In Insights we discover the story behind a recent publication in Functional Ecology: what inspired the authors to do the research, how did the project develop and what wider impact might the work have?
In this week’s Insights, Ciska Veen (@ciskaveen), from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, talks about her paper on how successional gradients in three contrasting habitats affect home-field advantage and potential leaf litter decomposition.
How has your career developed over the last few years and what is your current position?
I am currently a junior group leader at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology. This means that I am starting to build up my own research group. At the moment it is still very small, including myself, two PhD students and a postdoc. We are mainly working on carbon and nutrient cycling, also in the context of global change and sustainable agriculture.
How did you get involved in studying (microbial) ecology?
As a child, I spent most of time outdoors and at school I loved learning about biology. When I started high school, it was very clear to me that I wanted to become a biologist, preferably a geneticist. However, during my bachelor’s in biology, I really enjoyed the ecological courses much more than the other ones. From then on, I switched gears and I ended up becoming an ecologist (which I really enjoy!).
Can you briefly explain the home-field advantage theory, and how does your paper differ form other work in this area?
Plant litter decomposition can be accelerated near the plant where the litter originates, compared to away from that plant. This process is referred to as home-field advantage. You can compare it to the advantage that sports teams may experience when playing a match in their home stadium. Many studies have investigated home-field advantage effects by using reciprocal litter transplant experiments, and these studies have found very variable effects ranging from negative to neutral to positive. In our study, we try to understand whether we can use environmental conditions to explain the magnitude and occurrence of home-field effects. We sourced litter and soil from three successional gradients, where environmental soil abiotic properties and litter chemical characteristics are known to vary between successional stages.
Your experimental set-up is very detailed, with a reciprocal litter transplant from three successional stages from three habitats were incubated in the soils of these habitats. Did you experience any problems setting up the experiment/gathering your data?
We did not encounter major problems during the set up of our study. However, because we had three successional gradients, with three successional stages per gradient and six replicated transects we had to visit quite many different field sites (54 in total) to collect our soil and litter. So it took some driving, walking and biking (yes, it is the Netherlands!) before we could start setting up our experiment.
The relationships between home-field advantage along successional gradients did not exactly match your expectations, which is always exciting. You postulate an array of possible explanations. Perhaps it is a bit circular, but would it also be possible that some of the inconsistencies are due to the co-linearity between successional stage and habitat type?
Yes, I guess this is very much possible. Still, we would have expected to find more positive home-field advantage effects in general, even if successional stage or habitat characteristics could not explain them. The finding that many litters did not experience home-field advantage or that some even experienced negative home-field advantage still puzzles me, particularly because we and other people also found this in earlier work. It could be that in natural, mixed communities (like we have used in our work) interactions between litter types and specialized decomposer communities play out on a very small scale, even smaller than our sampling scale.
Do you think that the home-field advantage can also lead to increased stability of carbon that is locked in ecosystems? I’m thinking of microbial communities that specialise on community specific exudates, leaving more recalcitrant organic carbons?
I have never really thought about that yet, but this is a really cool idea and also something worth studying in more detail. I can imagine that if soil organisms are specialized to use root exudates or plant litter from the plant they are associated with, the carbon within these substrates may end up in the microbial biomass efficiently and has the potential to become associated with soil aggregates and sequestered.
What do you like most about being an ecologist? What could you happily do without?
What I really like about being an ecologist is that we get to see so many great places, meet so many nice people and work on very exciting questions that give us a better understanding of the functioning of species, communities and ecosystems. It is hard to say what I would like to be doing otherwise. I think I would enjoy being a teacher (maybe in high school?).
What achievement are you most proud of?
I am most proud of funding the last seven years of my career with personal grants. It has been quite a challenge to get the grants and it is not always easy to organize my personal life around my work as an ecologist, but I am proud that I achieved this!
How do you balance work and downtime?
In my spare time I am first of all a mother of two daughters (7 and 10 years old). It is great to see them grow up and I enjoy their enthusiasm for the world around them. When I am not working or spending time with my kids, I like to play tennis, run, read books and hike. During our holidays, we usually make long bike trips in the Netherlands, France or Sweden with our tent on the back of our bikes. This gives a great feeling of freedom and is a fantastic way to explore the outdoors. Balancing work and private life is not always easy, but I make time to spend with my family and to play tennis during the evenings and weekends.