Impact of elevation on cryptogam-invertebrate associations in southern Chile (MSc project)

Beginning:      Autumn-Winter 2019-2020
Duration:        20 – 30 weeks, unpaid
Credits:            30 – 45 ETC


Alien species can have large impacts on ecosystems but their impact on polar ecosystems is poorly researched and thus not well understood. Polar ecosystems, especially those in Antarctica, include some of the most simplified food webs on Earth with only a few key species driving ecosystem processes. They are sensitive and vulnerable to invasion, with alien species likely to quickly seize key roles and affect ecosystem functioning.

Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems are dominated by cryptogam communities (mosses and lichens) which, due to the harsh environment conditions host a ‘simplified’ food web consisting of only a few invertebrates species (springtails and mites)  and introduction of new invertebrates could have major implications for ecosystem functioning. These ‘new arrivals’ are likely to come from South America and in particular from ecosystems that resemble the climate as can be found along the Antarctic Peninsula region, such as mountainous regions in southern Chile. Therefore, we want to know which species dominate at high elevation in cryptogam communities. In addition, we want to compare these high elevation communities with lower ones to get an idea for the potential changes in invertebrates communities if climate change results in further warming. Furthermore, invertebrate traits (such as: size, reproduction mode, dispersal ability etc.) should provide valuable information on their potential success and impact on Antarctic ecosystems.


During this project you can join our fieldwork in southern Chile planned for January 2020, where we will quantify invertebrate communities associated with moss and lichen species across an elevation gradient near Puerto Williams. The top of the elevation gradient ends in a lichen fell field ecosystem which resembles vegetation characteristics along the Antarctic Peninsula region (see picture below). The quantification of invertebrate communities and trait characteristics will provide valuable insight for studies on the impact of alien species in the Antarctic. In addition, the comparison between elevations will provide valuable data on plant-soil interactions along natural temperature gradients, of which only a handful of studies have been done worldwide.

Fell-field lichen vegetation at the top of Cerro Bandera (Puerto Williams, Chile).

Lichens and mosses associated with Nothofagus trees at lower elevation (Puerto Williams, Chile)


Willingness and ability to work in mountainous regions under adverse weather. Good identification skills of soil invertebrates (or willingness to learn this).

Please note that we are unable to support flight and accommodation costs (approximate costs @ 3.000 euro)

What will you learn

  • Gain practical experience in field ecology in mountainous regions and fell-field ecosystems.
  • Practical experience in cryptogam invertebrate surveys.
  • Identification skills on invertebrates and cryptogams.

Contact information

Stef Bokhorst is a researcher at the Department of Ecological Science working on climate change impacts and the role of invasive species in polar regions.
Alternative contact: Prof. Matty Berg

If this topic appeals to you, please email
Faculty of Science, VU Amsterdam.
Dept. of Ecological Science, subdept. Systems Ecology, room A-159.
Address: De Boelelaan 1085, 1081 HV Amsterdam