Current projects

1. Forests

Microclimatic buffering of plant responses to macroclimate warming in temperate forests - FORMICA


Recent global warming is acting on ecosystems across the globe and threatening biodiversity. Yet, due to slow responses, many biological communities are lagging behind warming of the macroclimate (the climate of a large geographic region). The buffering of microclimates near the ground measured in local areas, arising from terrain features such as vegetation and topography, can explain why many species are lagging behind macroclimate warming. However, almost all studies ignore the effects of microclimates and key uncertainties still exist about this mechanism.

Microclimates are particularly evident in forests, where understorey habitats are buffered by overstorey trees. In temperate forests, the understorey contains the vast majority of plant diversity and plays an essential role in driving ecosystem processes.

The overall goal of FORMICA (FORest MICroclimate Assessment) is to quantify and understand the role of microclimatic buffering in modulating forest plant responses to macroclimate warming. We will apply microtemperature loggers, perform experimental heating, use fluorescent tubes and install a large-scale transplant experiment in temperate forests across Europe. The results will then be integrated in models to forecast plant diversity in temperate forests as macroclimate warms.

FORMICA will be a large integrative study on microclimatic buffering of macroclimate warming in forests. The project will reshape our current understanding of the impacts of climate change on forests and help land managers and policy makers to develop urgently needed adaptation strategies.

Contact person: prof. dr. ir. Pieter De Frenne (
Financier: ERC starting grant
Supervisors: prof. dr. ir. Pieter De Frenne
Period: 2018-2023
Research themes: Impacts of global changes


FORBIO: a large-scale field experiment on the effects of tree species diversity


The acronym FORBIO stands for assessment of the effects of tree species diversity on FORest BIOdiversity and ecosystem functioning. The experiment was established between 2009 and 2012. At three sites with contrasting site conditions, plots were planted with one up to four tree species. Various aspects of ecosystem functioning can thus be compared between plots that differ in tree species richness but have developed under the same abiotic conditions. The sites are located in Gedinne (Gribelle, Gouverneurs), Zedelgem and Hechtel-Eksel.

Contact person: prof. dr. ir. Kris Verheyen (
: Prof. dr. ir. B. Muys, Prof. dr. M. Carnol, Prof. dr. ir. Q. Ponette
Period: 2008-ongoing
Research themes:
Biodiversity – ecosystem functioning
treediv|Belgium and TreeDivNet
Subprojects in ForNaLab

Finished projects:

- Assessment of the effects of tree species diversity on FORest BIOdiversity and ecosystem functioning (more info)

- Early tree diversity effects on tree growth, litter decomposition and herbivory (more info)

-FORBIOClimate: adaptation potential of biodiverse forests in the face of climate change (more info)

       -Effects of temperature during seed development on progeny performance (more info)



Forest biodiversity and multifunctionality drive chronic stress-mediated dynamics in pathogen reservoirs

This project aims to advance our understanding of how multifunctional performance levels of forests, driven by tree species diversity, affect stress-mediated host-pathogen dynamics in a broad range of vertebrate species. We therefore combine field observations in selected forests across Belgium with lab experiments on animal and zoonotic diseases and state-of-the-art statistical and mechanistic modelling to generalize the obtained results. Fieldwork is conducted on birds, amphibians and small mammals in a number of small to medium-sized forests in East Flanders and Flemish Brabant. Our lab will focus on the work done on small mammals.

Contact person: Tosca Vanroy (
Financer: BOF-GOA
Supervisors: prof. dr. ir. Kris Verheyen, prof. dr. ir. Lander Baeten
Partners: prof dr. An Martel, prof dr. Luc Lens, dr. Diederik Strubbe
Period: 2020-2024


Modelling climate change impacts on the composition and functioning of temperate forest understorey vegetation

In this project, we aim for a better understanding of how climate warming impacts the understorey and, more specifically, understorey plant height, one of the crucial traits influencing competitive processes but also the functioning of the understorey. By integrating individual plant responses to warming, inferred from experimental and observational data, in a process-based model to predict understorey community dynamics, we will be able to gain a more mechanistic understanding of understorey responses to climate warming. By simulating a range of alternative management practices under different warming scenarios, the project aims to support the design of forest management practices that can mitigate adverse effects of climate warming in the understorey of temperate forests.

Project coordinator: Prof. dr. ir. Kris Verheyen (
Project team: Prof. dr. ir. Pieter De Frenne, dr. ir. Dries Landuyt, Eline Lorer
Financer: FWO
Period: 2021-2025


Climate change in cities: impact of the urban heat island on urban forests

Plant species living in the understorey are sensitive to climate warming. Furthermore, some important processes in forests are determined by temperature, for example the decomposition of litter. An important characteristic of forests is their microclimate beneath the canopy layer, which buffers temperature extremes. This buffering capacity can locally reduce climate warming and help understorey species to cope with the changing climate. In cities, temperatures are generally higher compared to temperatures in rural areas due to the urban heat island effect. In this project, the urban heat island effect is used to study the potential impacts of future climate warming on forests. This project aims to assess the impact of the urban heat island on the microclimate, the understorey plant communities and litter decomposition in urban forests.

Contact person: ir. Karen De Pauw (
Financier: FWO
Supervisors: prof. dr. ir. Pieter De Frenne, dr. ir. Pieter Vangansbeke, dr. ir. Leen Depauw
Period: 2019-2023


Temporal and spatial environmental legacies of tree species diversity and composition.

The diversity and composition of the tree community influence the biotic and abiotic soil properties. We will analyse soil samples from stands varying in tree diversity and composition, both in recently established forest stands of the FORBIO sites and in mature forest stands in Bialowieza, Poland (FunDivEUROPE). Next, we will set up pot experiments by sowing tree species in pots containing the soil originating from the forest sites and growing these seedlings in a semi-controlled environment. These seedlings will serve as a phytometer to test for biotic and abiotic legacies.

Contact person: Els Dhiedt (
Financier: FWO
Supervisors: prof. dr. ir. Kris Verheyen, prof. dr. ir. Lander Baeten, dr. ir. Pallieter De Smedt
Period: 2018-2022


Forest biodiversity effects on human thermal comfort

On all three FORBIO sites (Hechtel-Eksel, Gedinne and Zedelgem), microclimate stations are recording the four variables which influence thermal sensation in humans: air temperature and humidity, wind speed and mean radiative temperature. Using plots varying in species composition and diversity, we aim to reveal whether diverse forests are more efficient in creating favourable thermal environments. Additionally, we will study the effect of species, forest structure and seasonality. This project is part of a larger international and interdisciplinary project called Dr. Forest, aimed at studying forest biodiversity's effect on human wellbeing.

Contact person: Loïc Gillerot (
Financier: BiodivERsA
Supervisors: prof. dr. ir. Pieter De Frenne, prof. dr. ir. Kris Verheyen, prof. dr. ir. Bart Muys
Period: 2020-2024


Tree diversity effects on leaf litter decomposition

Decomposition is a key ecological process since it controls carbon drawdown and nutrient cycling in forests. Although decomposition have been well studied, less is known about how decomposition is modified by individual tree species and species diversity and mixing. In order to address the problem of how the tree species diversity affects decomposition, besides decomposition experiment settled in Zedelgem, microclimate sensors were also deployed to quantify microclimate in forests within all three FORBIO research sites, help to provide theoretical basis and practical guidance for determining reasonable management measures, planting patterns and cultivation measures.

Contact person: Shengmin Zhang (
Supervisors: prof. dr. ir. Kris Verheyen, prof. dr. ir. Pieter De Frenne, dr. ir. Dries Landuyt
Period: 2018-2022


Phenology responses to climate change in the understorey of temperate forests - implications for biodiversity and ecosystem functioning

This study aims at bringing together and expanding current evidence on phenology shifts in the understorey of temperate forests, using a combination of observational and experimental data, quantifying the understorey’s response to macroclimate and microclimate change. The main findings will be integrated in an existing process-based model to study the effects of phenology shifts on community reordering in the understorey.

Project coordinator: dr. ir. Dries Landuyt (
Supervisor: Prof. dr. ir. Kris Verheyen
Financer: FWO
Period: 2021-2023


Trees against malaria: strengthening of academic and research capacity on Cinchona trees in Peru, Ecuador and DR Congo

Quinine is the oldest antimalarial medicine and currently still widely applied for curative treatments. The pro-duction and use of natural quinine is still immensely important. Quinine and related alkaloids are extracted from the bark of Cinchona trees. These trees are now relatively rare in their native range in South America but 25 % of the global production occurs by smallholders in DR Congo (South and North Kivu province) where the tree was introduced during the Belgian colonial period. Production of quinine in DRC, however, is suboptimal. In this JOINT project, we will bring together and exchange knowledge, expertise and know-how on cinchona from its native range (Peru and Ecuador, where the diversity is present but natural populations were heavily exploited in the past) and its introduced range (DR Congo, where the tree is a cash crop for smallholders) leading to new opportunities, cross fertilization of ideas and mutual learning. The strategic goal is to strengthen academic and research capacity in South America and Africa leading to sustainable intensification of cinchona production and its conservation in the tropics.

Contact person: dr. ir. Pieter De Frenne (
Period: 2019 - 2021

2. Semi-natural grasslands

LIFE+ Nardus & LimosaNardus-Limosa.jpg

The European Nardus & Limosa LIFE+ project aims to restore meadow-heathland systems that are rich in Nardus grasslands (6230*) with healthy meadow bird populations in Belgium and The Netherlands. Currently, Nardus grasslands as well as populations of black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa) and common curlew (Numenius arquata) are still present in the study areas in the Campine region. However, both the species-rich grasslands as well as the bird species are declining. LIFE+ Nardus & Limosa is innovative in combining two nature targets: restoring Nardus grasslands and, at the same time, increase the meadow bird populations. The restoration techniques under consideration are mainly aimed at restoring phosphorus-poor soil conditions by mowing, P-mining or topsoil removal. ForNaLab will coordinate the abiotic screening of fields in Turnhouts Vennengebied (BE), Weelde Kampheide (BE), Laambeekse Heide (BE) and Regte Heide (NL). The screening involves a large soil sampling campagne and chemical soil analyses to help practitioners choose the best suited restoration methods for Nardus grasslands. In Turnhouts Vennengebied, the progress of abiotic restoration will be evaluated after several years on a selection of sampling points. ForNaLab will also monitor P-removal with biomass and compare this to changes in soil-P concentrations during the project. This will enhance the knowledge on Nardus grassland restoration methods, more specifically on P-mining. ForNaLab will also help to develop an innovative restoration method (“Meadow bird-friendly P-mining”) and will evaluate the efficacy in the field.

Contact person: dr. ir. Stephanie Schelfhout (
Financier: LIFE, Natura2000 and co-financed by ANB
Supervisor: prof. dr. ir. Kris Verheyen, prof. dr. ir. Jan Mertens, dr. ir. An De Schrijver
Period: 2020-2024


Urban grasslands experiment: effects of soil and mowing regime on biodiversity and amenity value

The general aim of this project is to formulate concrete measures for the creation and management of species-rich grasslands in urban environment, taken the amenity value, management effort and biodiversity value into account. In the city of Ghent, Belgium, an experiment is set up where we introduce a seed mixture consisting of a broad range of species. We look at the effect of contrasting abiotic starting situations combined with different management practices on plant species richness, potential associated biodiversity, productivity and aesthetic value. Parallel with the in-situ experiment, a germination test is conducted, researching the importance of irrigation during the first year and the influence of organic matter in the soil on the priority effect of a broad range of species.

Contact person: Ellen De Vrieze (
Supervisors: prof. dr. ir. Lander Baeten, prof. dr. ir. Jan Mertens, dr. ir. Stephanie Schelfhout
Period: 2020-2026


Changes in ecosystem (multi)functionality in semi-natural grasslands undergoing restoration management

The restoration of degraded ecosystems such as semi-natural grasslands has become an important goal in environmental policy. Yet, restoration usually focuses on reinstating a particular vegetation or habitat type, (structural recovery) and it remains unclear how the functioning of these systems changes during restoration and how specific management drives these changes. This will be studied with field observations and two experiments.

Contact person: ir. Eva DeCock ()
Financier: BOF
Supervisors: prof. dr. ir. Lander Baeten
Period: 2017-2021

3. Agro-ecosystems

Climate change and plant responses in ecological corridors of agricultural landscapes along a latitudinal gradient

The general aim of this project is to assess the potential of ecological corridors (hedgerows and road verges) to facilitate grassland and forest plant population persistence and migration across a macroclimatic gradient in the face of climate change. We will work in eight landscape windows along a latitudinal gradient from southern France to central Sweden and investigate plant, population and community characteristics in response to temperature variation along the gradient as well as experimental warming (using open-top chambers). In addition, the effect of other abiotic and biotic environmental factors (e.g. soil properties, humidity, light, corridors structure and width, historical land use and management) will be quantified as well. The initial hypothesis is that plant, population and community characteristics will change, and respond differently to climate change, between the original habitat and the corridor due to different environmental and evolutionary mechanisms in both settings. This research will significantly improve our ability to predict future species distributions in fragmented landscapes under climate change which, in turn, can support conservation decision making. Moreover, we will be enabled to identify critical features that make ecological corridors efficient for biodiversity conservation under different scenarios of land-use and climate change. Hence, the potential of landscape planners to develop effective guidelines concerning the future establishment, design and management of ecological corridors will be strongly improved.

Contact person: Thomas Vanneste ()
Financier: BOF
Supervisors: prof. dr. ir. Pieter De Frenne, prof. dr. ir. Kris Verheyen, prof. dr. ir. Dirk Reheul
Period: 2017-2021