Senckenberg Research

Grazing Lands in Central Asia: interactions between landscape history, climate and land use

The project KEMA focuses on the effects of land use and weather on the alpine mats of Tibet, which are formed by the tiny sedge Kobresia pygmaea. KEMA is an interdisciplinary project that links biodiversity science and ecosystems research (CO2 measuring chamber).
The project KEMA focuses on the effects of land use and weather on the alpine mats of Tibet, which are formed by the tiny sedge Kobresia pygmaea. KEMA is an interdisciplinary project that links biodiversity science and ecosystems Research. The picture shows a CO2 measuring chamber used for obtaining data on the CO2 Balance of Kobresia mats. Photo: Elke Seeber.



Severe environmental problems can only be understood and solved through interdisciplinary approaches. Broadly based research infrastructures are needed for this. In Central Asia, Senckenberg scientists are involved in several international projects with the aim of reconstructing the historical development of the grazing lands.

Broadly based research infrastructures provide a framework for the investigation of patterns and changes in biodiversity, taking historical processes such as landscape use and evolution into consideration. This in turn allows assessment of current developments. In this way, we can begin to grasp how whole ecosystems have come into being and comprehend their dynamics over long periods of time.  
The grazing lands of Central Asia represent a core region for Senckenberg researchers, who are working on several interdisciplinary projects in the field of landscape development. From the biogeographical point of view, Central Asia includes large parts of China and the Tibetan highlands. The aim of our research is to understand biodiversity on the basis of the biological, anthropogenic, climatic and geoscientific processes that influence it. To this end, the investigation of the effects of current land use and climate on biodiversity is necessary. The relevant historical processes range from recent land use to the history of the vegetation, the studies of species development and also geographic regions. Correspondingly, groups of Senckenberg researchers from various sub-disciplines are working together towards establishing a basis for understanding, a prerequisite for sustainable management in times of rapid change in the climate and land use.

Research projects in Tibet – from grazing to biodiversity

The project "The making of a Tibetan Landscape – KEMA (Kobresia Ecosystem Monitorng Area)" is devoted to the alpine mats of Eastern Tibet, where the small sedge species Kobresia pygmaea forms one of the world’s largest and also most uniform alpine ecosystems. KEMA is part of the TiP priority programme funded by the German Research Foundation (SPP 1372). Its activities are based on data gathered from a research facility founded for the purpose at an altitude of 4400 m on the eastern part of the Tibetan Plateau. Together with the universities of Kunming and Beijing, Marburg, Göttingen, Hannover, Koblenz and Bayreuth as well as the Chinese Institute for Tibetan Plateau Research (ITP), Senckenberg staff are working on ecosystem processes, whereby all the participating subprojects concentrate on carbon as a common ‘currency’.

Scientists from the disciplines of geobotany, population ecology, ecophysiology, soil science and microclimatology are working together to investigate the effects of yak grazing. This involves taking complex measurements from ground level up to atmospheric strata. With the help of pollen profiles we also aim on reconstructing the recent environmental history of the KEMA region. The KEMA results are being supplemented by investigations in the vicinity of Lhasa and the montane region near Qinghai.

Local villagers
Close contact to the local villagers is of outmost importance for both
facilitating our basic research and developing appropriate
management recommendations. Photo: Elke Seeber.

KEMA is part of a national network of research stations that is quickly expanding due to activities of Chinese institutions. Developments in the field of integrative approaches, comparing results across different regions have, however, been less rapid. For this reason, the project Pasture Development Monitoring System was initiated under the auspices of Senckenberg, with funding coming from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. PaDeMoS compares the effects of grazing in the various climatic regions of Tibet, which range from montane forests to alpine semi-desert. Core indicators for the condition of grazing lands can be seen in higher plants, small mammals and ants, all of which are being studied by the Senckenberg working group. The consortium also includes colleagues who are concerned with yak breeding (University of Lanzhou) and spatial integration of the data by means of remote sensing (University of Marburg). An essential aspect of this involves cooperation with the herders, not least on account of the human ecological aspect (universities of Kunming and Marburg).

In addition to research on the current situation, historical aspects are studied by a Senckenberg sub-project on pollen. Current pollen precipitation (traps, surface sampling) is compared to the current vegetation in order to derive realistic calibrations of pollen archives found in soils. PaDeMoS is part of the Central Asian Monsoon Dynamics and Ecosystems – CAME programme that is coordinated by Senckenberg and funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Several universities and other research institutes are taking part, covering all time scales up to and including geological eras.

Himalayan Blue Poppies
Himalayan Blue Poppies (Meconopsis spp.) have a high species
diversity in the highlands of Central Asia. This facilitates
phylogeographic studies based on genetic markers that can help
to understand the evolution of the species and thus historical
developments over geological time-scales.
Photo: Karsten Wesche.

As recently as 2012, a further Senckenberg project bundle was approved for Tibet and neighbouring regions that is exclusively devoted to the geological-evolutionary context. The aim is to deepen our understanding of the foundations of modern biodiversity. The processes, and especially the temporal patterns behind the formation of the Tibetan Plateau, with its dramatic effects on the world’s climate, are still not understood. We do, however, know that as a consequence of this process, species generation was significantly affected.

The DFG-funded project bundle "Origin and Evolution of Tibetan-Himalayan Biotas" will perform comparative research on species formation processes with a view to revealing the history of the elevation of the Plateau. Individual projects will investigate the species evolution for higher plants, birds and freshwater invertebrates. This work will be supplemented by a central project in which innovative investigation approaches will be employed to enable comparison of the respective speciation rates, i. e. the speeds at which species evolve in response to geological uplift and climate change. In addition to Senckenberg, the universities of Leipzig and Frankfurt are participating in this project.

Studies on grazing land ecosystems in Mongolia

Thanks to the prevailing biogeographic conditions, there are other regions of Central Asia in which not only similar species, but also similar ecosystems are to be found. These are also used for grazing purposes. Senckenberg staff have been active in the northern drylands for decades so that there is already a good basis for concrete, application-relevant research there. To this end, Senckenberg scientists are participating in the WATERCOPE consortium, which is investigating and comparing ways and means of improving living conditions and the management of oasis-steppe systems on both sides of the border between north-west China and south-west Mongolia. The programme, funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), is being executed together with the universities of Kassel, Göttingen, Bonn, Urumqi and Ulaanbaatar. As is the case in Tibet, the main priority of the Senckenberg team is to investigate the effects of grazing on grasslands. This is done in very close cooperation with the colleagues from Göttingen and Kassel. A key topic is the spatial analysis of the movements of domestic animals, which is apparently a major difference between the study areas. Mongolia is still characterized by mobile animal husbandry, whereas in both north-west China and Tibet, stationary livestock farming dominates. Thus, the WATERCOPE work involves comparative studies on both sides of the border.

Senckenberg has worked over decades in Mongolia, and the
longlasting corporation is now celebrated in an exhibition that toured
Mongolia in 2012 and will be shown at the Senckenberg Museum in
Görlitz in 2013. Photo: Hermann Ansorge.

Mongolia is of special significance in that relatively intact grassland ecosystems can be studied there, which explains the Senckenberg scientist’s long-term interest. However, in recent years there has been an increasingly rapid shift in land use in Mongolia as well. Our own research has shown that the risk of degradation is certainly not uniformly high, but there is urgent need for further investigation. In the past two years, Senckenberg has increased its involvement in infrastructural improvement in the area of biodiversity research. As part of a DAAD-funded university partnership, annual courses on plants and mammals are now being held. The subjects range from the establishment and maintenance of collections to gathering data for research projects to the statistical evaluation of the results. Our long-term commitment to capacity building and research in Mongolia over recent decades is paying dividends, as Senckenberg is now recognized as a reliable partner for research in Central Asia.

A travelling exhibition of the common research carried out over the last few decades is presently touring Mongolia, and it can be visited in Germany in the summer of 2013.



Apl. Prof. Dr. Dieter Uhl

Adjunct Prof. Dr. Dieter Uhl is Head of the Section Palaeoclimate and Palaeoenvironmental Research at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt. Together with other colleagues from Senckenberg and from the University of Tübingen, he is coordinating the Central Asia – Monsoon Dynamics and Geoecosystems programme funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. His scientific activities in Central Asia are mainly concentrated on the PaDeMos project (Federal Ministry of Education and Research) and the DFG project bundle Origin and Evolution of Tibetan-Himalayan Biotas. Dieter Uhl is adjunct professor at the University of Tübingen, where his teaching mainly involves palaeobotany and terrestrial palaeoenvironmental research.


PD Dr. Karsten Wesche

PD Dr. Karsten Wesche is Head of the Botany Department at the Senckenberg Museum for Natural History in Görlitz, where he represents the disciplines of biogeography, plant ecology and nature conservation. In addition to the flora and vegetation of Central Europe, the ecology of arid grazing land represents his main research area. Over the past 12 years, he has concentrated his investigations in this field on Mongolia and China. Karsten Wesche is Associate Professor at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, where he mainly teaches nature conservation biology.