#01 2024

sUnderfoot workshop on belowground plant functioning – a valuable learning experience

By Tsumbedzo Ramalevha, PhD Candidate, Ndlovu Node

Understanding the complex processes of belowground plant activities remains a fundamental principle in revealing the mysteries of plant ecology and ecosystem functioning. Rooted in the vital but often overlooked realm beneath the soil surface, the intricate interactions and dynamic processes of belowground plant functioning hold profound implications for the overall health and sustainability of terrestrial ecosystems.  

This was brought home to the Ndlovu Node’s Tsumbedzo Ramalevha while attending the first in-person sUnderfoot workshop on belowground plant functioning in Leipzig, Germany in November 2023. The workshop brought together 16 attendees representing seven countries from a host of academic and research institutions across four continents (Europe, North America, South America and Africa).

Exploring new ideas during the conceptual thinking group session (Photo: Alessandra Fidelis)

Attendees during a visit to the historic Monument to the Battle of the Nations (Photo: German citizen)

The workshop agenda focused on three main themes – conceptual thinking, data wrangling and data analysis. These activities were jointly led by Prof Daniel Laughlin (University of Wyoming), Prof Alessandra Fidelis (University of São Paulo) and Prof Joanna Bergmann (University of Leipzig). In attendance were PhD candidates, postdoctoral researchers, lecturers and senior researchers.

The first day started with registration, welcoming remarks by Prof Joanna Bergmann who also introduced the vision and goal setting for the week, followed by introductions by all present. Every attendee was then given an opportunity to present their data to the group.

This was followed by a discussion on data led by Prof Daniel Laughlin, which enabled the group to identify the gaps between the data they had and the data they lacked. After these discussions, participants were divided into three groups (conceptual thinking, CGO wrangling and data analysis). Only two groups convened after this, one focusing on conceptual thinking around belowground plant functioning and the other on data wrangling and analysis of the available data. Conceptual thinking and data wrangling and analysis were the main tasks for the day.

Workshop attendees at the iDiv (German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research) building (Photo: Luise Dieter)

Tsumbedzo at the iDiv building (Photo: Saheed)

The next four days were mostly an exploration of the functions responsible for belowground plant response to climate, disturbances and environmental stresses. This was done by identifying traits that influence these functions. A detailed look at disturbance gradients and belowground functioning, especially looking at the Global South ecosystem, formed part of the programme for days four and five, along with a discussion on a disturbance gradient paper.

Apart from the long hours spent in the Red Queen (the main workshop room), participants had the opportunity to visit the Leipzig Botanical Garden located at Linnéstraße 1. The garden is the oldest botanical garden in Germany and among the oldest in the world. There were also lunchtime walks to historic monuments such as the Monument to the Battle of the Nations.

PhD candidate Tsumbedzo Ramalevha honing his conceptual thinking skills (Photo: Frances Siebert)


As belowground plant functioning has not been well studied, especially in the Global South and most certainly in Southern African ecosystems, the workshop enabled Tsumbedzo to get a clear understanding of precisely where his current PhD project fits into the global belowground plant functioning studies and how studies on disturbance-prone vegetation can provide vital insights on plant belowground response to global drivers of plant community population and composition, such as fire and herbivory.

“The workshop enabled me to link up with fellow students from different global institutions and continue building a network of colleagues and friends who are involved in belowground plant functional ecology research,” he said. “Importantly, being able to share a room with leading experts such as Professor Dennis Baldocchi, Professor Dario Papale and Professor Marcy Litvak was a privilege for all the students as it promoted access to knowledge as a continued necessity to build expertise in the field of eddy covariance.”

Tsumbedzo would like to thank the organisers, Professors Joana Bergmann, Alessandra Fidelis and Daniel Laughlin, for their selection of people from different backgrounds, gathering them all together for a ground-breaking week of learning and standardising belowground plant functioning approaches.

“I am looking forward to continued learning from this group and contributing to the development of belowground plant functioning knowledge,” he said in conclusion.