger tanks that were located higher in the canopy rather than on the plantation floor. We conclude that larvae of cacao pollinators can be common and relatively abundant inhabitants of tank bromeliads in cacao trees, and it is likely that preserving these habitats could boost local pollinator abundances.

The paper is out now in Hydrobiologia

Bromeliads growing on the branches of a cacao tree in Nicaragua (photo: Bram Vanschoenwinkel)


A big year

It has been a hectic year for most of us, not just for me. Roughly two years ago we started from scratch. No money, no projects, no equipment. Now a lab has emerged.  Last year field work was performed and animals were studied on and from five continents (Europe, Central America, Africa, Australia and SE Asia). I have seen more invertebrate orders and families last year than in any of the previous years. Elaborate field experiments were set up (Celina, Beth, Hendrik) sometimes with so many treatments that it was difficult not to get lost. We abandoned plankton as a core group and embraced more invertebrate and vertebrate groups than ever before. Our taxonomical expertise has increased tremendously and so has the literature we have on groups we never tackled before. Yannick and Hendrik made their own field guide for rock pool invertebrates from Western Australia, Mario personally made a key for invertebrates from moss islands in Belgium and nobody is more skilled in finding cryptic species than Gisela. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this because this quality control and extra taxonomical resolution makes all the difference and allowed us to detect a lot of patterns that would have remained obscured otherwise.


Many of you also did exceptional things to gather data. Some people crawled through dark holes full of feces (Barbara) to get data, others will face or have faced the treacherous mud of wetlands (Evelien, Lise). Some of you have used slave labor to collect samples and aid with lab work (Celina) or seduced Greek fishermen to get free transport (Sofie). Several of you have struggled with terrible bureaucracy, permits, tropical parasites or a combination of all four.  Some people said I was foolish to take on so many MSc students by the start of the year and they were right. But I was convinced by all of your plans and have not regretted it.

I’m also happy that overall we are doing well. Despite the fact that I never had less time to write papers than last year, we scored important  papers in Global Ecology and Biogeography and Scientific Reports… and strangely enough in Alzheimer’s & Dementia (don’t ask me how, I forgot). Our website got more than 10 000 unique visitors.

Valerio discovered something amazing in reptiles (I cannot write what, not published yet). Mathil got a PhD fellowship and lead a successful expedition into unknown territories. Evelien’s connectivity analyses are being explored in other systems and datasets from moss mites and coral reefs to pelicans. Karen found that predator avoidance strategies in the African savannah affect the shape of drinking holes and the vegetation around it… because antelope tend to approach water upwind to avoid being detected. With Melissa, we used a supercomputer to reconstruct interaction strengths in food webs. We build a matrix population model that showed that evolutionary bet hedging could help populations to cope with climate change. We joined the Bromeliad Working Group and are planning more exchange with Canada and Brazil. We used X rays to peer into the darkness inside the time capsules of dormant plankton and are only beginning to understand how they manage to use time travel to cope with environmental stochasticity. We are collaborating with Bio Engineers (the ecology of intracellular interactions), Physicists (optics), Archeologists (distribution models of ancient settlements) and Geographers (dispersal, urban ecology) on interdisciplinary research themes. These are just few of many highlights of my year.

Thanks to all my students and collaborators for helping us with starting up this lab!

Meeting of the Bromeliad Working group

In September, Mathil and I attended the meeting of the Bromeliad Working Group (BWG) in Paraty, Brazil. It was a great week with a lot of interesting talks, discussions and emerging collaborations.

This means we plan to do more work on bromeliads in the near future in Mathil’s and – hopefully – also Daniel’s PhDs and in collaboration with partners overseas.This will include work on spatial community dynamics as well as more applied work looking at ecosystem services provided by bromeliads. Within these research lines there will be opportunities to do MSc thesises. We will also try to get more funding for bilateral mobility between Brussels and partner institutions in Latin America such as Brazil.

Euraxes links: Brazil-Europe

We will add our community data from Bolivia and Costa Rica to the large database that is currently assembled by the BWG to support meta analyses across the continent. More info on the working group can be found on:

Bromeliad Working Group

Infinite thanks to Gustavo Romero, Vinicius Farjalla and Diane Srivastava for organizing a great symposium and for bringing all these people together!


Enjoying the views in Rio


Collective thinking


Entering data into the database


Washing up on the beach after the meeting


Wrapping up results with Vinicius



The streets of Paraty

Welcome Mathil!

As from October, Mathil Vandromme will join the research group after having succefully obtained a VLADOC PhD grant awarded by the Flemish Interuniversity Council for Developmental Aid. Mathil will start to work on the potential ecosystem services provided by bromeliad plants that grow in plantations of coffee and cocoa in Nicaragua. After completing her BSc at VUB, she enrolled in the Erasmus Mundus MSc programme in tropical ecology (TROPIMUNDO). During her MSc degree she worked on an elevational gradient in the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica.