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Estonia: The treasures of Tartu’s city parks


On the quest for biodiversity

Many fascinating finds




Original announcement of the event on this website (April 2010)

For the GEO article in Estonian language, please go to the downloads section.

On the quest for biodiversity

Does biodiversity really matter to us in our daily lives? Issues around this question were addressed, together with a number of others, in Tartu at the Dendrology Park of the Estonian University of Life Sciences and the Tähtvere Sports Park on May 14-15, where close on 500 species were identified during the Biodiversity Action Day of GEO magazine.

As if by favour of gods, the weather was fine on this beautiful spring morning when 80 young people interested in science and nature and coming from 33 schools all over Estonia made their way to Tartu in order to join scientists and naturalists from universities and environmental organisations on a joint quest to find and identify as many species as possible. For the first time in Estonia an action day took place, which embraced both scientists and high school students and yielded a multitude of organisms that were studied, identified and taxonomically classified. While taking inventory of species, for instance for the purpose of establishing a nature protection area, is routine for scientists, the situation where 30 specialists from a variety of research areas act together with high school students for a common goal is definitely exceptional.

The United Nations have named 2010 the international year of biodiversity and in this very year Estonia also celebrates its 100th anniversary of environmental protection, therefore it is only appropriate that the same year saw our first Biodiversity Action Day. The event was extraordinary in the sense that it embraced the study of a total of 13 different groups of organisms. The Biodiversity Action Day took place in a location important to local townspeople as there is the Dendrology Park of the Estonian University of Life Sciences adjacent to the Tähtvere Sports Park with its eye-catching ponds and ditches. It comprises an area of approximately 0.4 square km and the Sports Park got the finishing touches only last year. The Dendrology Park is relatively old being established in the beginning of the 1970s. The study of areas with different histories provided an extra opportunity to compare biodiversity in either of them.

Groups of organisms growing or moving on earth, flying in air or living underwater came under study on the Biodiversity Action Day. Apart from plants, mammals, birds and insects, which have been studied more frequently, attention was focused on mosses, lichens, snails, reptiles, water invertebrates and plankton. Biodiversity of the soil life was not ignored either – both soil organisms and mycorrhiza were investigated. In addition to diurnal species, also nocturnal and crepuscular organisms like night insects, bats etc. came under study both on land and on board the Hanseatic barge „Jõmmu“ on a night sail along the river Emajõgi. Species that could not be identified on the spot were identified in laboratories on the next day.

Participants in the Action Day could see for themselves how the identification of species is carried out in practice and listen to lectures on the interrelationships of species in nature. The opening lecture on biodiversity was delivered by Kalle Olli of Tartu University (TÜ). Urmas Sellis of the Estonian Ornithological Society lectured on the use of new technologies in bird marking and monitoring for eagles and black storks – an area in which Estonia is a forerunner in the world. Arvo Tuvikene of the Limnology Centre of the Estonian University of Life Sciences gave a night-time lecture on board the barge on fishes and their language – the participants could hear the joyful sounds of the fish otherwise considered to be deaf and dumb.

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Many fascinating finds

A total of 455 species were identified in the study area. What does that figure reflect? Considering that, for instance, from just one square metre in the Laelatu wooded meadow 74 species of vascular plants alone have been identified, close on 500 species from more than ten groups of organisms in a large study area does not seem notably much. However, it would not be appropriate at all to compare Laelatu wooded meadow, which holds the second place in the world for small-scale species diversity, to a suburban sports area.

Taxons identified on Biodiversity Action Day by work groups

Mammals: 7; Reptiles: 3; Fish: 3; Molluscs: 13; Birds: 47; Soil organisms: 62; Bats: 4; Plankton: 25; Insects: 20; Mosses: 35; Lichen: 31; Vascular plants: 190; Water invertebrates: 15. Total: 455

The high percentage of vascular plants in the total number of species can in this case be explained by the diversity of trees and bushes in the Dendrology Park. The latter were identified and described by Ivar Sibul of the Estonian University of Life Sciences. Of herbaceous plants, which were identified by Margit Hirv and Silja Kana of the same university, only 61 species were found.

Supervised by Professor Mari Ivask, Mart Meriste and Annely Kuu of the Tartu College of the Tallinn University of Technology, the soil life work group studied arachnids, carabids, springtails, myriapods and earthworms. Identification of earthworms made quite a few of the participants literally grasp for breath. None had ever seen how mustard solution made mega- and microdriles emerge from the soil. The fact that on one square metre there were 7 different species (apart from the ordinary earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris), for instance also the rosy-tipped worm (Aporrectodea rosea), the octagonal-tailed worm (Dendrobaena octaedra), the chestnut worm (Lumbricus castaneus)), was astounding enough. As to most of the springtails, carabids and myriapods, of which around 10 species were identified in the given area, Estonian names have yet to be devised.

Among the identified species there were finds that were surprising and exiting even for the scientists. Professor Mari Ivask of the Tartu College of the Tallinn University of Technology was especially delighted about one species of myriapods: Craspedosoma rawlinsi (family Craspedosomatidae) is a widespread European species, both throughout Central Europe and Scandinavia/Finland, but it had never been identified in Estonia before.

Professor Toomas Tammaru of Tartu University underlined the rarity of the species Ligdia adsustata, whose existence in the study area was extremely surprising for him. The time was not particularly suitable for the study of larger butterflies (Macrolepidoptera) as it was the insects’ minimum flying period.

Riho Kinks, Andres Kalamees and Tarmo Teppe of the Estonian Ornithological Society drew attention to an exciting bird species – the European penduline tit (Remiz pendulinus) who builds an elaborate hanging nest in the shape of a closed pouch and is a breeding bird species occurring in Estonia in small numbers.

The snails and slugs work group applied two simple methods: the search method „nose in the soil“ to study plants and organic matter, and the sieve method for finding smaller organisms. According to supervisor Annelie Ehlvest of the Tartu Environmental Education Centre, the most remarkable find in the snails and slugs category was the door snail Laciniaria plicata.

Researchers Nele Ingerpuu and Kai Vellak of Tartu University, who supervised the mosses work group, considered crystalwort (Riccia fluitans), which was found in abundance in a study area pond, as the most unique find.

The study of plankton has not exactly been a routine activity during earlier Biodiversity Action Days. Taking samples from water bodies and analysing the diversity of species under a microscope was quite thrilling to a number of participants. In the case of plankton the identification of species is not always easy or even possible, therefore the specimens found were identified at family level. The work group was supervised by the charismatic Kalle Olli, Riina Klais and Karolin Trunov of Tartu University.

Under the supervision of Uudo Timm of the Estonian Environment Information Centre and Estonian Theriological Society, participants found in the study area traces of the activity of the badger (Castor fiber), European hare (Lepus europaeus) and European elk (Alces alces).

Although very rare species are hardly ever found in urban or suburban areas, several protected species were identified during the Action Day. All the identified bats – Daubenton’s bat (Myotis daubentonii), Common noctule (Nyctalus noctula), Northern bat (Eptesicus nilssonii) and Nathusius' pipistrelle (Pipistrellus nathusii) belong to the second category protected species list in Estonia. The identified reptile species – common water frog (Rana esculenta), European common brown frog (Rana temporaria) and pool frog (Rana lessonae) belong to the third category of protected species, the latter is also listed in Annex IV of the EC Habitats Directive.

The supervisor of the work group Piret Pappel of the non-profit organisation Põhjakonn stated that the Great silver water beetle (Hydrophilus piceus) was the most remarkable find among water invertebrates as its number is continuously declining.

A number of protected species were also found among birds – the Northern Hemisphere whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus), who belongs to the second category protected species list here, Common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus), a rare and secretive breeding bird in the third protection category, Eurasian or common crane (Grus grus), a third category protected species that has a strong and growing population in Estonia, and Yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava), also of the third category and locally diminishing in numbers. Represented in the study area was also the Mute swan (Cygnus olor) who was introduced to Estonia in the 19th and 20th centuries and whose population is steadily increasing. One could not help seeing the Black-headed gull (Larus ridibundus). Part of the study area known as the Supilinna pond, however, homes a noteworthy colony of this species in Estonia.

Despite the fact that some participants could catch a mere two hours’ sleep between activities, everybody was satisfied with the event as a whole and voiced the opinion that a similar one should definitely be conducted in a year’s time. We share the hope and look forward to writing about the next Biodiversity Action Day in a year's time.

We would like to thank all our sponsors: The German Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety; Tartu University; Frontiers In Biodiversity Research Center (FIBIR); the Estonian University of Life Sciences, the Tartu College of the Tallinn University of Technology, the Archimedes Foundation, the Tartu Environmental Education Centre, the Estonian Ornithological Society, AS Maag, Noires HA OÜ and A. Le Coq.

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GEO article on Biodiversity Action Day in Tartu (GEO Estonia, June 2010, in Estonian)

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Text: Liina Saar, Krista Takkis

Photos: Urmas Tartes, Remo Savisaar, Katrin Linask