Systematic Zoology and Evolutionary Biology

The fields of research currently represented at the Institute of Systematic Zoology and Evolutionary Biology can be sorted into three main disciplines:

  1. Evolutionary biology with a particular interest in systemic changes;
  2. The evolution of ontogenies, with the focus ranging from the molecular processes and developmental mechanisms at work in the formation of the vertebrate head to ontogenesis in frogs and perinatal processes in mammals;
  3. Systematics and biodiversity in arthropods, basal metazoa and tetrapods.

The recognition of evolutionary novelties and historical limitations is central to our understanding of evolutionary processes. Phylogenetic systematics uses comparative studies to look for genealogical similarities. In functional morphology, comparative studies are used to shed light on convergences. The quality of evolutionary biological arguments depends on the cladograms on which they are based. Phylogenetic research is thus a core focus of our institute.

In our research into locomotor systems, which explores in particular the transformation from the sprawled gait of reptiles to the locomotion of mammals and birds, but which also extends to the technical design of running machines, we look for the mechanical and structural conditions which determine the high degree of diversity observed in locomotion. Our functional morphologists look at structures and the ways in which they adapt to specific demands in the light of what we know about their evolutionary background. From this perspective, change is always about compromise, and optimisation consists of balancing different demands. The experimental infrastructure at our disposal for research here in Jena is unique in Europe.

Our entomology group looks at the phylogeny and evolution of insects, focussing on the relationships between the major groups (“orders”) and on evolutionary transformations. Innovative morphological methods play a central role in our work, and we also cooperate intensively with groups working on molecular genetics (especially that of the Koenig research museum in Bonn). Work is done on all 3 main lineages of winged interests (Polyneoptera, Paraneoptera and Holometabola). In the field of evolutionary biology we are particularly interested in the multiple transitions to aquatic life undergone by insects, in their adhesive structures, in phenomena such as parasitism (e.g. Strepsiptera), in miniaturisation and in evolutionary mechanisms connected with genital structures.

The evolutionary developmental biology group (“EvoDevo”) is predominantly concerned with the emergence and evolution of new structures, which it investigates from the developmental biological, morphological and phylogenetic perspectives. We investigate lungfish and amphibians (frogs, salamanders and caecilians) using a wide range of methods extending from molecular genetics to neural crests/fate mapping. Our work on bony fish focuses on the ontogeny of musculoskeletal aspects of the jaw, and in mammals we investigate patterns and processes in the evolution of the brain.  

The functional morphology and physiology of the basal metazoa is an area of research concerned with the early evolution of functional units within multicellular organisms. Here in Jena the focus is on signal processing systems and systems of contraction and locomotion in animals which possess neither nervous systems nor muscles but which are still capable of coordinated movement. Most of our work is on sponges, a group which appeared early on in animal evolution, and on the less known Placozoa. We carry out comparative studies into selected representatives of these metazoan groups which integrate anatomical, functional morphological, physiological and molecular genetic questions. 

The Phyletisches Museum is an integral part of the Institute and actively involved in its research. Thanks to its extensive collection of wildcats, for example, we were able, using morphological and molecular genetic data, to determine the status of Thuringia’s wildcats relative to other wildcat populations in Germany and Europe and thus, in collaboration with Friends of the Earth Germany, to make an active contribution to the wildcat conservation programme. 

Systematic Botany

The research undertaken by the Institute of Systematic Botany in Jena spans a broad spectrum. Work with genetic markers is complemented by a wide range of classic and modern methods and intensive field studies, while the Institute’s activities are facilitated by the collections of the Haussknecht Herbarium and the Botanical Gardens.

One field in which the Institute specialises is the reconstruction of the evolution of land plants on the basis of comparative analyses of genomic data. The daisy family (Asteraceae) is another long-standing area of focus, in particular the mainly Mediterranean and Middle Eastern genus Centaurea and the New World genus Baccharis and its relatives. Various projects are underway to investigate phylogenetic, taxonomic, reproductive biological and phylogeographical aspects of these two genera.

Our research also extends to the systematics, phylogeny and biogeography of mosses, particularly, at the moment, in the Caucasus area. The Haussknecht Herbarium, which houses one of the five largest moss collections in the world, plays an important role here.

More geared towards practical applications are our projects and studies into the microevolution of plants in non-standard habitats. How do plants colonise locations such as the waste heaps left over from copper slate mining, and how do these adverse conditions influence the genetic structure of plant populations? Closely connected with this question is our research into vegetation and diversity in arable landscapes. How have arable weeds evolved and where do they come from? What is the best way to preserve plant biodiversity even where renewable energy crops are being grown on a large scale? How does succession proceed in areas shaped by humans?

Another thing we do is to develop measures to protect and promote rare native plant species. The Thuringian Wild Plant Seed Bank and the Botanical Gardens form part of our research infrastructure in this field.  

Finally, yet another focus of our research is the theory and history of botany, which we explore in close collaboration with the University’s Institute of the Theory and History of Science and Technology. The Botanical Gardens, which date back to Goethe’s time in their conceptual design, are just one of the areas in which this research is applied.   

The Institute of Botany offers MEES students nine modules which are based on the Institute’s long experience of teaching the “Diplom” course in biology. Within this framework, the master’s programme can be structured individually. Students who are particularly interested in phylogenetics and taxonomy are recommended to take modules B1 to B4. Those interested in microevolution and population genetics should take modules B5 to B8, Alternatively, phylogenetic and microevolution modules can be combined. The first year of the course is rounded off by a two week botanic field trip and a further module which can be freely chosen from across the programme. 

Ecology

Jena University’s Institute of Ecology places a great deal of emphasis on basic research, with the result that theoretical ecology and a conceptual understanding of the subject form a major part of the education which students receive here. The research focuses of the Institute, which are reflected in its teaching, are functional biodiversity, aquatic geomicrobiology and the behavioural ecology of mammals and birds.

Our functional biodiversity research explores the trophic interactions between insect societies in grasslands and asks how plant species diversity affects the higher trophic levels and thus bioconversion. The Institute for Ecology is also responsible for one of the largest research projects into functional biodiversity in the world - the Jena Experiment.

Aquatic geomicrobiology is predominantly concerned with the question of how microorganisms influence bioconversion in the critical zone of interface between land and water. This field of research, in which questions of biodiversity also play an important role, is pursued in close cooperation with the biogeoscientists of the Faculty of Chemistry and Geoscience and with the Max Planck Institute of Biogeochemistry, which is located in Jena. The group’s areas of focus include polluted zones such as that in Ronneburg which was affected by uranium ore mining and is now being regenerated by Wismut GmbH, and the lakes left over in the wake of brown coal mining.  

Our behavioural ecology group investigates the question of how behavioural strategies evolved as adaptations to ecological challenges. In the Remeroda enclosure, the small mammal group is able to carry out experimental studies on a population level using voles as a model system. These studies also take into account aspects of landscape ecology which are of relevance to applied questions of nature management. The polar and bird ecology group has been working in Antarctica for many years and is interested among other things in the breeding strategies of sea birds in an environment characterised by extreme fluctuations. The work of this group also has practical applications in that it is used to develop management plans to balance the interests of conservation and tourism.

In the field of ecology, the master’s programme comprises five obligatory modules which confer a total of 30 credits. These modules teach theoretical and conceptual basics plus complex statistical methods of data analysis. Other obligatory elements are a practical research course and an approximately two-week field trip that often takes the form of an expedition. With the remaining 10 credits students can study a subject of their choice (within the field of ecology) in further depth in preparation for the master thesis that is to be completed in the second year.