Love of mountains sparks scientific career

Maria Leunda, recently named a postdoctoral fellow at the OCCR, has received the prestigious Harper Prize for young researchers in the field of ecology. She won the award for a paper on Pyrenean vegetation dynamics based on data from an ice cave.

“The mountains are my life,” says Maria Leunda, who is originally from Spain. And people believe her, although these days she spends most of her time in a lab or in front of a computer. But the mountains have played an important role to her since childhood. Growing up in the Basque Country in a small town and as the daughter of enthusiastic hikers – she spent all her free time outdoors. “I loved discovering plants and stones, and I wanted to study something related to nature in order to understand how this landscape, which has shaped me so much, formed.” So, she decided to study environmental science and eventually did a master’s and a PhD in geology.

Maria Leunda has remained true to the mountains. She has been living and working as a postdoctoral researcher in Bern for the past six months. “Here I have the feeling of living in a city as well as in nature,” she says. Whenever possible, she explores the Alps on foot or on touring skis.

Prestigious award for young researchers

She also owes her best scientific success to date to the mountains. Or rather, to an ice cave in the Cotiella massif in the central Pyrenees. The remains of pollen and plant macrofossils stored in the ice of this cave served as the basis for a reconstruction of the treeline dynamics in the Pyrenees. In 2019, the study earned Maria Leunda the Harper Prize – a prestigious award that goes to early-career researchers for the best publication in the Journal of Ecology, a scientific journal published by the British Ecological Society. “These strong and convincing results could be informative about future climate changes that might occur in the region,” wrote the jury, praising the varied research approach and international cooperation involved. “The award shouldn’t really go to me alone,” says Maria Leunda in her modest way, “but rather to a large group of people. It is an award for the whole palaeoecological community.”

It was a coincidence that the palaeoecologist learned of the extraordinary natural archive housed in the ice cave known as Armeña A294. Discovered in 1978 by local speleologists, in 2008 there was a scientific study on the dynamics of the ice trapped in the mountain. Some years later, while she was doing her doctoral studies, Maria Leunda was asked whether she’d be interested in the cave for her research. At the time she was busy evaluating lake sediment data for her dissertation on high-altitude vegetation and fire dynamics in the Pyrenees. But inspired by the cave, she launched a parallel research project with data obtained from the ice.

According to Maria Leunda, the cave at 2,238 metres above sea level has proven to be an “ecological treasure”. The ice is 2,200-5,700 years old, and unlike the ice in most other caves, it contains a wide variety of organic material. “The identification of these plants has allowed us to study the long-term vegetation dynamics of alpine ecosystems,” explains Maria Leunda. “Both climatic changes and land use played a role in this process.” By the way: Armeña A294 is the world’s oldest known firn ice cave, and studies using this type of environmental archive are extremely rare. The only other example was done in the Carpathians.

In search of new challenges

Few palaeoecologists use different natural environmental archives for their studies. But Maria Leunda finds this combination of sources and procedures particularly exciting: “If you approach things from different angles, you also need knowledge from different disciplines – that’s what challenges me.”

And now the young researcher is facing yet another challenge. Her current project with the OCCR’s palaeoecology group requires genetic knowledge. The goal is to use the DNA of the prehistoric remains of needles and leaves to find out how genetic biodiversity has been affected by climate change. This will show the resilience of various tree species over the course of the climatic ups and downs since the last Ice Age. “With the help of new techniques, we are trying to extract the badly preserved ancient DNA,” says Maria Leunda. For this, the researchers from Bern are collaborating with a special laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL.

And how does the postdoctoral student see her professional future? Does she aspire to an academic career? “Of course, I would like to continue working in research,” says Maria Leunda, “but I’m realistic and I know how difficult that is. But I’ll give it my best.” What is certain is that the Harper Prize winner wants to keep working with the Armeña A294 treasure. During her annual visits to the Cotiella massif, she sees how quickly the ice in the cave is melting. Maria Leunda worries that the environmental data stored in the ice could be lost unused: “Either you do these studies now or never.”

(May 2020)