Fragmented forests and urban beetles - summer time is for field work

Urbaria postdoc Basile Finand studies the effects of habitat fragmentation on the diversity of ground beetle communities in urban forests. The research aims to provide insights into how landscape changes impact species diversity and characteristics over the long term.

"I'm collecting beetles and trudging through the forests!" I excitedly exclaim to my fellow students. This is about what I'll be doing during my internship at Urbaria this summer. The answer: I get to assist evolutionary ecologist Basile Finand in his field study across the forests of Helsinki. For an aspiring environmental scientist, spending summer days in the woods is a welcome addition to office work. 

The fieldwork begins with driving to various research sites around the Helsinki metropolitan area. Urban ecology docent and beetle expert Johan Kotze is driving the car and providing answers to all my -more or less stupid- questions. 

I quickly realize that I still have much to learn about identifying species. In this study, it's not just about any beetles; it's about ground beetles Carabidae, a subfamily of predatory beetles. They come in different sizes and appearances, some with wings, others wingless. True to their name, ground beetles scamper along the ground with their long legs, and this summer, a few unfortunate ones will end up in the researcher's plastic container.

The consequences of urbanization may be visible with a delay

Basile is studying how ground beetles react to the fragmentation of habitats in urban environments in the long-term. What makes this research particularly interesting is its historical perspective. In practice, field research is conducted in various areas, some of which have been urbanized and experienced forest fragmentation decades ago, while others have undergone the change more recently.

Many research forests are currently surrounded by construction sites as Helsinki is rapidly developing with new buildings and residential areas. As the city grows denser, the forests shrink and isolate. Basile's research results provide valuable information on how this affects the beetle communities and populations.

Taking a temporal perspective is crucial in a hectic urban environment. The effects of urbanization may appear after years, decades, or even centuries. Changes in habitats can alter species composition, and at the population level change the individual characteristics, like size or the presence of wings. At worst, population viability can reduce, leading to local extinctions. Biodiversity loss doesn't happen suddenly and dramatically; it occurs gradually, often unnoticed, here and there.

Swatting mosquitoes and treasure hunting

Despite the serious subjects, field research is practical and fun. There are beautiful and diverse forest areas, a joy to wander through. However, walking in the summer woods has its challenges; mosquitoes in early summer and aggressive wasps in late summer. Experienced insect researchers, however, aren't bothered by them. 

Johan expertly guides a newcomer in the practices of urban ecology research. In this study we use pitfall traps, which trap insects for later identification and measurement in the laboratory. We also measure environmental variables such as soil properties, leaf litter thickness, and canopy cover.

First, we need to find the research sites and locate the containers previously hidden by Johan and Basile at the beginning of the summer. In urban areas, this is not always as straightforward as it sounds. Apparently, kindergartens and dog walkers pose challenges. The plastic containers and colored ribbons used to mark their locations also attract curious children and dogs exploring the woods. In one forest site, the ribbons have vanished into thin air, turning the fieldwork into a real treasure hunt.

Usually, the tasks are efficiently performed as a team. Remove the container, collect its contents, put it back, and hide it under the leaves. Some containers contain plenty of beetles, providing the desired research data. Others are full of snails or ants. Later in the laboratory, I wonder at the variety of small soil organisms from worms to spiders, found in even a small sample.

Global phenomenon requires local research

While exploring the forests, I get to converse and learn a lot about the world of research. It's especially fascinating to hear the experiences of international researchers and how urban researchers easily find themselves working around the world from Parisian parks to Finnish suburbs. 

Cities may be very different from each other, but similar phenomena can be studied almost anywhere. The same patterns repeat in urban environments; some species thrive in urban areas, while others decline and disappear, and some shuttle on the outskirts of cities. Cities offer resources and diverse habitats, but they also pose new threats, stressors, and fragmented environments to which many species have not adapted yet. 

Studying insects like ground beetles in urban environments is crucial. They provide essential ecosystem services, from pollination to waste decomposition even in urban areas. We are dependent on these neighbors. Although urban phenomena are similar in most places, local differences in species behavior, traits, and adaptations can be significant. Therefore, basic ecological research on species and habitats in our northern cities is essential.

Scientific research requires patience and precision. Even in July, Basile spends long days in the laboratory, identifying, measuring, and recording each collected beetle. I also get to try the meticulous task of detaching legs and wing fragments for measurements under the microscope. These small creatures are surprisingly beautiful when you take the time to observe them closely.

Time and effort-consuming research knowledge should make its way from research papers to the practices and desks of urban planners. Knowledge is needed to support decisions so that cities can become sustainable living environments for us humans as well as other species. Urbaria postdocs collaborate closely with cities to achieve these goals.

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