Evolutionary vegetation modeling and management

Research by the Evolution and Ecology Program (EEP) in 2014 continued to apply mathematical models to elucidate the formation and maintenance of vegetation diversity, structure, and functioning.

© Capricornis | Dreamstime

© Capricornis | Dreamstime

Vegetation is the largest living element in the Earth’s biosphere and is essential for upholding biodiversity. The response of the world’s vegetation to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide plays a major role in predictions of global warming.

EEP research on evolutionary vegetation modeling and management is carried out in cooperation with IIASA’s Ecosystem Services and Management (ESM) and Advanced Systems Analysis (ASA) Programs:

  • A study published in the influential journal Ecology Letters showed that microbial community dynamics play an important role in facilitating and accelerating wood litter decay [1].
  • The need to account for microorganisms was underscored by demonstrating that fungal and bacterial utilization of organic substrates depends on substrate complexity and nitrogen availability [2].

Figure 1. An evolutionary vegetation model was developed to examine the role of deep roots for upholding plant diversity (click on image to enlarge).

  • Using an evolutionary vegetation model (Figure 1), researchers showed that deep roots tapping into ground water may largely be responsible for upholding plant diversity under conditions of severe draught—up to a critical threshold at which plant diversity is sharply reduced [3].
  • A complementary study [4] is demonstrating how species-diverse forest communities can arise through evolution acting on two salient functional traits. This study resolves the protracted debate about the relative importance of niche dynamics and neutral dynamics for understanding the structure of forest communities, and shows how both dynamics naturally arise from the same ubiquitous processes found in all vegetation.


[1] Kaiser C, Franklin O, Dieckmann U & Richter A (2014). Microbial community dynamics alleviate stoichiometric constraints during litter decay. Ecology Letters 17:680–690.

[2] Koranda M, Kaiser C, Fuchslueger L, Kitzler B, Sessitsch A, Zechmeister-Boltenstern S & Richter A (2014). Fungal and bacterial utilization of organic substrates depends on substrate complexity and N availability. FEMS Microbiology Ecology 87:142–152.

[3] Lindh M, Zhang L, Falster D, Franklin O & Brännström Å (2014). Plant diversity and drought: The role of deep roots. Ecological Modelling 290:85–93.

[4] Falster D, Brännström Å, Westoby M & Dieckmann U. Multi-trait eco-evolutionary dynamics explain niche diversity and evolved neutrality in forests, in revision.

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Last edited: 02 April 2015

Research program

Further information



Eco-evolutionary Vegetation Modeling and Management

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313