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Embracing the Wilderness

Ecologist Florian Altermatt has presided over the Swiss Biodiversity Forum since the beginning of the year. He’s committed to researching biodiversity and facilitating the cooperation of scientists and policy-makers.
Stefan Stöcklin; English translation by Philip Isler, UZH Communications


“We have to give nature more room again,” says Florian Altermatt. (Picture: Frank Brüderli)


Nostalgia can make things seem better than they were, but for some things this is actually true. When Florian Altermatt thinks back to his childhood, he remembers colorful meadows full of flowering plants and humming insects. These diverse grasslands were typical of the region in the northwest of Switzerland where the ecologist grew up. The limestone soils of the Jura landscape are home to a variety of plants and animals – but have come under pressure in recent years, as have many other natural habitats in Switzerland.

These memories of a species-rich and diverse landscape are probably one of the reasons that made Florian Altermatt choose to become a biodiversity researcher. At the beginning of this year, the researcher was also appointed president of the Swiss Biodiversity Forum, which was established by the Swiss Academy of Sciences (Scnat) in 1999. The forum supports biodiversity research and facilitates cooperation between scientists and policy-makers in academia, politics, administration and society. “A high level of biodiversity is crucial for ecosystems to function as well as for our well-being,” says Altermatt. “It’s imperative that we maintain biodiversity and reduce species loss.”

The UZH professor of aquatic ecology, who heads up a research group at Eawag in Dübendorf, had always wanted to be a nature researcher. Even at a young age, he carried out experiments and investigated the diversity and distribution of butterflies. It was no surprise then that he chose to study biology in Basel, where he followed up his studies with a PhD. In his doctoral thesis, he explored the spatial and temporal composition of plankton communities in tidal pools along the coast of Finland. At the same time, he helped to develop and implement national monitoring programs for recording biodiversity in Switzerland.

Science and Society

When the moment came for Altermatt to choose between taking up a more practical profession or pursuing a career in academia, he took the “very conscious” decision to go down the path of basic research. And so in 2009 he joined the University of California, Davis, where he continued to acquire new skills and knowledge. Using a single-cell model system and combining experiments with mathematical models, he researched the effects of spatial structures and habitat fragmentation on biodiversity.

“My research field is at the interface between ecology and biodiversity research,” says Altermatt. “I want to understand how species behave in space and over time, and how they interact.” In 2012, he started working at Eawag, the Swiss water research institute of the ETH Domain. He joined UZH two years later through an assistant professorship externally funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, and has been an associate professor since 2018.

Altermatt is the ideal intermediary between science and society. He has an excellent reputation as a researcher, with a number of groundbreaking studies under his belt. For example, in one of his studies he describes the dispersal of organisms in rivers and the resulting biodiversity patterns.

But he’s also gained valuable experience in cooperating with stakeholders from administration, politics and society during his career, and he loves carrying out research in the field. This is evident from his publications, such as on biomonitoring through the recording of species’ environmental DNA (eDNA). Altermatt and his team were the first to show that this new approach can be used to measure the distribution and diversity of aquatic invertebrates over large distances in rivers.

More undisturbed spaces needed

Monitoring and understanding biodiversity are crucial, since ecosystems and the species in them are undergoing major changes. “As an ecologist, I’m deeply concerned about the massive loss of species over the past few decades,” says Altermatt. One-third of the 45,000 known animal and plant species in Switzerland are endangered, with hundreds having already died out over the last years.

While key drivers of this development such as the fragmentation and excessive use of land have been known for years, the pressure from urban sprawl and mobility has not decreased. And then there’s also climate change, which is displacing species that are unable to adapt.

“We have to give nature more room again,” says Altermatt. Of course it’s not feasible to declare half of the country a nature reserve, but more spaces are needed where biodiversity can be left to develop as undisturbed as possible. “We need the courage to embrace wilderness,” says Altermatt. This means easing the pressure on natural habitats in Switzerland and prioritizing efforts to preserve semi-natural and diverse habitats. For example, organisms in rivers and lakes are impacted by micropollutants and climate change. As the president of the Swiss Biodiversity Forum, he wants to help make these messages heard and observed across society and politics.

This article also appears in Journal No. 1/2019

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