Geo-ecological niche modeling of Tillandsia spp. in the Atacama desert (Chile)

Prof. Dr. Alexander Siegmund, Dr. Nils Wolf, M.Sc. Sebastian Scheckel
 
 
In cooperation with: Prof. Dr. Marcus Koch (University of Heidelberg); Camilo del Rio, Pablo Osses, Pilar Cereceda (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile); Juan Luiz Garcia (Atacama Desert Center Santiago de Chile)

 

The coastal area of northern Chile as a part of the Atacama Desert is one of the driest places in the world. Plant growth is constrained to so-called fog oases which are dominated by endemic species of the genus Tillandsia. Adapted to these hyper-arid environmental conditions, these plants mainly depend on the foliar uptake of the coastal fog water, respectively South Pacific Stratocumulus clouds reaching inlands. Moreover, the fog reduces the incoming solar radiation, thereby preventing the dehydration of the plants. Due to these specific, geo-ecological factors, distinct macro- and micro-scale distribution patterns of Tillandsia spp. reflect the climate conditions and the spatiotemporal occurrence of coastal fog.

Since the 1970s, there is an apparent retreat of the Tillandsia fog vegetation. The dieback is assumed to be linked to changing climate conditions, in particular increasing aridity. However, its actual scope and the underlying causes are still not known. Moreover, also the specific functional mechanisms of Tillandsia spp. remain largely unknown.

The goal of the project is the interdisciplinary, multi-scale acquisition and analysis of the environmental factors of Tillandsia spp. as well as the modeling of its geo-ecological niche. The approach is based on remote sensing methods for the mapping of the present and historic distribution of Tillandsia spp. – inter alia by means of a parachute UAV –, population genetics as well as climate analyses concerning the spatiotemporal distribution of the coastal fog. On the basis of the geo-ecological niche model, future distributions of Tillandsia spp. are simulated under different scenarios of global climate change.

 

Taking aerial images with a paraglider drone (left) and Tillandsia spp. in the image (right)

 

Project start: 2014

The project is supported by mobility funds within the framework of the excellency initiative of the University of Heidelberg.

We would like to thank the DigitalGlobe Foundation for providing a satellite imagery grant.

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