Amazing missions in the field with the sampling team, Sabrina Gurten, Veronika Hierlmeier, Nils Struck (from back to front)

Meet an Ecology-PhD student: Veronika Hierlmeier

... it is something special to be involved in the research on insect decline and to have these unforgettable field trips in the summer

I have been always fascinated by the forest ecosystem. So that’s why I decided to study forestry and wood science after school, and I have never regretted my decision. But during the many field courses, I noticed that the small inhabitants of the forest interested me even more than the trees. And so I started to focus on insects during my studies, soon also beyond the forest. After writing two graduation theses on this topic and finishing my studies, it was clear to me that I wanted to work with insects in the scientific environment.

I got this opportunity by the INTERREG-A-project „ProtectAlps“, which was initiated by the Bavarian Environment Agency. Together with the Research Group Molecular Ecology of the University of Innsbruck, the effects of hardly degradable chemicals, the so called persistent organic pollutants (short: POPs) on insects should be investigated. These POPs include industrial chemicals as well as certain internationally regulated pesticides like DDT. I think it's a surprise to many of us that some of these substances, which were banned in Europe a long time ago, are still present in the environment! By accumulating in the organism and acting toxically, they could be (co-)responsible for the decline of insects. 

But what does this have to do with the Alps? POPs are transported through the atmosphere, and their deposition rates are highest in areas with low temperatures and high precipitation. This leads to the fact, that the Alps, also where far away from sources, are particulary contaminated.

The special thing in our project are unique measurements of air concentrations in our study areas. This is done by our project partners, the Environmental research station Schneefernerhaus on the Zugspitz mountain (Germany) and the Sonnblick Observatory at Hoher Sonnblick mountain in the national park Hohe Tauern (Austria). The task of my PhD is to combine these values with data on insects. For this, I collect insects in the study areas. What a great experience to work on the mountains in summer! To compare both study sites, we have to investigate the same species in both areas.

For various practical reasons, there are only a few organisms that we could choose in the end: bumblebees, two species of ants, and carrion beetles. We are catching the animals by hand or with selfmade traps, using special cleaned material to avoid contamination of the samples.

After sampling, the POP body burdens are measured by the ultratrace laboratories of the Environment Agency Austria. What is trickier, though, and that’s my task, together with others, is to investigate the effect on the morphology of insects.

With the method of geometric morphometrics, photographs of basically symmetrical structures, like the wings of bumblebees or the ants‘ heads, are analysed in depth with a computer program.

By setting so called landmarks, e.g. on the wing veins of bumblebees or on ants‘ eyes, and by integrating multiple measuring distances, statements about symmetry are possible. If any deviations from symmetry arise, this can be a response during development to stressors in the environment. To exclude genetic factors such as inbreeding in the case of measured asymmetry, we use population genetic analysis to check the results.



The project contributes to the investigation of a possible factor for the decline of insects. In particular, data on the status of insect populations in supposedly uncontaminated areas dearly needed. For me, it is something special to be involved in the research on insect decline and to have these unforgettable field trips in the summer!


Veronika Hierlmeier

Research Group: Molecular Ecology


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