Wednesday, October 23, 2013

World ocean systems undermined by climate change by 2100

Published paper
Climate change caused by human activity could damage biological and social systems. Here we gathered climate, biological, and socioeconomic data to describe some of the events by which ocean biogeochemical changes triggered by ongoing greenhouse gas emissions could cascade through marine habitats and organisms, eventually influencing humans. Our results suggest that the entire world’s ocean surface will be simultaneously impacted by varying intensities of ocean warming, acidification, oxygen depletion, or shortfalls in productivity. Only a very small fraction of the oceans, mostly in polar regions, will face the opposing effects of increases in oxygen or productivity, and almost nowhere will there be cooling or pH increase. The biological responses to such biogeochemical changes could be considerable since marine habitats and hotspots for several marine taxa will be simultaneously exposed to biogeochemical changes known to be deleterious. The social ramifications are also likely to be massive and challenging as some 470 to 870 million people – who can least afford dramatic changes to their livelihoods – live in areas where ocean goods and services could be compromised by substantial changes in ocean biogeochemistry. These results underline the need for urgent mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions if degradation of marine ecosystems and associated human hardship are to be prevented.
This recent study, led by the University of Hawaii and involving biologist Jeroen Ingels (Marine Biology - Plymouth Marine Laboratory), has been published in PLoS Biology (you can read the article here). In the article, these scientists warn against the high risk of degradation of marine ecosystems and human hardships.  Previous analyses have focused mainly on ocean warming and acidification, considerably underestimating the biological and social consequences of climate change. 
You can read press releases (in Dutch and English) and an article from the Los Angeles Times in our 'In the media' section. 
Picture: Corals in the Whittard Canyon, North-Atlantic Ocean, taken by the ROV Genesis. This is a habitat that will also be affected by biogeochemical changes. © UGent, ROV Genesis.
Monday, October 7, 2013

Marine Art presented at two international conferences

Recently the Marine Art project was presented at two international audiences. Firstly, at the occasion of the second European Ocean Literacy conference, held at Plymouth University (3-5 September 2013; UK) by Dr. Jan Seys (Flanders Marine Institute). An audience of 100+ European marine science educators and communicators could testify - during the plenary lecture ‘Marine Art as part of a shock therapy’ and as an output of a workshop on European Ocean Literacy coordinated by the European Marine Board Communications Panel - how art can play an important role in bridging the gap between the public at large and scientists. Then, Marine Art was presented to Master students ‘Education and Outreach’ at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro during a workshop of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists-Brazil (17-20 September 2013; Brazil), by Marine @UGent coordinator Ines Tavernier. On both occasions, the initiative was answered with a lot of enthusiasm as it turned out that Marine Art is simply unique in the way it managed to bring more than 1200 people together with relatively little funding, and ending up in an impressive exhibition and lots of enthusiasm.


You can read the story of this project in the online version of "Marine Art - Marine science sets sail to the art world"

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Skeleton of a white-beaked dolphin at the Museum of Morphology

Earlier this year, a white-beaked dolphin stranded at the Belgian coast, in Blankenberge. This is an indigenous species in the North Sea which prefers however to swim at a certain distance from the coast, so it is rarely seen.


The skeleton of this male specimen of 2.24 m long can now be viewed at the Museum of Morphology. It makes the collection of indigenous cetacean species at the Museum complete as there already are preserved skeletons of a harbour porpoise, minke whale, and common bottlenose dolphin.


You can see more pictures of the dissection at the Facebook page of the Museum of Morphology.   

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Defended PhD: ten decades, seven seas, forty species

Recently, Ann-Katrien Lescrauwaet from Flanders Marine Institute defended her PhD on 'Belgian fisheries: ten decades, seven seas, forty species'. This was a collaboration with the Marine Biology Research Group. 


Human activity has been impacting marine ecosystems for millennia, and fishing is most often seen as the cause of overexploitation and depletion of marine biological resources. There is a wealth of recent studies illustrating how our perception of pristine conditions in the seas and oceans has shifted over generations. This is referred to as ‘Shifting Baselines’. Historical data can contribute in explaining underlying cause-effect relations in changes in the ecosystems, potentially reveal information and knowledge from past conditions, and help defining reference conditions and achievable targets for environmental management today. The present thesis focuses on the reconstruction of historical time-series to expand our knowledge on historical references for the Belgian sea fisheries and to extend the timeframe of current analyses on fisheries. In achieving this, it is aiming to counter the concept of 'Shifting Baselines' applied to the Belgian Sea fisheries.


The ‘Historical Fisheries Database’ (HiFiDatabase) is a product of this thesis. It is the result of a thorough search, rescue, inventory, standardization and integration of data for Belgium’s sea fisheries that were not available before in the public domain or were not available before in the appropriate format for redistribution. It is documented and stored in the Marine Data Archive (MDA) of Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) and is freely available for end-users. Considering the relative size of the fleet, the short coastline and the limited number of fish auctions and fishing ports in Belgium, the present reconstruction of Belgian sea fisheries depicts a relatively complete picture of historical volume, value and composition of landings, fleet dynamics, fishing effort and spatial dynamics. The project and its methodology offer a blueprint to conduct similar reconstructions in other countries.


The HiFiDatabase broadens the historical view on fisheries and serves as a basis for a range of potential research, management applications, and in support of policy-making. In particular, the time-series provide unique historical reference conditions of fishing in the Belgian part of the North Sea and a potential baseline for fisheries management in territorial waters or for the coastal fisheries. The latter is useful in the context of the EU marine policy frameworks. Finally in the present thesis work, important efforts were dedicated to approach the history of fisheries from different disciplines of work. The results underline the importance of collecting economic data, inventorying historical archives and historical legislation, historical economy and politics, in order to improve the interpretation and analysis of results.


The full text and individual chapters are available from the Integrated Marine Information System IMIS (VLIZ):

You can also read a published paper on  'Invisible catch, a century of bycatch and unreported removals in sea fisheries, Belgium' here.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Paper published: Microplastic pollution in deep-sea sediments

Microplastics are small plastic particles (<1 mm) originating from the degradation of larger plastic debris. These microplastics have been accumulating in the marine environment for decades and have been detected throughout the water column and in sublittoral and beach sediments worldwide. However, up to now, it has never been established whether microplastic presence in sediments is limited to accumulation hot spots such as the continental shelf, or whether they are also present in deep-sea sediments. Here we show, for the first time ever, that microplastics have indeed reached the most remote of marine environments: the deep-sea. We found plastic particles sized in the micrometre range in deep-sea sediments collected at four locations representing different deep-sea habitats ranging in depth from 1100 to 5000 m. Our results demonstrate that microplastic pollution has spread throughout the world’s seas and oceans, into the remote and largely unknown deep-sea.


You can read the paper from Lisbeth Van Cauwenberghe, Ann Vanreusel, Jan Mees, and Colin Janssen here.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The ecology of benthopelagic fish at offshore wind farms

All across the North Sea wind farms are planned, under construction and operational. Thousands of wind turbines will be present and as a result new hard substrate habitats, through the wind turbine foundations, arise. In the Belgian part of the North Sea, the wind turbine foundations form artificial reefs in a marine environment formerly dominated by a sandy seabed. These artificial reefs, the so-called windmill artificial reefs (WARs) influence the ecosystem functioning and the local biodiversity; and interactions within and between the reef and the surrounding soft substrate habitat will occur.


In this study, we focused on the reef effects influencing benthopelagic fish in the Southern North Sea. It is known that (windmill) artificial reefs attract and concentrate fishes. However, whether the fishes are merely attracted or if production or an ecological trap occurs is difficult to unravel. In case of attraction, the fish move from the surrounding environment towards the reef. They aggregate at the reef, but there is no net increase in the local population. If production occurs, the carrying capacity of the environment increases as a result of the new habitat. More fish are able to settle, survive, grow and contribute to the local population. The fish can also be caught in an ecological trap, if they are attracted to, and preferably settle in a habitat with suboptimal conditions relative to other available habitats. From 2009 until 2012 we investigated the attraction-production hypothesis for dominant fish species related to the WARS. Information on length-frequency distribution, diet, community structure and movements of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) and pouting (Trisopterus luscus) was gathered in an offshore wind farm in the Belgian part of the North Sea. A multitude of techniques (i.e. visual observations with divers, hand line sampling campaigns, acoustic telemetry and stomach content analyses) were applied and integrated to gain insights on their behavioural ecology and to unravel whether production occurs at the WARs.


We found that both Atlantic cod and pouting are strongly attracted towards the WARs. Much higher average catch rates were recorded at the WARs in comparison to the reference areas. A more detailed investigation of the community structure of both species revealed that especially younger age groups of both species are attracted towards the WARs. For Atlantic cod mainly age group I and II were encountered, while for pouting it was age group 0 and I. The fish are not present throughout the year. There is a clear seasonal pattern in aggregation behaviour. The highest numbers of fish were noted during summer and autumn. In winter time almost no individuals were encountered. Probably movements related to spawning explain the seasonality in presence at the WARs. Further, we demonstrated that, during the period they were present near the WARs, Atlantic cod exhibited strong residency and high site fidelity. Most of the tagged fish were present on a daily basis for 75% of the time of the monitoring period.


Stomach content analyses revealed that both Atlantic cod and pouting fed on the epifaunal species present at the WARs. The predominant prey species in the diet were all present in high densities at the WARs. To acquire more information on the quality of the food, energy profiling of both fish species was performed. The fishes had more energy available than required to maintain their metabolism. Thus, enough energy was left for growth and reproduction. As a result the WARs are considered a suitable feeding ground with sufficient, good quality food available. In addition, the fitness of pouting and Atlantic cod was compared between the WARs and the reference areas. No significant differences in fitness were found, indicating the WARs are not inferior in quality to the reference habitats. Based on the integrated results it was concluded that production occurs on a local scale (i.e. at the WARs). However, so far no changes in productivity were observed on a regional scale.


The results obtained during this study allowed to describe the life-history of Atlantic cod and pouting at the WARs. The age group I Atlantic cod arrive at the WARs in April-May. They feed on the epifaunal prey species present, grow and stay in the area until the end of the year. By winter most I-group individuals have left the WARs and only few specimens come back after the spawning period. For pouting the 0-group arrives at the WARs in September and feeds on the epifaunal prey species. They leave the area by January but by May the I-group is back at the WARS and stay again until the end of the year. During this period feeding and growth are observed.


The offshore wind farms in the Belgian part of the North Sea are closed to fisheries. However, pressure groups aiming at the facilitation of passive fisheries inside the wind farm concession areas, are active in Belgium. Based on the current knowledge on the ecology and population structuring of Atlantic cod and pouting at the WARs, we conclude that no fisheries activities should be allowed inside the offshore wind farms in the Belgian part of the North Sea. We support this statement with several arguments: 1) no indication of regional production was observed yet; 2) juvenile fish dominated the catches; 3) there is a seasonal pattern in presence and 4) fisheries exclusion areas will benefit both fish populations and fisheries.


In conclusion, we demonstrated that WARS influence the behavioural ecology of Atlantic cod and pouting. They benefit from these artificial hard substrates and thrive well in this environment closed to fisheries. We support this fisheries closure, because the benefits are exported beyond the boundaries of the wind farm concession since the fish leave the protective area once they grow older. Proper management, through well-thought-out marine spatial planning and regulations, should be implemented to reduce conflicts and use the marine resources in a sustainable way. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

LifeWatch: GPS tracking network for large birds in Flanders

The Research Institute for Nature and Forest (INBO), the Terrestrial Ecology Unit and Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) installed a GPS tracking network to monitor the habitat use and migration patterns of the herring gull, the lesser black-backed gull and the western marsh harrier in Flanders.


3 ground stations, 11 antennas and 37 GPS loggers allow researchers to reconstruct the flight path and behaviour of individual birds, giving them insights into habitat use and migration patterns.


The installation of webcams in Oostende and Zeebrugge near nests allows them furthermore to observe nesting behaviour.


Marine@UGent members from the Terrestrial Ecology Unit are involved in the LifeWatch project by tracking the birds and gathering reproductive data, coordinating stable isotope research, and interpreting the obtained data in various ways (in terms of foraging and reproductive biology, allocation strategies, and optimal lifecycle strategies).


The first results are remarkable and interesting. Herring gulls have different foraging strategies and food preferences. Some individuals can be found at sea daily, whereas others eat shellfish found near breakwaters. For the lesser black-backed gulls, it becomes clear that this species forages in agricultural areas and not only at sea, as previously thought. Some specimens fly daily to Moeskroen, approximately 70 km, to… a chips factory.


Read more about it on the website or have a look at the flight paths and live feed from the webcam in Oostende: More information about the preliminary results (in Dutch) can be found at the website of Flanders Marine Institute.


(Pictures by Decker Misjel; Flanders Marine Institute)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Preparing the next generation of scientists

During the Marine Art exhibition (read more about this here), where 1250 pieces of art inspired by 23 marine research topics were displayed for 5 days for a wide audience, a children’s university took place with the ocean as a general theme. Sold out in less than one hour and a half, this can be considered a success. 100 kids between the age of 9 and 12 attended a lecture by veterinarian Marjan Doom on a stranded sperm whale and marine mammals in general. After the 1-hour lecture, they participated in a workshop of their choice: seafood, ocean acidification, tasting algae, plastic soup, or copepods, presented by researchers from the Marine@UGent consortium and Flanders Marine Institute. You can read more about it on the website of the children’s university (in Dutch; and in this article in the Dutch magazine Wablieft.


Picture on the left: Lecture by veterinarian Marjan Doom on a stranded sperm whale, attended by 100 kids. 


Picture on the right: Workshop on plastic soup. 








In September, researchers from the Marine Biology research group will take part in another education and outreach event organized by Ghent University, called ‘science on the street’. This initiative is based on the Children’s University on Tour, which took place for the first time in Vienna in 2007 (watch the movie by clicking on the image on bottom left). Scientists will bring a fair booth with experiments and give a lecture to animate children to try things out themselves. This tour aims to bring universities, research and science into children’s everyday lives. Free of charge, it reaches children and their families who would otherwise have little contact with universities and research. Scientists from the Marine Biology research group will show kids and passers-by more about the biodiversity between sand grains, invisible to the naked eye. Learn more about that by clicking on the image on the bottom right. 


Monday, August 19, 2013

Invisible catch: a century of bycatch and unreported removals in sea fisheries, Belgium

(Picture by marine biologist Jan Reubens)


Scientists from Flanders Marine Institute,the Marine Biology Research Group (UGent) and the Institute for Agriculture and Fisheries Research recently published a new paper entitled ‘Invisible catch: a century of bycatch and unreported removals in sea fisheries, Belgium 1929-2010’.


Publicly reported statistics on the production of fisheries refer to ‘landings’ as opposed to ‘catch’. However, decisions and evaluation on the impact of fisheries on ecosystems should be based on total removals, thus also including unreported landings from the recreational and subsistence fisheries and estimated discards. The reconstructed total removals were estimated for the entire Belgian sea fisheries in all fishing areas. In the Belgian part of the North Sea, total removals were estimated to be 55% higher than the 0.8 million ton publicly reported over the period 1929-2010. These data provide a context for a wider debate about how to move to more sustainable fisheries, what the role of small-scale fisheries (not subject to reporting) is, and how to achieve the agreed policy targets in Belgian marine waters and in marine areas protected under the EU Habitat and Bird directives.


You can read more here.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Skeleton of stranded minke whale at Museum of Morphology

As reported previously, a minke whale stranded on the beach of Nieuwpoort earlier this year (read more about it here). ‘Eugene’ was transported to the University of Liège for autopsy and then to the Museum of Morphology in Ghent for further anatomical investigation and skeleton preservation. 


Only a couple of months later, the skeleton can be admired at the Museum of Morphology. The procedure was not a sinecure! Because of the young age of the animal (1 year), the skeleton contained a lot of cartilage, challenging the conservation. Standard procedures involve steps at high temperatures, which would however have dissolved the cartilage, forcing the researchers to work with so-called even more difficult ‘cold techniques’. All flesh was first removed manually, during 2 full days with 5 people. The remnant flesh was macerated with sodium hypochlorite. The bones still contained high amounts of blood, which was removed using hydrogen peroxide. The final preparatory step was the ‘degreasing’ of the bones following the in-house procedure. CT-images were used as anatomically correct reference material to make ‘the puzzle’ and helped the researchers to reconstruct the skeleton.


You can visit the Museum of Morphology (free entrance) and admire ‘Eugene’ on weekdays, between 8h30 and 17h. Tours are available on request. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

EMBC students explore the biodiversity of the Cretan coast near Heraklion: summer schools

The EMBC Master programme (International Master of Science in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation - jointly organized by Ghent University, University of Bremen, University of the Algarve, University Pierre and Marie Curie - Paris 06, University of Oviedo, University of Klaipèda and Galway Mayo Institute of Technology) organizes annually since 2008 a summer school for all students enrolled in the first year of the two year-long programme. Teachers at the EMBC summer school 2013 from the Marine Biology Research Group (Ghent University) are Nele De Meester, Eva Werbrouck, Anna-Maria Vafeiado and Dr. Tim Deprez. 


This year the 62 students are visiting the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research (HCMR) located in Heraklion (Crete). During ten days, students work in small groups on a wide range of topics dealing with the marine biodiversity found in the coastal waters nearby the institute (Figure on the left: Investigating bottom coverage using quadrants). Topics range from research on zooplankton, meiobenthos, fish diversity, zoobenthos and seagrass ecology. The diverse fieldwork experiences combined with advanced lab techniques offer the students opportunities to do real scientific research in a multi-cultural environment.


Visits to the Cretaquarium (including a “behind the scenes” tour) and excursions to Agios Nikolaos, Spinalonga and Knossos offered the students a view of the rich cultural heritage of the Island.


After ten intense days, students present their outcomes through regular scientific communication products, like reports and presentations, as well as with a short movie documentary. Thanks to the help of experts from the EMBC partner universities and the local scientists at HCMR, this fifth EMBC summer school will be a milestone in the study career of this generation of EMBC students.


Read more on the EMBC website ( or go to previous News items from these students. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Compendium for Coast and Sea

The ‘Compendium for Coast and Sea’, an integrated document about the socio-economic, ecological and institutional aspects of the coast and the sea in Flanders and Belgium, is being prepared by a network of experts from science, policy, etc. which is coordinated by the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ).


This product aims to aggregate objective and scientifically based information and data from Flemish/Belgian marine and maritime research, including thus research performed by Marine@UGent members. In this regard, the document will provide an overview of the fragmented marine and maritime research landscape, hence increasing its accessibility and visibility.


The Compendium consists of three main parts focusing on respectively the marine research landscape in Belgium, the different user functions of the coast and sea and the interface between marine/maritime science and policy. The document will be issued both in English and Dutch and will appear every 5-6 years. The information will also be made available on a website which will be updated more regularly. The Compendium mainly focuses on academics, experts actively involved with the coast and sea, and business representatives, whereas derived communication products will address a more general public.


Read more about it here

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Research campaigns: Cold water corals and palaeoceanography at both sides of the Gibraltar Strait

From 28 May until 22 June, a UGent team of 3 scientists from the Renard Centre of Marine Geology travelled to Lisbon to participate in 2 subsequent campaigns on board of respectively R/V Belgica (Lisbon – Cadiz) and R/V Marion Dufresne (Cadiz – Lisbon). The team was led by David Van Rooij (lecturer Marine Geology and Geophysics), as chief scientist for both missions. The preparations were ongoing during the past 3 years and allowed to perfectly tune both campaigns, both in timing and scientific objectives. Both campaigns will study the evolution of climate-driven bottom currents at both sides of the Gibraltar Strait, as well as their influences on the presence of cold water corals on the seabed mounds they may construct.


The R/V Belgica “COMIC” campaign has focused on the acoustic reconnaissance of the seafloor (down to 400 m subbottom depth) and collected more than 1000 km of seismic profiles. The international team on board was composed of 10 scientists (5 nationalities) and 15 crew members. Unique connecting profiles were collected over recent drill sites from the “Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme” and some unknown buried levels of cold water coral mounds were discovered. Additionally, marine mammal observations were carried out (dolphins, whales, …).



The R/V Marion Dufresne “GATEWAYS” campaign was organised within the framework of the European EuroFLEETS project, which has offered  - in strong competition - marine research infrastructure (shiptime). The Marion Dufresne is one of the largest vessels available (120 m) with a capacity to acquire sediment cores of 50 m length. It is the first time a Belgian scientist takes the lead of this ship, with an international scientific team (11 nationalities) of 42 scientists and 50 crew members. During a period of 8 days, 250 m of cores were retrieved, at a continuous rate (24/24 h) of maximal 9 cores per day. Some of these drill sites were just discovered by R/V Belgica or modified, based upon the seismic profiling. During the transit days in between the different sites, a “Floating University” session was held for the 15 present BSc, MSc and PhD students. In total, 11 lectures were held over a variety of themes.


Although the Belgica only focused on the Gulf of Cadiz (the Atlantic part between Spain and Morocco), the Marion Dufresne also visited the Alboran Sea (Mediterranean part between Spain and Morocco) and the Portugese margin (down to 5500 m depth). Both missions can be considered as very succesful and will lead to a large number of (international) thesisses and publications.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Navigating the Future IV, the 20th position paper from the European Marine Board, has been launched

The Navigating the Future series provides regular pan-European summaries of the current status of marine research, priority recommendations and future scientific challenges in the context of European societal needs. Navigating the Future IV has been launched in Brussels on 20 June in the presence of EU Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. Key-notes were given by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science and Maria da Graça Carvahlo, MEP and Rapporteur for the Horizon 2020 Specific Programme. This event has marked the setting of future strategic priorities and plans for seas and oceans research in Europe. The foresight report, press release and launch pictures can be downloaded on the website of the European Marine Board.


Read more: Navigating the Future IV paper

Monday, July 1, 2013

Marine research in the press: Sun, sea and... waste.

Recently, a paper on the assessment of marine debris on the Belgian Continental Shelf was published by researchers from the Laboratory of Environmental Toxicology. A two-year comprehensive assessment of marine litter in Belgian coastal waters was performed. Abundance, weight and composition of marine debris, including microplastics, was assessed by performing beach, sea surface and seafloor monitoring campaigns. Plastic items were the dominant type of macrodebris recorded: over 95% of debris present in the three sampled marine compartments were plastic. In general, concentrations of macrodebris were high. Especially the number of beached debris reached very high levels: on average 6,429 ± 6,767 items per 100m were recorded. Microplastic concentrations were determined to assess overall abundance in the different marine compartments of the Belgian Continental Shelf. In terms of weight, macrodebris still dominates the pollution of beaches, but in the water column and in the seafloor microplastics appear to be of higher importance: microplastic weight is approximately 100 times and 400 times higher, respectively, than macrodebris weight.


This led to a Dutch article on the EOS website, a magazine on science and technology, accessible for a wide audience. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Defended PhD: The use of passive samplers as a central tool in integrated environmental risk assessment

The doctoral research of Michiel Claessens (Laboratory of Environmental Toxicology and Aquatic Ecology) focused on the use of passive samplers as a central tool in integrated environmental assessments in marine environments.


Passive samplers of polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) were, in a first phase, used to sample mixtures of organic contaminants in the Belgian marine environment. Subsequently, the effect of these mixtures on the growth of an important marine diatom was determined by reversed applying of the principle of passive samplers: the contaminated samplers were transferred into clean sea water which allowed the contaminants to be released by passive diffusion. As such, the freely dissolved concentrations and effects of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Belgian marine waters were determined by passive samplers. Based on these data, the concentration of these substances in the sediment, suspended particles and organisms were successfully predicted using newly developed  equilibrium models.


This study shows that PDMS samplers can be used in integrated environmental assessments to (1) determine the ecological effects of environmentally relevant mixtures (and of individual substances), and to (2) estimate the environmental concentrations of chemicals in all major marine compartments. This research can significantly simplify environmental risk assessments of chemicals in marine environments and reduce associated costs.


Read more.


Figure: Polydimethylsiloxane passive samplers mounted in a stainless steel cage prior to field deployment. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Thesis defense International training "Marine Biodiversity and Conservation" (EMBC) online via Live Streaming Video

From 24 to 27 June, all 105 students currently enrolled in the Joint Master degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (EMBC) and about15 teachers of the seven partner universities, will be in Ghent for the annual thesis event. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the 43 graduating students present their thesis for the general public.


To limit the mobility of the reading committees and to give the opportunity to follow the defenses to the widest audience possible, live streaming of the presentations will be held, similarly as to the previous years. Members of the jury can interact through the video conference or through an interactive chat room. Also the proclamation on June 27 can be watched online.   


As such, the EMBC network aims to reach a wide audience. Based on figures from the previous years and the composition of the students, it is expected that more than a hundred connections will be established ​​from more than 30 countries worldwide. This technical feat is mainly owing to the excellent service provided by the Management Board Information and Communication Technology (Multimedia Hall Campus Sterre, S9) and a large group of enthusiastic employees of the research group Marine Biology.


More information about this event can be found on the EMBC website or by contacting professor Magda Vincx and dr. Tim Deprez who have been coordinating the EMBC programme for the past five years. 

Group picture of the graduating students at a summer school in 2012 in Slovenia. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Defended PhD by Karl Van Ginderdeuren: mesozooplankton in the southern North Sea

The pelagic zone, i.e. the water column from the surface to the bottom of a water body, constitutes the biggest habitat in the world. This water body is not only big, it is also of very high ecological importance, since a vast majority of aquatic species, and more specific fish species, spend at least part of their life in this zone, either as larvae or as adults. The zooplankton -i.e. animals that passively drift in the water column- is typically found in the pelagic zone worldwide.


An update on zooplankton dynamics in the Belgian part of the North Sea (BPNS) is certainly in place: most recent data on the community structure and composition of the zooplankton date from the 1970s, and no thorough studies existed on the feeding ecology of small pelagic fish in the BPNS.


The overall aim of this PhD study was to expand and update our knowledge of the mesozooplankton (0.2-2 mm) in the southern North Sea, and to characterize the trophic role of zooplankton as prey for pelagic fish. The scientific value of this PhD study lies in the fact that we are able to link the detailed in situ plankton results directly to the pelagic fish diet.


Two years of extensive sampling delivered a lot of distribution data. In total, 137 zooplankton taxa are currently found in the BPNS. Nine zooplankton species are newly recorded for the BPNS, but we also lost the calanoid copepod Calanus finmarchicus, a species that has shifted northwards and that has been replaced by Calanus helgolandicus throughout the southern North Sea.


Stomach content analyses point out that only a limited number of zooplankton species dominate the diet of the four pelagic fish in the BPNS. Herring, sprat, mackerel (and to a lesser extent horse mackerel) show a high preference for calanoid copepods, and a selective feeding behavior towards adults and females of these copepods. Yet, we could find no proof of any bottom-up control that zooplankton might exert on the pelagic fish in the BPNS. 


Friday, June 14, 2013

Expedition to Panarea: study of the effects of acidification on marine benthic organisms

In the framework of the European ECO2 project Dr. Katja Guilini of the Marine Biology Research Group participated in an expedition to Panarea, one of the Aeolian Islands in the Mediterranen Sea (June 2-14th, 2013), together with colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Microbiology (Bremen, Germany) and from GEOMAR (Kiel, Germany). 


Volcanic activity causes CO2 gas-escape from the seafloor at scattered places around the island. The high CO2 concentrations increase the acidity of the porewater in the seafloor and as such creates a ‘natural laboratory’ to study the effects of acidification on marine benthic organisms. Since CO2 release is ongoing for several decennia to ages this is a prime location to investigate long-term effects of acidification. This research issue is relevant in both the framework of increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and subsequently higher acidity of the oceans worldwide, and in the framework of the ECO2 project that assesses the possibility and risks of CO2 storage in deeper layers of the seabed as temporarily solution for the alarming increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.


The first focused sampling took place in June 2012. Natural sediments and seagrasses of locations where CO2 escapes as gas bubbles and background (reference) locations were sampled by divers from the HYDRA team (Elba, Italy). The aims were to study the fauna, environmental variables such as granulometry, chloroplast pigment concentrations, total organic carbon, acidity, oxygen concentration etc., and to perform experiments in situ. During the campaign in 2013, the same locations were visited to finish the in situ experiments that were implanted the year before to study the short- and mid-term effect of exposure of fauna to high CO2 concentrations on the one hand and the possibility to re-establish the communities after being exposed. Apart from that environmental variables were measured again to determine the stability of the ‘natural laboratory’ and Dr. Guilini performed experiments in the lab to measure respiration of meiobenthos under acidified and non-acidified conditions.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Biomechanical structure of the seahorse tail as an inspiration for industrial design

On May 28th Tomas Praet defended his PhD entitled 'Biomechanical structure of the seahorse tail as an inspiration for industrial design'.


Millions of years of evolutionary pressure have forced organisms to find suitable solutions for a whole range of real-world problems. Through evolution, small changes in functionality are tested on their fitness, efficiency, and robustness. Engineers are on a daily basis faced by the same problems. Consequently, engineers can find design inspiration in the solutions provided by nature, even for cuttingedge engineering applications.


One example of an organism that adapted to its environment in a very specific way is the seahorse. Most fish use undulatory locomotion: the body and tail perform lateral cyclic motions that propel the fish forward. A smaller amount of fish, including the seahorses, use fin undulation as main source of propulsion. These are usually fish that require high manoeuvrability at low speed. The tail of the seahorse has completely lost its function in locomotion: the animal relies on undulation of the dorsal and pectoral fins for propulsion. The use of fin undulation conveniently renders the seahorse very manoeuvrable in its natural habitat of corals and seagrasses, but also turns it into a relatively slow swimmer. Therefore, seahorses are unlikely to escape any predatory fish. They survive by relying on crypsis: they move slowly, while their colours are often adapted to the environment. They also have an armour plating that covers the
body and tail, which likely increases resilience against predatory bites. Despite the strong and stiff shielding, the seahorse tail is still sufficiently flexible to be used as a prehensile organ. With its tail the seahorse anchors itself to objects and vegetation on the seabed, as to avoid being carried away by strong currents, or to a partner during mating.


The combination of compressive stiffness and ventral bending flexibility is an interesting achievement of the seahorse tail, especially from an engineering point of view. Combining stiffness in one direction with flexibility in another is a common requirement in engineering designs, one that is often difficult to achieve. In this dissertation we therefore study the biomechanical structure of the seahorse tail. Acquiring profound insights in the mechanics involved will provide design inspiration for various engineering applications that require both flexibility and stiffness.