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The Atacama Desert is not only considered as the most arid region on Earth, but also the most lifeless terrestrial ecosystem. Nevertheless, organisms do exist in diverse hostile habitats within this biome. The spatial and temporal occurrence of essentially all living organisms in the Atacama Desert is strongly dependent on the availability of water, which reaches the desert in the form of sparse rainfall or fog (see cluster A). Fog derived moisture supports the biota along the coast below the inversion zone (Schulz et al. 2011) and on isolated patches inland (Latorre et al. 2011; Pinto et al. 2006), while rainfall events occur along the eastern and southern margins of the Atacama Desert (Houston 2006b).

Project B1


Biogeographic history of plant communities

Research areas: Botany, Biodiversity, Historical Biogeography

Principal investigators: Prof. Dr. Dietmar Quandt, Prof. Dr. Maximillian Weigend, Dr. Federico Luebert, Dr. Alexandra Stoll

The flora of the Atacama Desert is surprisingly diverse - with ~ 550 species. Vegetation is largely restricted to the coastal range and the Andean foothills, which are separated by a virtually plant-free zone or absolute desert. So far remarkably young ages for the diversification of the Atacama clades were demonstrated, which is at odds with the high age that is generally proposed for the desert ecosystem as such. Overall, only few dated phylogenies are available, precluding any generalizations. Also, the spatial patterns of phytodiversity, biogeographic history and evolution of the Atacama Desert flora are largely unknown, leading us to our central question: how have plants and vegetation evolved in this environment of extreme aridity and unpredictability (driving and limiting factors).

Project B2


Insects: Evolution, biogeography and genetic diversity of insects (Tenebrionidae, Zygentoma)

Research areas: Entomology, evolutionary biology, biogeography, phylogeny, population genetics

Principal investigator: Prof. Dr. Reinhard Predel

Xerophilic tenebrionid beetles (Insecta, Coleoptera) and, to a lesser extent, silverfishes (Insecta, Zygentoma) belong to the most conspicuous biotic components in arid ecosystems worldwide. In the Atacama Desert, where free-living microbial decomposers are barely detectable, euryphagous tenebrionids are likely responsible for most of the nutrient cycling. However, extreme adaptive speciation with unique morphological features, as it is known from tenebrionids from e.g. the Namib, is not typical of tenebrionids from the Atacama. The reason for this phenomenon could be explained with a more recent colonization as it was hypothesized for plants.

Project B3


Protist evolution at the dry limit

Research areas: Protistology, ecology, microbiome, aquatic ecology, evolutionary ecology

Principal investigators: Prof. Dr. Hartmut Ernst-Albert Arndt, Prof. Dr. Thomas Wiehe

Unicellular eukaryotes are potentially fast evolving organisms. The small size of protists, their ability to form cysts as well as their adaptability to extreme conditions allow them to associate to endemic animals, plants, saline lakes and soil even in extremely arid systems. These properties make unicellular eukaryotes ideal model organisms to combine studies on evolutionary processes connected with the evolution of very different groups of organisms and across very different time scales comprising even geological time scales. The hyperaridic Atacama Desert offers a study area unique on earth, where conditions have been constant for millions of years.

Project B4


Bacteria: Distribution and activity of microorganisms in the Atacama Desert

Research areas: Microbial Ecology and Applied Microbiology

Principal investigator: Prof. Dr. Claudia Knief

Microbiological research in the Atacama Desert is largely driven by search for life in the hyperarid core. The occurrence of microorganisms has been found to be patchy and appears to be restricted to specific habitats with favorable environmental conditions, especially with regard to water availability. We study microorganisms in the Atacama Desert under three different aspects: distribution, activity and ecosystem function.

Project B5


Soils of the Atacama Desert: reservoir and fingerprint of life

Research areas: Microbial Ecology and Applied Microbiology

Principal investigators: PD Dr. Eva Lehndorff, Dr. Roland Bol, Prof. Dr. Erwin Klumpp, Prof. Dr. Wulf Amelung

Soils are the habitat and reservoir for plants and microorganisms, which leave their fingerprints as organic residues, microaggregate glues, stoichiometry of key nutrients and altered isotopic composition of, e.g., δ18O of phosphates. Here we will (i) identify and quantify organic residues in soil profiles and along potential plant dispersal corridors, (ii) relate occurrence of organic matter, alterations in nutrient pools and physical soil properties to potential trajectories in microclimate and present and past dispersal of life, and iii) elucidate changes in organic matter properties, nutrient content and stoichiometry dynamics in soil to a sudden increase in water availability.

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Prof. Dr. Tibor J. Dunai
Institute of Geology and Mineralogy | University of Cologne
Zülpicher Str. 49b | 50674 Cologne
+49-(0)221-470 2634 | tduanai@uni-koeln.de
Dr. Maximilian Müller
Institute of Geography | University of Cologne

Otto-Fischer-Str. 4 | 50674 Cologne
+49-(0)221-470 2241 | maximilian.mueller@uni-koeln.de
Deputy Speaker:
Prof. Dr. Martin Melles
Institute of Geology and Mineralogy | University of Cologne

Zülpicher Str. 49a | 50674 Cologne
+49-(0)221-470 2262 | mmelles@uni-koeln.de
© 2017 CRC1211 - Earth - Evolution at the Dry Limit

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