In the context of climate change, it is useful to understand how ecosystems responded in the past under similar conditions. Thus, experts from the University of Tartu delved into Estonia's past and produced a summary of the native flora's biodiversity, both observed and "dark," over the past 15,000 years.
The sediments at the bottom of bogs and lakes have been researched for a long time because they hold information about the plants that grew in the region.
However, researchers at the University of Tartu have gone a step further and have also studied what plants could have potentially thrived in the area, which they dub dark diversity.
University of Tartu researchers first coined the term in 2011 after being inspired by the concept of dark matter in physics as dark biodiversity also cannot be directly observed.
So in addition to studying biodiversity, they also research biodiversity that is missing from a habitat for whatever reason, i.e. "the set of species and traits locally suitable but absent."
Professor of Botany Meelis Pärtel said it is important to think about both the existing species and those that might be suitable for the environment but are missing, "This will give us a lot more information about how we should manage our forests, bogs and grasslands."
We should also look at the features of organisms that perform multiple functions in an ecosystem, such as living with fungi or cooperating with insects. We can only understand why our species compositions are not reaching their full potential by looking at the big picture.
Pärtel adds that it is important to remember that all changes take time. For example, while the current state of nature in Estonia appears relatively good, a high number of species are already on the verge of extinction.
"These species exist, but they are endangered, and their abundance in the wild can be misleading. They can still be seen today, but will become extinct in the future. They will first enter dark diversity before completely disappearing from our land," Pärtel expresses the scientists' worries.
An article by researchers from the University of Tartu, Observed and dark diversity dynamics over millennial time scales: fast life-history traits linked to expansion lags of plants in northern Europe, is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.
Editor: Maarja Merivoo-Parro