New Guinea is one of the last areas where we can still find continuous tracts of intact tropical forest. At the same time, this island is known for its stunning diversity of unique plants and animals. For example, of the more than 20,000 local plant species 70 % occur only here. The same is true for frogs, snakes, birds, and insects. The late colonisation of the island and the impenetrability of the terrain mean that we still know nothing about the ecology of most of the organisms there and many species are still waiting to be discovered.
Scientists and students from our faculty have been studying plant and insect communities in the local forests for more than ten years. In the early days a tiny base was established near the port of Madang on the shores of a coral lagoon. Today, the station has several buildings, including an air-conditioned laboratory with the modern equipment required for ecological research. The station's 20 Papuan employees ("parataxonomers", specially trained indigenous experts on the local natural environment) help collect and process insect and plant samples. The entire international project also includes American, Australian, and British institutions. Its aim is to understand the processes behind the creation and maintenance of the vast biodiversity of tropical areas. We are especially interested in the relationships between insects and plants, which make up the vast majority of organisms in the tropics. The caterpillars of butterflies and their parasitoids, ants, and wood-boring beetles are the main subjects of study. Currently, this scope is expanding to other groups, including vertebrates.
The cooperation of our students with local assistants has proven to be very effective. The research results have been published in a number of scholarly articles in leading scientific journals, including Nature and Science. A long-term study of the relationships between host plants and leaf-eating insects has helped to refine the global estimate of insect species diversity from the original 10-30 to just 4-6 million species. The Papuan mission also includes the education of the indigenous population (e.g. the building of a new village school) and the protection of the natural environment (efforts to declare protected areas; ecological education).
Students of our faculty have already been able to try out tropical research for themselves four times. Every two years, an excursion is organized as part of a course in tropical ecology, where 10 students from various biological disciplines are selected for a three-week stay in Papua. So far, expeditions have taken place in 2006, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017. Each student had the opportunity to work on their own project together with one of the Papuan biology students. The expeditions have included the exploration of all of the basic types of environment that can be found in Papua. Students have dived on coral reefs, worked in the lowland inland rainforest, canoed in mangroves, climbed through the misty mountain forest to the top of Mt. Wilhelm to 4500 MASL., visited a volcanic island, danced with local people decorated in war paint and headbands of bird-of-paradise feathers, chewed betel nut, and tasted cassowary.
New Guinea research is carried out at the Department of Zoology in cooperation with the Institute of Entomology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic (contact persons Vojtěch Novotný, novotny at entu.cas.cz and M. Janda, janda at entu.cas.cz).
Further information can be found on the webpages of:
Laboratory of Tropical Ecology
New Guinea Binatang Research Center
The adventure of tropical ecology (Biologické centrum AV ČR, v. v. i.)
Defender of New Guinea’s hidden life (Cosmos Magazine)
A project implemented at the Department of Zoology.
Cameroon's Bamenda Highlands are the only continuous mountain range in West Africa and one of the world's biodiversity centres. Thanks to long-term isolation a whole range of endemic species of animals and plants have developed there. Birds include the turaco Tauraco bannermani, the wattle-eye Platysteira laticincta, and the apalis Apalis pulchra. However, the diversity of forest communities throughout the mountain range is constantly under the threat of felling. Due to the massive deforestation of most of the mountains the original habitats have been fragmented into small "islands" in inaccessible places where populations of rare animals, plants, and their pollinators survive. The study of coevolutionary processes can make a significant contribution to clarifying the life strategies of target species, but also to revealing the options for protecting one of the rarest ecosystems in Africa – mountain forests. Pollination systems in the tropics are now well known for their high number of pollinator species, where careless intervention can cause the gradual extinction of the entire community. Within the project, the studied species of sunbirds (Nectariniidae), insects, and plants also include some endemic species, the ecology of which is still practically unknown.
Results so far show that the pollination relationship between endemics can be very close, as in the case of the balsam Impatiens sakeriana and the sunbird Cyanomitra oritis. The coexistence of both species is accompanied by a number of morphological, physiological, and behavioral adaptations. On the other hand, the system may be entered by a number of other pollinators more opportunistic in their selection of host plants. During the project, several new species of bird parasites and one small mammal of the genus Sylvisorex were described. In recent years, cooperation has been established with local scientific authorities and a research station has been established. Thanks to this, another possibility for Czech researchers and students to collaborate on research in tropical areas has opened up.
The project took place at the Department of Zoology (contact person Jan Riegert, honza at riegert.cz).
A project of the Department of Botany dealing with the research of cyanobacteria and algae, especially in Latin America.
The focus of Earth's biodiversity is in the tropics. Despite this, most cyanobacteria and algae that have been described are from the temperate zone, especially from Europe. Our research aims to discover new, as yet undescribed species (sometimes genera) of these organisms and compare them morphologically, ecologically, ultrastructurally, and genetically with similar populations from the temperate zone. In addition to the actual discovery of the undiscovered, it is also a search for an answer to the question of the ubiquitous distribution of cyanobacteria and algae. Probably due to the considerable concentration of similarly focused colleagues in Latin America, we focus primarily on this area. We have very promising research under way on the Venezuelan Table Mountains and the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest, as well as undertaking extensive work on the flora of the Caribbean - our last (2013) major excursion for 8 students and teachers was to Puerto Rico and Florida.
However, we certainly do not neglect other tropical areas, we are also working on smaller projects in Hawaii, Thailand, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. From our tropical projects (in addition to a number of scientific publications of course) five defended diploma theses have arisen, with one in progress. However, we have so many projects that we can easily take on more students.
The project takes place at the Department of Botany (contact person Jan Kaštovský, hanys at prf.jcu.cz).
A research project of the Center of Polar Ecology, which has been engaged in research on Svalbard since 2001.
Currently, scientists from the Center for Polar Ecology are launching their second research project, in which they are again emphasizing research in the field of biodiversity and climatology. Research in the field of geology, geomorphology, and hydrology has recently been added to these already established research topics.
The current temporary research station is located in the central part of the Svalbard - Petuniabukta archipelago (Billefjorden). The station serves Czech scientists as a logistics base during field research in this area, for the time being only during the summer period, however, the construction of a permanent Czech research station is being planned.
All information on research on Svalbard can be found on the CPE website: https://polar.prf.jcu.cz.
Our research on African mammals takes two directions. The first is the study of various aspects of the biology of underground rodents, the second is mainly taxonomic studies on a number of small mammals.
Underground rodents are mammals that have "chosen" a demanding form of existence, as they live all their lives under the Earth's surface. Compared to the conditions above ground, such a way of life offers a number of advantages – especially a greater degree of safety from predators and also the microclimatic stability of the environment (no wind, higher temperature, constant humidity). But, as always, the advantages are balanced by a number of disadvantages – it is dark in the burrows, there is little oxygen and high levels of CO2, and it is necessary to burrow through the soil for food. Due to this hidden way of life, until recently we knew little about the biology of underground rodents. African mole rats are one of the most famous underground dwellers. Our research focuses on little-known both solitary and social species from Central and East Africa (Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania). Recently, we have begun to study other underground rodents such as the big-headed African mole-rat in Ethiopia and the Middle East blind mole-rat in Israel. In the future, we plan to focus on other representatives, such as zokors in China.
The goals of our research are to find out how these animals cope with the drawbacks of a very demanding way of life underground. In our research, we strive to consistently link field and laboratory approaches. In nature, we focus on the ecology and behavior of underground mammals in burrow complexes. We use radio transmitters to monitor their activity and evaluate the factors that affect it. We also deal with the role of these perfect "tunnelers" in local ecosystems and use genetic methods to analyze their reproductive systems. Experiments in breeding at the Faculty of Science (where we have built the most representative collection of underground mammals in the world) are used to verify and supplement knowledge from the wild. As for our research in the laboratory, we are mainly interested in sensory ecology (magnetic orientation, and optical and olfactory abilities) and communication. Part of our research is also ecophysiological studies focusing on adaptations that allow mammals to survive underground, or on how beneficial socialism is from a thermoregulatory point of view.
The development of molecular genetic methods have helped us to reveal the influence of various factors on the composition of fauna of specific geographical areas. Some parts of our planet, such as large areas of Africa, are still very little studied in this regard. In the second round of our research on African mammals, in collaboration with Josef Bryja from the Institute of Vertebrate Biology in Brno, we are focusing on this type of research, especially in Eastern and Central Africa. These parts of the continent are very suitable for this type of study. Geological activity has created a very diverse landscape with striking mountain massifs, isolated volcanoes, but also vast lowlands. The most striking local geological formation is the Great Rift Valley, which, together with large rivers, which often change their courses, is a significant barrier to overcome for small mammals that move low to the ground. In addition, the last few million years in Africa have seen regularly alternating dry periods, when savannas, semi-deserts, or deserts have expanded, and wetter periods, during which, in contrast, more humid vegetation, such as rainforest, has expanded. Physical barriers, together with the repeated enlargement and shrinking of suitable environments, have contributed to the isolation of individual populations, which has resulted in a striking genetic structure and sometimes the emergence of new species. It is no wonder that this part of Africa is one of the places with the greatest diversity of mammals.
During field expeditions, we strive to capture rodents, insectivores and, in some cases, bats in as many localities as possible across large areas to capture the genetic variability of individual groups. We supplement our collections (so far Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia) with samples from colleagues from foreign institutions or with DNA sequences from available databases. Thanks to detailed imaging, we are able to use various methods to determine the relationship of individual populations and species and estimate when they separated from each other. Knowledge of historical geological and climatic processes, which were accompanied by changes in vegetation, allows us to identify the factors that determine the genetic diversity of the studied groups, the composition of small mammal communities and the geographical distribution of individual species. Morphological analysis of the collected material is also part of our work. In addition to the description of the genetic diversity of individual groups, we focus on the taxonomic interpretations of our results and the description of new species.