Nordic collaboration in the master’s programme on biodiversity

Through the Nordic master’s programme known as NABIS, students acquire extensive knowledge about species and systematics. “Human beings are completely dependent on what nature can provide. But today we can lose important species without even knowing it”, says Tobias Andermann, who has attended the NABIS programme at the University of Gothenburg.

NABIS stands for Nordic Master’s Programme in Biodiversity and Systematics, and the master’s programme includes courses in subjects such as biodiversity, systematics and knowledge of organisms.

The programme provides students not only an overview of the great variety of Earth’s species, but it also teaches them to identify species within a group of organisms and the taxonomic system for naming organisms. DNA technology and how to practically handle molecular systematic information are other components in NABIS.

Most of the programme is taught online.
“This gives students options and a certain freedom. For example, I went on a field trip to Madagascar for a month and studied a Cambridge course given locally there. I was able to include the course in NABIS. So it’s possible to pick up relevant courses from other universities and incorporate them into the education”, says Tobias Andermann.

He is originally from Germany. In 2015 he completed NABIS and continued with doctoral studies at the University of Gothenburg.

Students Tobias Andermann from Germany and Laima Bagdonaite from Lithuania have both chosen to come to Sweden to study in the master’s programme in biodiversity and systematics.

What’s unique about NABIS is that several Nordic universities are involved in the programme. All in all, seven universities and two field stations are part of the network. But the master’s programme is not aimed solely at Nordic students; it’s open to everyone.

Laima Bagdonaite, from Lithuania, is in her final year of NABIS. After an exchange year at the University of Gothenburg, she applied for the programme after completing a bachelor’s degree in her native country.
“It’s educational and fun to have teachers from various universities. It brings in a lot of knowledge and is a great way to connect with more people. I really like that about NABIS”, she says.

The universities rotate responsibility; right now Lund University has the reins. Bengt Oxelman is a teacher in the programme and the contact person locally in Gothenburg.
“The University of Gothenburg initiated the programme with support from the Nordic Council of Ministers seven years ago”, he says.

NABIS leads to a degree of master of science in biology with specialisation in biodiversity and systematics. The master’s programme is broadly oriented towards those who want to work with conservation in varies ways. The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency or the World Wildlife Fund are two conceivable workplaces. The museum world as well. Research is another possible career.

This year about a dozen students in NABIS and a handful of teachers at the University of Gothenburg are engaged in various courses. One of them is Urban Olsson. He’s teaching a course in ornithology. It’s a distance learning course, but teachers and students meet during two days for discussion and practical exercises.
“The idea behind this course is that students will recognise 300 of the 500 species of birds we can see in Sweden. And they’ll learn how to capture birds and ring and handle them”, says Urban.

He believes that species knowledge and biodiversity are important from many different aspects. Teachers in NABIS want to provide students with the education in systematics and knowledge of species needed to help counter the depletion of biological diversity that is under way.

“If you only see nature as a green backdrop, you can’t have a relationship to it other than perhaps artistically, but biologically speaking, you have no understanding of it. And if you don’t have that, you don’t care about it in the same way either. And the way the world looks today, people really need to care about nature.”

A research study from Germany last year showed that the amount of flying insects declined by 75 per cent in the surveyed areas compared with 27 years earlier.
“This isn’t number species but individuals we’re talking about”, says Urban Olsson. “The variety of individuals has declined. Consider the fact that two-thirds of all flowering plants depend on insects for their pollination. So when insects disappear, plants don’t form fruit to the same extent anymore. And that’s crucial for our food supply.”

He stresses that biodiversity is an interaction among different species. Plants ingest nutrients from the soil and other species eat plants, which are eaten by predators in turn.
“It’s a very interwoven web. And if you pluck something out of a web, the system capsizes, and it’s very hard to predict what all this will lead to. It’s really only people with knowledge of species who can see and monitor this.”

This was also the case when biologists in the 1960s warned us about mercury, which at that time was used for the treatment of seeds to prevent plant diseases.
“The biologists saw how the birds died. If they hadn’t seen it and thought about it, it would have taken considerably longer before the problem attracted attention. Maybe we would have been the ones dying instead of the birds.”

Laima Bagdonaite’s master’s dissertation also is about birds. She examines how different populations within a species are related to each other.
“I’ve greatly benefitted from knowledge gained from the programme. Among other things, DNA analysis and classification,” she says.

Tobias Andermann is aiming for a career in research, and at the moment he is focused on his doctoral studies at the University of Gothenburg.
“Scandinavia is a ‘hot spot’ for systematics and research in evolutionary biology. Many people come here to learn more about how to construct evolutionary trees. In Gothenburg there is a high level of knowledge about this.”

Much of his doctoral study is based on knowledge he has gained from NABIS. Tobias is working with multiple themes, but it’s all about evolutionary biology.
“More specifically, I’m looking at evolutionary data on a broad scale. One project is about mammals, based on data from fossils. I’m studying what different waves of extinction looked like and how many species have been lost.”

But Tobias is working with more than fossils. In a project in South America that he’s participating in, researchers are investigating how different species of hummingbirds are related to each other.
“We want to know how hummingbirds have separated into distinct species and what may the underlying causes. I’ve found interesting patterns that seem to indicate that changes in the Amazon river’s system of tributaries have divided different groups that then have become new species.

Course coordinator Bengt Oxelman is hoping for a broadening of the master’s program in the future.
“Today we have new research specialisations represented by younger researchers like Tobias. They are studying changes in biodiversity on a large scale, both in modern times and in geological time. And there’s good research that hasn’t really been incorporated into our teaching yet and that we want to include in NABIS.”