Groundwater Ecology

Christian Griebler

Although right below our feet, groundwater ecosystems belong to the least explored environments of the world. At the same time, they represent the largest freshwater biome. Groundwater ecosystems are dark, extremely low in energy but contain an unexpectedly high diversity of living forms showing characteristic adaptive features. The restricted accessibility along with the enormous ‘invisible’ heterogeneity challenged for a long time testing of scientific theories and unraveling of ecosystem biodiversity and functioning. Triggered by an improved interdisciplinarity, comprehensive sampling techniques and strategies, and current developments in molecular biology as well as statistical analysis, groundwater ecology gained momentum slowly catching up with research in surface aquatic ecosystems.

Groundwater ecosystems play a crucial role in the (intermediate) storage and (re)cycling of matter, particularly carbon and nutrients. Wetlands, lakes and rivers are in intense contact and exchange with groundwater systems and often depend on groundwater in high quantity and quality. Not less than 20-30% of global land surface is in direct contact with shallow groundwater feeding surface waters, wetlands and the roots of plants. Besides, groundwater is our most essential resource for drinking water.

In our research we have a focus on biogeochemical processes (e.g. carbon and nutrient transformation and cycling) under transient physical-chemical conditions and their linkage to organismic activities and key-players. We are interested in the distribution patterns of groundwater microbial and faunal communities. In a ‘field to lab – back to field’ approach our research addresses processes and related populations at different spatial scales (from local to global) and temporal dimensions (from minutes to years).

Groundwater observation wells are windows into the world below our feet

Prokaryotes are the key-actors in groundwater ecosystems driving essential biogeochemical processes and the cycling of carbon, nutrients and metals. Pictures shows a petroleum hydrocarbon degrading heterotrophic bacterium. 

Having adapted to their dark habitat over geological time scales, groundwater invertebrates lack eyes and pigments and are specialists in starving. Picture shows a groundwater amphipode from the genus Niphargus.