German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv)
13.12.2023 | iDiv Members, Experimental Interaction Ecology, TOP NEWS, Media Release

How forests smell - a risk for the climate?

Biodiverse forests release fewer biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs) into the atmosphere than monocultures. (Picture: Colourbox)

Biodiverse forests release fewer biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs) into the atmosphere than monocultures. (Picture: Colourbox)

The MyDiv experimental site in Bad Lauchstädt (Picture: T. Kattenborn)

The MyDiv experimental site in Bad Lauchstädt (Picture: T. Kattenborn)

Note for the media: Use of the pictures provided by iDiv is permitted for reports related to this media release only, and under the condition that credit is given to the picture originator.

New study on the link between biodiversity and climate

Based on a media release of Leipzig University

Plants emit odours for a variety of reasons, such as to communicate with each other, to deter herbivores or to respond to changing environmental conditions. An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Leipzig University, the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research (TROPOS) and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) carried out a study to investigate how biodiversity influences the emission of these substances. For the first time, they were able to show that species-rich forests emit less of these gases into the atmosphere than monocultures. In the past, it was assumed that forests with more species would release more emissions. Experiments by the Leipzig team have now disproved this assumption. Their study has been published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment.

Plant odours penetrate the atmosphere

Plants produce a variety of organic compounds to communicate with each other and with their environment. These are known as biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs), such as terpenes, which give plants their characteristic scent and help to repel pests. As well as acting as chemical signals, these substances play a role in regulating climate, air quality and atmospheric chemistry. This is because these BVOCs emitted by plants form biogenic secondary organic aerosols (BSOAs) in the air, i.e. particles in the atmosphere. These aerosols in turn affect air quality, cloud formation and the climate.

MyDiv Experiment: Measurements in plots with different tree species

But how do emissions and concentrations of aerosols in the air change as biodiversity declines or plants are stressed by drought? The interdisciplinary team led by scientists Dr Anvar Sanaei and Professor Alexandra Weigelt from Leipzig University and other researchers from TROPOS and iDiv investigated this question. The scientists collected the data at the MyDiv tree diversity experimental site. The iDiv platform, near Bad Lauchstädt in Saxony-Anhalt, covers around two hectares and has 80 plots with ten tree species growing together in monocultures or mixtures of different species. For the study, the team spent almost two weeks collecting air samples from ten of the 11x11 metre plots, which grow four tree species – rowan, wild cherry, common ash and sycamore – in different combinations.

Fewer plant odours, fewer risks 

“In the field, we measured BVOCs and BSOA compounds in ten plots of varying tree diversity. Our results show that the amount of BVOCs decreases with increasing biodiversity in most cases,” says Dr Anvar Sanaei, first author of the study and postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Biology at Leipzig University. It is estimated that global BVOC emissions from vegetation will increase by around a third as a result of climate change. “There are considerable uncertainties here: these precursor gases can form particles, which in turn can become cloud droplets. Whether BVOCs ultimately cool or warm the atmosphere depends on many factors and is difficult to predict. However, more biodiversity and fewer BVOCs would reduce the changes in the atmosphere and thus also the risks of climate change – including changes in precipitation,” adds Professor Hartmut Herrmann from TROPOS. The second part of the study shows how difficult it is to investigate these complex processes in the field: the team was unable to establish any clear correlations for BSOAs, which could be partly due to environmental influences, as the conversion of BVOC gases into BSOA particles takes a certain amount of time. At just under two weeks, the measurement campaign was also comparatively short. That is why the team wants to continue the research – not least because many questions remain unanswered.

More stress, more plant odours?

Previously, it was thought that species-rich forests and grasslands released more gases into the atmosphere than species-poor ones. The reason for this was thought to be that species-rich systems produce more biomass because they can utilise resources such as light, water and nutrients more efficiently. More biomass then also means more leaf surface area from which the gases can be emitted. “Our new results, however, suggest that the situation may be due to the fact that plants in species-rich forests and grasslands are under less stress. Compared to monocultures, they face fewer herbivores and less heat and drought. But this is just a hypothesis for now. Much more research is needed to better understand how biodiversity affects the atmosphere, where we need to look more closely at the microclimate, above- and below-ground stress on plants, and many other factors in long-term experiments,” says Professor Nico Eisenhauer from iDiv.

Biology + climate research + chemistry = A team fit for the future

What made this study so special was that different disciplines worked together, combining atmospheric and biological measurements. “Only with knowledge from biology, climate research and atmospheric chemistry can we decipher how plant emissions are linked to biodiversity and the atmosphere. Our study highlights the need for experiments at the local and regional scales and the development of models to improve our understanding of biosphere-atmosphere interactions,” says senior author and iDiv member Professor Alexandra Weigelt from the Institute of Biology. 

Katarina Werneburg and Tilo Arnhold


Original publication
(Researchers with iDiv affiliation are in bold)

Anvar Sanaei, Hartmut Herrmann, Loreen Alshaabi, Jan Beck, Olga Ferlian, Khanneh Wadinga Fomba, Sylvia Haferkorn, Manuela van Pinxteren, Johannes Quaas, Julius Quosh, René Rabe, Christian Wirth, Nico Eisenhauer & Alexandra Weigelt (2023). Changes in biodiversity impact atmospheric chemistry and climate through plant volatiles and particles. Commun Earth Environ, DOI: 10.1038/s43247-023-01113-9 


The study was funded by the Saxon State Ministry of Science, Culture and Tourism (SMWK; 3-7304/35/6-2021/48880), the European Union (ACTRIS-IMP (871115), ATMO-ACCESS (101008004) and ACTRIS-D (01LK2001A)), the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation funding programme (Grant Agreement No. 677232) and the German Research Foundation (DFG; via Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize (Ei 862/29-1) and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig (FZT 118, 202548816)).



Prof Dr Alexandra Weigelt
Systematic Botany and Functional Biodiversity
University of Leipzig
German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv)
Phone: +49-341-97-38594


Prof Dr Nico Eisenhauer
Head of the research group Experimental Interaction Ecology
German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig
Leipzig University
Phone: +49 341 97 33167


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