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Plant conservation and population biology



Our aim is to understand the dynamics of wild plant populations and their interactions with both the abiotic environment and with mutualists such as pollinating insects and mycorrhizal soil fungi. Another goal is to document the diversity of flowering plants and study their evolution.We highly value the societal relevance of our work in an era that is confronted with an ever increasing anthropogenic impact on biodiversity through habitat fragmentation, eutrophication and global warming. The techniques we commonly use include phylogenetics, biogeography, pollination experiments, demographic modeling, neutral genetic markers and recently also genomic approaches.


Olivier Honnay is the head of the lab. We currently have six post-docs and eighteen PhD-students in our team. Two technicians and a secretary complete the lab.


Peer reviewed publications in SCI journals of all our lab members can be found here.

We also authored and co-authored many articles in local nature conservation journals such as Natuur.focus, showing our commitment with the conservation of biodiversity in Flanders.


Here you can find information about the ecological field course in France (Brenne). We also give you an idea of the carreer opportunities as a plant ecologist. Also a list of topics for masterthesises is available.

In the picture

Soil phosphorus research

This study of Dr. Tobias Ceulemans, published in Nature Plants provides the first experimental proof of the phosphorus resource partitioning hypothesis. Our researchers, in collaboration with researchers of the department of Earth and Environmental science (KU Leuven) and ISOFYS (UGent), devised an innovative approach combining a classic fertilization experiment with a radioactive phosphorus tracer experiment to investigate the ‘phosphorus diet’ of grassland plants. The results clearly showed that plants follow their own phosphorus acquisition pattern which resulted in better growth. It provides a mechanistic framework to explain high plant diversity in phosphorus-poor ecosystems, frequently designated as world biodiversity hotspots. Indeed, soils low in readily usable phosphorus such as unfertilized soils, often provide a poor but highly varied ‘diet’. Our results may thus also be key to understanding biodiversity loss in an era of ever-increasing nutrient enrichment. (Wetenschap in beeld)

Mycorrhizae research

This study of Dr. Maarten Van Geel, published in Molecular Ecology showed that the diversity of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in the roots of apple trees strongly decreased with increasing management intensity. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi are obligate plant symbionts which are of particular value for the functioning of natural and agricultural ecosystems. Our researchers used state of the art next generation sequencing technologies to quantify mycorrhizal diversity in the roots of cultivated apple trees across 24 orchards in central Belgium. The results showed that orchards with less phosphorus in the soil harbored higher AMF diversity. Also organically managed orchards as compared to conventionally managed orchards showed higher mycorrhizal diversity. A combination of organic orchard management and moderate fertilization may thus preserve mycorrhizal diversity in apple orchards.(Wetenschap in beeld)