CoP19 through the eyes of a student

Events as Conferences of Parties (CoP) are as important as they are unknown for most people.  Everyone has heard of them but only a few know what it is, how it works and what is clearly discussed EXCEPT of course people that work in the field.

On one hand, I knew how big the opportunity was because of my scientific background and the advice of all the scientists with whom I was talking and working. On the other hand, nor my friends or my family were aware of what it was all about, bringing a lot of skepticism.

At that point I understood the importance of sharing my experience, allowing non-scientific people to understand in what way this event was going to impact their future. Whether we want it or not, those decisions are committing all living beings on this planet: We are linked to every other specie as being a part of the ecosystem that we forget too often about.

Painting at the Convention Center in Panama
© Alexia Dimopoulos

Let’s begin by a quick rundown of what the CoP19 was about. Each CoP (Conference of Parties) has a main topic discussed between the Parties (signatory countries). In this case, it was the 19th meeting of Parties regarding the protection of endangered species across the world. This protection has become a real dimension with the CITES international agreement that enables a regulation aspect to species’ worldwide trade throughout its annexes. The scientific framework of the term “endangered species” is given by the IUCN which is collecting data from scientists around the world to define according to many features which specie must be classified as an endangered one and accordingly needs protection.

For two weeks from morning to evening, the main topic of our conversations was the protection of endangered species: what more could I ask for!

South of Sri Lanka, one of the many landing sites
© Gayashan Arachchige

How did I end up attending the IUCN CoP19?

As part of my Master’s degree, I had the great opportunity this summer to do a three-months internship in Sri Lanka within an NGO called Blue Resources Trust (

They focus their work on marine conservation and devote particular efforts towards sharks and rays of South Asia. Within this framework, they are actively implicated in policy matter regarding the subject thus have participated in the sharks’ proposals submitted at this CoP19. Knowing that I had a great interest in marine policy, they proposed that I would join them in attending the CoP19 as one of the NGO’s members, giving me the possibility to be at the forefront of decision making.

No great surprise, as soon as I arrived there, I had a strong impostor syndrome hovering over my head. It was even stronger realizing that very few junior participants were attending (which I was quite disappointed about) and that I was surrounded by people that I someday aspire to become, not to mention the fact that I was totally lost in all this new world bringing a lot of information.

As the days passed, the syndrome went away and my admiration for those same people was growing bigger and bigger. Let me tell you why and that goes by explaining how things work during CoPs.

“Plenary” session at CoP19 © Alexia Dimopoulos

Every day for two weeks, I attended the so-called “Plenary” sessions during which many proposals are discussed. Those sessions are designed to help Parties make official statements about each proposal and debate before the official vote which also happens in Plenary. From an outsider’s perspective, only politicians and delegates of signatory countries seemed to be involved in the matter. But of course, it is the tiny part of the iceberg that you can actually see.

It might seem obvious for some people, but most of politicians’ statement are entirely written by NGO’s. As a biology student, it felt great to see how much scientists are actually involved in decision-making. Not only are they in the field collecting samples and data, analysing them but also, they are involved in policy processes. They stand by politicians, giving them the data and the scientific context, explaining them why species need protection and how this protection can be implemented.

Presentation table of the implementation tools at CoP19
© Cindy Gonzalez

To give a concrete example, Blue Resources Trust along with several other NGO’s worked over years to come up with the requiem of sharks at Cop19 and managed to make it pass by convincing politicians on the matter. A huge part of their work is represented by the implementation tools that they created to enable stakeholders to regulate shark trade in their countries (

Those implementation tools consist of rapid DNA identification kit, identification guides (based on fins or whole-body carcass) and Non-Detrimental Findings (NDF) software that enables officials to know if the trade of a specie is sustainable in their country. To summarize, they made everything possible. It might not be directly their voice making political statements, representing countries at CoPs and other important gatherings but their work behind the scenes is massive. In this particular case, it led to the protection of over 60 shark species!

I do think this last part is as important as the other ones of being a scientist. At the end, data are relevant only if we do positively change by making use of it and often, to change things you have to step into the policy world. This unavoidably involves a lobbying strategy. That is also something that I learnt there at the CoP19: lobby is not necessarily a bad thing. Scientists trying to convince politicians about environmental/species matter is also a way of lobbying.

Scientists are very often categorized as people working in a lab, working out data and writing specialized articles. As future scientists, it’s important to know that we, students, can have an impact and a voice to change things later. For this to be understood by our young generation, we need to be more involved in this kind of political events. It connects us to the active world by meeting people working elsewhere than in our universities and therefore opens us other doors and opportunities for our career.

But most important thing: the sooner we are involved, the sooner we will be efficient in tackling future challenges.

Fieldwork in a French Polynesian atoll – TROPHIC project

Tetiaroa’s lagoon. © Emma Paul Costesec

 A PhD is full of surprises and one of the firsts for me was to travel to the other side of the world, to French Polynesia, and more specifically to Tetiaroa, Marlon Brando’s atoll, located 60 km North to Tahiti. There, the reefs on the outer slope can be both with a high (~ 40%) and low (~ 5%) coral cover. This is precisely what was interesting for me since I aim to understand how habitat loss influences invertebrate communities inhabiting reefs and how their associated trophic network is subsequently modified.

We left the CRIOBE station (Moorea) early in the morning, caught the first ferry, disembarked in Papeete and after a choppy 2 hours trip on a small motor boat, we finally saw Tetiaroa looming on the horizon. As we got closer, we caught a first glimpse of the atoll : a bright blue water surrounded by several motus, sometimes separated with small ‘hoa’ and inhabited mainly by palm trees, coconut trees, and ‘aito’, the iron wood.

 The atoll is naturally closed, the only way in and out is a small artificial pass in front of Onetahi, the motu on which we were to spend the next two weeks. Once landed, we were welcomed by Loulou and Antonin from the Tetiaroa Society, the island’s small scientific field station. They showed us our rooms, the lab and brought us on a small tour of the motu.

The next day, Alexandre from the CRIOBE joined our team to support us on the field. The first step was to define my sampling sites. I needed both high and low coral cover as a reflect of the reef’s health; hence we went on a manta tow tour from Oroatera to Reiono, via the west side of the atoll. We selected two sites, ~ 2 km apart from each other but both on the North side of the island, respectively in front of Tiara unu and Oroatera.

Once the sites were defined, the real work started. The daily routine was to wake up at 5 am, get the sampling and diving equipments ready to leave around 6:30 and be on the site thirty minutes later. We used to do one or two dives and then to go back at the Tetiaroa field station around 11 am. The rest of the day was dedicated to the samples treatment in the lab.

Underwater, I retrieved Pocillopora colonies, according to their state : alive, dead and dead with algae. I took a picture of each sampled colony in a 1 m2 quadrat and then wrapped the head in a ziplock to prevent inverts from escaping while it was being chiseled, and eventually secured with a serflex. At last, I did a 20 m2 photogrammetry around the colony to assess its close environment.

Of course, this routine was every once in a while interrupted by unexpected encounters …

Back in the lab, colonies were treated separately. Each one was soaked in a basket of fresh water : the inverts obviously weren’t fond of the change and tried to swim away from the colony, which made them easy to collect. They were then sorted according to their size thanks to several sieves, in four different categories (S, M, L and XL). Pictures of each invert samples were taken, the biomass was measured and a photogrammetry of the coral head as well, to assess its structure.

Large fraction of an alive Pocillopora colony, sampled in Tiara unu. © Alexandre Mercière

After 11 days, 42 coral colonies and 218 invert samples, the mission was over and left us very tired but overall very happy. I headed back to Moorea and stored my samples at -80°C, where they now wait to be extracted and sequenced !

Sunrise above Tetiaroa’s lagoon, on our last day. © Emma Paul Costesec

Fieldwork to Gran Canaria (ULPGC, ECOAQUA Lab.)

For the last field mission of my PhD thesis (Year 4, serious things to come!), I was lucky enough to travel to Gran Canaria to join a great team led by Dr Francisco Otero-Ferrer from the Parque Cientifico y Tecnologico Marino de Taliarte (ECOAQUA lab, Universidad Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Gran Canaria is one of the seven islands composing the Spanish volcanic archipelago of the Canary Islands. It is located in the Atlantic Ocean and became famous as “the Land of endless spring” for its warm weather all year round. I landed on the island on the 29th of September … perfect time to skip some of our most rainy months here in Belgium (lucky me!)

No joke, we decided to work on this project in October-November as sea surface temperatures around the Island are maximal during these months, which is better for our experiment. Our aim is to assess the effects of increasing temperatures on antipatharians (black corals) from the Canary Islands. For this purpose, I was delighted to be working with Adriana Gouveia from Madeira (Portugal) who is doing her master thesis on the subject. Working in pairs is a real plus, allowing us to take turns in the daily tasks (tank cleaning, coral feeding, daily inspection, etc.) but also to be twice more efficient and gaining time. It was also an opportunity for me to train her in the techniques I’ve learned throughout all my fieldwork. Plus, there is always more in two brains than in one and I have no doubt experimentalists know how helpful this can become when work piles up!

We went diving to collect black coral fragments from different colonies at 25m depth. We quickly found several big colonies of unbranched antipatharians. Fran was cutting the fragments and I was taking care of the ziplocks to make sure that we would not lose track of the origin of each fragment. We had some current which made the conditions to collect more challenging but at the end, I think we were amongst the lucky divers as we latter found out that the waves made life harder for those waiting for us on the surface. The story goes that medicine for seasickness were not enough…

Once back to the lab, we directly prepared the nubbin and placed them in aquaria to left them recover from the stress of collection. Later on, we were able to collect new fragments at 40m (Gran Canaria) and 80m depth (Lanzarote). This was possible owing to the collaboration with the ongoing project B-CHARMED (, which aims at exploring underwater forests of black corals from Macaronesia, using the island of Lanzarote as a case study. All the fragments were used to evaluate the effects of heat stress on antipatharians, by comparing the response of populations from distinct depths.

Results are currently being analysed… updates in the coming months!

Once more, many thanks for the financial support provided by the FNRS and the RBZS institutes in Belgium, as well as to all participants involved in the project: Fran, Adriana, Philippe. Thanks to the precious technical divers: Fran (ULPGC), Fernando Tuya (ULPGC), Fernando Espino (ULPGC), Lorenzo Bramanti (OOB, France), Lucas Terrana (UMons, Belgium). Special thanks to Martial, Sandra, Francesca, Doreen.

New publication: the asteroid species of Lamarck (Jangoux 2021)

Zoologist Péron and artist Lesueur, both members of the scientific staff of the Baudin expedition to the Southern Lands (September 1800-March 1804), collected during their voyage 36 different species of asteroids. This is what wrote Lamarck in a report made in June 1804. This number was clearly reduced by Lamarck himself who, in his 1816 publication, listed only 15 species from the South Seas in the Paris Museum collection. However, the different asteroids collected during the expedition were drawn by Lesueur (water colours and pencil drawings) who thus realised a real pictorial register. Lesu- eur’s drawings are housed in the Le Havre Museum. Due to their realism and precision, the drawings make it easy to identify the species. Confrontation of Lamarck’s report (1804) and publication (1816) with Lesueur’s drawings (done between 1802 and 1804) gives a new, more precise idea of the impor- tance of the collection of South Seas asteroids brought back to France and allows to reliably count the number of new species that it contained. Also, this makes it possible to complete the often too brief descriptions of some Lamarckian species and to clarify their status. Eleven taxonomic changes are thus proposed here: Asterias calcar var. quinqueangula is synonymized with Parvulastra exigua (Lamarck, 1816), Asterias calcitrapa var. 1 with Bollonaster pectinatus (Sladen, 1883), Asterias calcitrapa var. 2 withAstropecten vappa Müller & Troschel, 1843, Asterias nodosa var. 3 with Protoreaster lincki (Blainville, 1830), Asterias pentagonula with Tosia australis Gray, 1840, Asterias pleyadella with Protoreaster sp., Asterias punctata with Asteropsis carinifera (Lamarck, 1816), Asterias rosacea var. lobis senis with Anse- ropoda sp., Asteriscus setaceus with Paranepanthia grandis (H. L. Clark, 1928), Astrogonium lamarckii Müller & Troschel, 1842 with Goniaster tessellatus (Lamarck, 1816) and Asterias cuspidata is moved to the genus Mediaster Stimpson, 1857 as Mediaster cuspidatus (Lamarck, 1816) n. comb.

You can discover this new publication here

New paper on the diversity of Pterasteridae

A new article by Quentin Jossart et al. has just been published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. Our paper uses an integrative approach in discriminating species, for taxa characterized by the difficulty to identify species based on morphological characters. In this study, we combine genetics and morphology to assess the diversity of Pterasteridae, a sea star family diversified in deep-sea and polar environments. Because of their derived anatomy and the frequent loss of characters during preservation, Pterasteridae are a suitable case for an integrative study. The molecular identification of 191 specimens (mostly from the Southern Ocean) suggests 26–33 species in three genera (Diplopteraster, Hymenaster and Pteraster), which match the morphological identification in 54–62% of cases. The mismatches are either different molecular units that are morphologically indistinguishable (e.g. Pteraster stellifer units 2 and 4) or, conversely, nominal species that are genetically identical (e.g. Hymenaster coccinatus/ densus/praecoquis). Several species are shared between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (e.g. Pteraster jordani/affinis). In conclusion, the taxonomic status of some groups is confirmed, but for others we find the need to re-evaluate the taxonomy at both genus and species levels. This work significantly increases the DNA barcode library of the Southern Ocean species and merges taxonomic information into an identification key that could become a baseline for future studies (

You can findout more about the paper here.

We’re hiring!

In the framework of the collaborative FED-tWIN research programme between Belgian federal institutes and universities by the Belgian Federal Science Policy Office (BELSPO), the Project SO-BOMP (Southern Ocean Biodiversity Observations, Models and Policy) is recruiting a post-doctoral candidate (for a period of minimum 10 years). The position is shared between our Lab and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

You can find the details of the offer here.

Tracking paper published in Nature

The Marine Biology Lab (Bruno Danis) was involved in a publication of in Nature in March 2020. Bruno Danis was a member of the data processing and analyzing team and participated in the drafting of the manuscript.

The paper is the result of a large data analysis which has direct implications for the conservation of large predators from the Southern Ocean. We assembled tracking data for 17 species to model Areas of Ecological Significance. Simultaneously, the data has been published in Open Access in the journal Scientific Data.

Abstract: Southern Ocean ecosystems are under pressure from resource exploitation and climate change. Mitigation requires the identification and protection of Areas of Ecological Significance (AESs), which have so far not been determined at the ocean-basin scale. Here, using assemblage-level tracking of marine predators, we identify AESs for this globally important region and assess current threats and protection levels. Integration of more than 4,000 tracks from 17 bird and mammal species reveals AESs around sub-Antarctic islands in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and over the Antarctic continental shelf. Fishing pressure is disproportionately concentrated inside AESs, and climate change over the next century is predicted to impose pressure on these areas, particularly around the Antarctic continent. At present, 7.1% of the ocean south of 40°S is under formal protection, including 29% of the total AESs. The establishment and regular revision of networks of protection that encompass AESs are needed to provide long-term mitigation of growing pressures on Southern Ocean ecosystems.

New ecoregionalization paper published

A new paper on benthic ecoregionalization of the Southern Ocean has just been published in Global Change Biology, by Salomé Fabri-Ruiz et al.

The Southern Ocean (SO) is among the regions on Earth that are undergoing regionally the fastest environmental changes. The unique ecological features of its marine life make it particularly vulnerable to the multiple effects of climate change. A network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) has started to be implemented in the SO to protect marine ecosystems. However, considering future predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the relevance of current, static, MPAs may be questioned under future scenarios. In this context, the ecoregionaliza- tion approach can prove promising in identifying well-delimited regions of common species composition and environmental settings. These so-called ecoregions are ex- pected to show similar biotic responses to environmental changes and can be used to define priority areas for the designation of new MPAs and the update of their current delimitation. In the present work, a benthic ecoregionalization of the entire SO is proposed for the first time based on abiotic environmental parameters and the distribution of echinoid fauna, a diversified and common member of Antarctic benthic ecosystems. A novel two-step approach was developed combining species distribution modeling with Random Forest and Gaussian Mixture modeling from spe- cies probabilities to define current ecoregions and predict future ecoregions under IPCC scenarios RCP 4.5 and 8.5. The ecological representativity of current and pro- posed MPAs of the SO is discussed with regard to the modeled benthic ecoregions. In all, 12 benthic ecoregions were determined under present conditions, they are representative of major biogeographic patterns already described. Our results show that the most dramatic changes can be expected along the Antarctic Peninsula, in East Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands under both IPCC scenarios. Our results advocate for a dynamic definition of MPAs, they also argue for improving the repre- sentativity of Antarctic ecoregions in proposed MPAs and support current proposals of Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources for the creation of Antarctic MPAs.

You can access the paper online:

Black corals from the mesophotic waters of French Polynesia – or – How to be working hard when everyone thinks you’re taking holidays?

Let me ask you: what does first come to your mind when thinking about French Polynesia? Pristine white sandy beaches, luxurious island landscapes, turquoise waters, tropical fruits and fancy colourful cocktails?

The island of Moorea, French Polynesia

Well, it is! But this time, I travelled to French Polynesia to discover a completely different environment that is just starting to be explored thanks to novel technologies. This environment is called “mesophotic coral ecosystem” and has been receiving more and more attention in the recent years. Mesophotic coral ecosystems are found in tropical and subtropical regions at depths ranging from 30-40 meters and extending to over 150 meters. They are populated by a diversity of organisms such as corals, sponges, algae and fishes. 

From September to December 2019, a special collaboration between the scientists from the CRIOBE (Centre de Recherches Insulaires et Observatoire de l’Environnement) and the team of technical divers and explorers of Under The Pole allowed the exploration of a specific site on the outer reef of the island of Moorea from the surface to 120 meters depth. This project, led by Dr Laetitia Hédouin, gathered scientists from different field of research and with different expertise, allowing the complete characterization of the site from the environmental conditions (light, temperature) to the organismal biodiversity and abundance. 

The Under The Pole family (left) ; a diver at mesophotic depth (right)

Collecting samples and applying scientific diving techniques at such depth is challenging and requires a lot of preparation to ensure the security of the divers but also, to be able to do everything planned in the timeframe available. At 120 meters depth, the divers were able to stay for a maximum of 20 minutes, so every gesture has to be thought in advance to make the best out of that time. As part of my PhD research, I got the chance to participate in this special project and I focused on studying the antipatharians encountered by the divers on the site.

Antipatharians, also known as black corals, are anthozoans hexacorallians of distinct morphologies. They can be found from the tropics to the poles and studies have revealed their presence up to 8600 km deep. Despite this large distribution, they remain very poorly studied, mainly due to the logistical constraints associated with their study. Black corals can form dense “beds/forests” in several parts of the world and have been shown to play an important ecological role, in part due to their interactions with many organisms. In French Polynesia, the presence of black corals is known by local populations, in part because they have been fished for the jewellery industry in the past. Nonetheless, no scientific description of the assemblage of black coral species and distribution has ever been made in French Polynesia, and this represented one of my objective during this field trip (Results coming soon …).

A black coral in Tahiti (left) ; Map of the distribution of black corals in the world (right)

Another main aspect of my mission in the CRIOBE implied the maintenance of mesophotic antipatharians in aquaria to get a first insight into the metabolism of these organisms. We submitted them to different temperature treatments and evaluated their responses to heat stress through a combination of approaches, from a physiological to a subcellular biological organization level. Our preliminary results are already quite exciting… but this shall be for a latter post!

I would like to thank the Fonds Léopold III pour l’Exploration de la Nature for their financial support in this project. I also thank all the team from Under The Pole, all my colleagues and friends from the CRIOBE and all the wonderful persons I had the chance to meet and share moments with during this mission: Laetitia, Gonzalo, Yann, Alex, Caro, Anne, Fred, Benoit, Frank, Yannick, Françoise, Fabio, Lorenzo and his pastas, Kim, Ian, José, Alex and their cute baby black tips, Adeline, Julien, Camille, Will, Rohan, Zara (the Australian team), Elénonore and Aude, Pascal, Gilles, Cécile, Elina, Annaïg, Minouche & Minette. I hope to see you all very soon, either sharing a cold beer with fries in Belgium, or a pineapple juice with “poisson cru au lait de coco” in Moorea…

Mathilde Godefroid

New SDM paper out!

A new research paper by Charlène Guillaumot et al. “Broad-scale species distribution models applied to data-poor areas” has just been published in Progress in Oceanography. The paper specifically addresses Species Distribution Models, as they have been increasingly used over the past decades to characterise the spatial distribution and the ecological niche of various taxa. Validating predicted species distribution is important, especially when producing broad-scale models (i.e. at continental or oceanic scale) based on limited and spatially aggregated presence-only records. In the present study, several model calibration methods are compared and guidelines are provided to perform relevant SDMs using a Southern Ocean marine species, the starfish Odontaster validus Koehler, 1906, as a case study. The effect of the spatial aggregation of presence-only records on modelling performance is evaluated and the relevance of a target-background sampling procedure to correct for this effect is assessed. The accuracy of model validation is estimated using k-fold random and spatial cross- validation procedures. Finally, we evaluate the relevance of the Multivariate Environmental Similarity Surface (MESS) index to identify areas in which SDMs accurately interpolate and conversely, areas in which models extrapolate outside the environmental range of occurrence records. Results show that the random cross-validation procedure (i.e. a widely applied method, for which training
and test records are randomly selected in space) tends to over-estimate model performance when applied to spatially aggregated datasets. Spatial cross-validation procedures can compensate for this over-estimation effect but different spatial cross-validation procedures must be tested for their ability to reduce over-fitting while providing relevant validation scores. Model predictions show that SDM generalisation is limited when working with aggregated datasets at broad spatial scale. The MESS index calculated in our case study show that over half of the predicted area is highly uncertain due to extrapolation. Our work provides methodological guidelines to generate accurate model assessments at broad spatial scale when using limited and aggregated presence-only datasets. We highlight the importance of taking into account the presence of spatial aggregation in species records and using non-random cross-validation procedures. Evaluating the best calibration procedures and correcting for spatial biases should be considered ahead the modelling exercise to improve modelling relevance.

The full paper can be found here.