Terrestrial Ecology

Biodivercity Roof

The department of Terrestrial Ecology studies species, communities and ecosystems in a rapidly changing world.

Due to climate change, land use changes, biological invasions and other environmental disruptions, the natural world is facing unprecedented environmental challenges. Much of our research focuses on plants and the interactions that they have with microbes, insects and other organisms, in the soil and aboveground.


Our mission is to study the impact that these environmental changes have on terrestrial ecosystems and to contribute to measures that safeguard terrestrial ecosystem functioning in the Anthropocene. 

How our research helps to understand and mitigate effects of climate change, biodiversity loss and land use change:

  • Biodiversity: How is below-ground biodiversity, and the services it provides, affected by management and ecological processes? How can we bend the curve of insect decline? How are belowground and aboveground biodiversity linked?
  • Climate change:  What is the impact of extreme climatic events on terrestrial ecosystems? How can terrestrial ecosystems function as effective carbon sinks? What is the capacity of species to adapt to rapid environmental change?
  • Land use change: How can ecosystem functioning be restored in former agricultural land? How can ecosystem services be improved under agricultural practice?


Biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems plays an important role in ecosystem functioning based on the vast array of interactions occurring among individuals, populations and communities across variable spatial and temporal scales. In our department, we study the effects of biotic and abiotic processes on individual- and species-level responses in a broader community-based framework. Biodiversity is not always easily seen. For example, the soil is teeming with biodiversity, and microorganisms and (micro)arthropods found there play crucial roles in food-webs and ecosystem processes such as nutrient cycling and carbon storage. We therefore study belowground biodiversity in various projects across the Netherlands as well as abroad (links to Onder het Maaiveld, Voedselbossen, something international). Given that insects are one of the most species-rich groups of animals, and they play key roles in providing a range of ecological services, we are investigating how changes in land use influence insect diversity and biomass and how we can bend the curve of insect decline. A proposed step in our research is to see how the link between belowground and aboveground biodiversity is affected under concomitant or sequentially occurring climatic extremes as well as under different land-use scenarios.

Climate change

Anthropogenic climate change is exposing terrestrial ecosystems to multiple abiotic stresses over variable spatial and temporal scales. Our research investigates the impact of climate change on organisms, trophic interactions and ecosystem functioning in terrestrial ecosystems. For instance, what is the impact of extreme climate events on organisms? And how do abiotic climate change stresses as interact with other processes that affect ecosystems, such as biological invasions and habitat loss? At the same time, we try to understand how we can let nature help to mitigate impacts of climate change, for instance via promoting carbon storage in soils. Another focus is on understanding the capacity of individual species to adapt to such rapid environmental changes. What are the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms that may facilitate rapid adaptation? Finally, we contribute to raising awareness and evidence-based environmental advocacy – having scientific insights bear on public discussion and on the need for mitigation are vitally important.  

Land use change

Use of land is one of the most significant impacts that humans have on Earth’s natural systems. Our activities alter the diversity and distribution of species and the ability of terrestrial ecosystems to serve important functions including storing carbon, cleaning water and supporting plant growth. In TE we research how natural ecosystems can be restored following disturbance by human land use, both with respect to their inherent value as biodiverse ecosystems and their support of valuable functions. Furthermore, TE brings an ecological perspective to contemporary agricultural land use to safeguard these ecosystem functions while supporting food production. An emerging research topic is how urban ecosystems – among the most intensive of human land uses – affects the ecology and evolution of wild species.

Plant-soil feedbacks

Plants are crucial mediators of interactions between aboveground- and belowground organisms. We study how plants affect soil microbes, nematodes and arthropods, and how these effects on belowground communities feed back on plants. We apply this knowledge for steering soil communities for ecological restoration. We also investigate how beneficial soil microbes enhance plant resistance and suppress pathogens, which can help improve sustainable agriculture practices.

Plant-soil feedbacks

Carbon storage

We study carbon cycling in terrestrial ecosystems, where soils and plants are important for limiting climate warming. Soil organisms drive decomposition of plant material and stabilise soil carbon, under the influence of plants, viruses, global change and human management. Trees build up carbon stocks in their biomass and affect the soils below. Better understanding of these ecosystem processes supports climate-proof land-use management across agriculture, forests, and rehabilitation of abandoned land.

Carbon storage

Ecological genetics and epigenetic

How do plants respond and adapt to their rapidly changing environments? We study the genetic and molecular mechanisms of plant adaptation in habitats with strong human impacts, such as abandoned farmland and cities. One focus is on epigenetic mechanisms, which shape the expression of plant genomes in a dynamic, stable but reversible way. We use genomic analysis in clonal plants such as poplar trees to investigate if this epigenetic flexibility helps plants cope with rapid change.


Research groups

  • Van der Putten: Soils steering aboveground biodiversity
  • Biere: Soil microbes harnessing plant stress responses
  • Harvey: Species interactions under extreme climatic events
  • Veen: Carbon & nutrient cycling in terrestrial ecosystems
  • Verhoeven: Plant adaptation to rapid environmental change
  • De Boer: Insect biodiversity and pests in a changing world


Peer-reviewed publications