Think long term and take science seriously

Thursday 22 Dec 22


Martin Lindegren
Senior Researcher
DTU Aqua
+45 35 88 34 92

What is biodiversity? Read previous interviews

Following the 2022 UN climate reports stating that efforts to protect the climate and biodiversity cannot be separated, we have made a series of long reads with DTU Aqua scientists focusing on the question 'What is biodiversity?' Read previous interviews:


The climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis are interlinked - interview with Karen Timmermann, Professor at DTU Aqua and a member of the Danish government's Biodiversity Council.

The ones that thrive are the ones that grow up in the wild - interview with Einar Eg, Professor at DTU Aqua and coordinator of the population genetics group. 

Senior researcher at DTU Aqua Martin Lindegren calls for action in this 3rd interview on ‘what is biodiversity?’ Dive into ‘functional biodiversity’, the EU project B-USEFUL and why protecting nature is crucial.

This week, world leaders from the UN countries ended the conference on biodiversity in Montreal, COP15, by agreeing on an international declaration that will safeguard the world's biodiversity to a much greater extent than before.

At DTU Aqua, senior researcher Martin Lindegren certainly hopes to see more action from decision makers:

"We have all the knowledge we need to be able to take the firsts step. To take decisive steps! "
Martin Lindegren, Senior researcher, DTU Aqua

”We have knowledge enough – but we as society still need to put it into practice to make it work for nature!” says Martin Lindegren.

Martin Lindegren and his group at DTU study various aspects of marine biodiversity. He is the 3rd scientist in the institute we have asked to answer the question: What is biodiversity?

“Well, there is a formal definition that encompass multiple aspects, including the genetic diversity,  the diversity of species, the diversity of traits or functions and the diversity of habitats,” says Martin Lindegren and elaborates:

“The interesting thing, though, when it comes to explaining biodiversity is that we should go beyond simply counting the number of species – several other metrics are much more informative. Because typically before you completely lose a species from one area, other metrics tell us how the communities and ecosystem are changing.”

Understanding the patterns of life

In the world of ocean scientists, biodiversity has been a hot topic for many years. After a Postdoc at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, Martin returned to Denmark in 2014 where he joined the Centre for Ocean Life at DTU Aqua. Here he was offered to take on a Phd student. That was how he started forming his research group and working on understanding biodiversity using a trait-based approach.

“Then I started to think about what are my research interests and what fits in the Centre? It became apparent at that time that my interest in understanding what patterns are out in nature, of how life on earth is distributed, based upon what we can observe, our monitoring data, had a huge potential.”

“I mean, this is an amazing topic in ecology and it inspires ecologists even earlier than Darwin. But as for this trait-based approach, there is a new take on this called functional biodiversity. You can think of it as trait-biodiversity,” says Martin Lindegren and explains:

“So, it’s the diversity not of species diversity but of different characteristics and the adaptation of species. It’s a more mechanistic and functional view of species that allow us to understand what species do and what niches and functions they fill within an ecosystem.”   

What’s in it for us?

Over the years, Martin Lindegren and his PhD students and post docs have looked into describing patterns and trait distribution of biodiversity in different areas, context and spatial scales – and he has no doubts when he says: 

“The biodiversity crisis has a lot to do with the destruction of living space, so it is habitat loss. One notable example is of course what has been happening in Brazil the last 4 years with Bolsonaro – the loss of habitats that take ages to regenerate. The underlying threat is the demand for resources – for the human population.”

“So, we need to protect habitats. Areas of particular importance. Safeguarding ocean space but also on land is critical.”

“And if you askwhat’s in it for us?’ then definitely protecting biodiversity, not only the species, but also other aspects, will help to have more productive and also more resilient ecosystems. ‘Resilient’ is being more able to withstand all types of pressures, I would say: More able to adapt to it.”

“So, there is a strong relationship between high biodiversity and high ecosystem functioning. One ecosystem function could be a sustainable stock of biomass,” says Martin Lindegren and mentions the new deal for a sustainable nature in Europe: The EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030.

The EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 claims that we need to protect 30% of our waters, and also on land, and 10 percent of that should be strictly protected which includes no fishing activities:

“It would be great if we can make use of our knowledge and data to say where to designate these protected areas, i.e. where do we find a high biodiversity value and what are the trade-offs.”

“But the decision is along the way part of a much larger context of marine spatial planning and the ecosystem approach to management, where one is to account for all these different needs and uses of ocean space – where fishing is one, and ocean energy is one.” Says Martin Lindegren.

Talking about making use of knowledge and make an impact on decision makers, Martin Lindegren tells that he coordinates a recently started EU project called B-USEFUL:

“We are in it to take our knowledge, data and models on marine biodiversity and put it into practice. We aim to make use of all this infrastructure that we have throughout Europe and come up with an end-user oriented tool for visualizing areas of particular importance for biodiversity.”

This decision-support tool, which aims to assist in marine spatial planning, is to be hosted by ICES, and will help towards achieving the ambition to halt the biodiversity loss in the EU by 2030:

“The trick is to try to understand what are the consequences of the different pressures acting on biodiversity. It may be that some of them are actually not in conflict, but rather give new options or even improve biodiversity, at least under certain conditions. For instance, offshore energy structures may serve as habitats and hubs for marine organisms, at least in areas lacking structural complexity,” says Martin Lindegren.

The intrinsic value of nature

Martin Lindegren emphasizes that there is more to protecting biodiversity than the strict utilitarian value for us as humans in need for resources:

“Nature has an intrinsic value in itself. What we observe is a consequence of millions of years of evolution, and the amazing adaptation and characteristics of these species. I think that we ow to future generations to safeguard that – there should be tigers on Earth and there should be sharks and so on. They are part of Earth,” says Martin Lindegren.

Martin Lindegren grew up by the ocean in Sweden in a family with four siblings. The family enjoyed being outside and he thinks that this created an appreciation for nature:

“We used to spend time outside as much as we could. My mon and dad rented a small house on the Swedish west coast on a small Island, Nordkoster, which is now many years later Sweden’s first marine national park!”

“I think that as a kid spending my summers there must have seeded my interest for the ocean. And I grew up in Helsingborg and being quite close to Øresund also created an attachment to the water. I am also a keen birdwatcher and that brings you into many different environments, the forest as well as the sea. So birdwatching I guess was also an entry into why I started to study general biology,” says Martin Lindegren.

Only valid as long as it is received as facts

From a focus on freshwater ecology throughout his masters, Martin Lindegren carved his way into marine biology during his PhD. Here he applied the principles of how ecosystems can change very rapidly between “alternative” states, which is well known in lakes, to study such regime shifts in oceans. Along the way, he has observed how things have also changed in the world around him when it comes to the view on nature:

“The greatest change is how much these different topics are featured within media and within the discussion at large now.”

“For instance, climate change was mentioned as a threat long before I started my Ph.d. But I have seen that developing over the years more urgently. The same way now with biodiversity. Things that we have been working with, but haven’t had that level of public attention,” says Martin Lindegren pointing to the less-good news:

“Despite that attention, I think we are not making much progress. We don’t seem to be really acting in a proper way to the climate crisis, nor to the biodiversity crisis. And I think that is really sad and discouraging.”

In response to the question of whether he can maintain the belief that he can make a difference with his research and the biodiversity group, Martin Lindegren says:

“Well, sometimes I can maintain this positive thinking. But I must say that these last 10 years have been discouraging. Especially when you look at the political landscape globally. That facts are looked upon as something that is relative through the use of different phrases like ‘alternative facts’ or ‘fake ‘news’.”

“Here, it is quite clear that what we as scientist can come up with is only valid as long as it is received as facts,” Martin Lindegren asserts.

We need political will

The recent UN Climate reports are according to Martin Lindegren the strongest example of how scientists can collaborate and put together the strongest body of evidence ever for a particular topic:

“But are we acting according to that? We still see very little action!” Martin Lindegren says calling for action:

“We have all the knowledge we need to be able to take the firsts step. To take decisive steps! We should have taken the first steps a long time ago. But now, the main obstacles are political. We need political will to think and act long term. Because short sighted solutions that may put restrictions on human wellbeing will get us nowhere if we don’t understand where we need to be in the long run.”

“I mean, for the climate crisis all the evidence is pointing in that direction. The same evidence is accumulating now with biodiversity.”

“So yes, think long term and take science seriously.”

Can we do it?
For Martin Lindegren, the time with corona is strong proof that facing imminent danger, we are able to enforce very strong changes in our everyday life:

“So, I think that the solution may not be that far ahead. We could do it! We could overnight enforce very strict restrictions. We may not even talk about restrictions but changes. We should be talking about changes that could give us a better future,” says Martin Lindegren and ends with the big perspective:

“I think part of the solution is to start understanding that there is no distinction between us as humans and nature, or biodiversity, or the climate or the planet. We are on this planet together! We depend on one another.”

Beginning of 2023, Martin Lindegren will together with scientists throughout Europe kick-start their EU project B-USEFUL in an effort to making science and knowledge on marine biodiversity available to decision-makers and managers to halt the loss and tackle the biodiversity crisis.

Photo: private