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FWO projects granted to GCE: new research on ticks, viruses and coastal marshes

On December 16th 2021, 3 new FWO fundamental research projects were awarded to the research groups of the Global Change Ecology Centre.

In the Evolutionary Ecology research team, 2 projects were awarded. In the first project, Erik Matthysen, together with Dieter Heylen (Institute of Tropical Medicine) and Hein Sprong (RIVM, The Netherlands), will investigate how host condition affects the infectiousness of ticks. They specifically envisage research on the bird-tick-Borrelia model system. Great tits are important reservoirs for Borrelia garinii, one of the main causal agents of Lyme disease. How do individual great tits differ in their capacity to transmit the bacteria to feeding ticks? How does this vary through the annual cycle? Can stressful episodes reactivate infections in birds that previously were not infective? This research questions are essential in predicting the persistence and spread of infections in natural systems (and potential spill-over to humans).

The second research project at EVECO will be led by Sophie Gryseels. In a cooperation with Philippe Lemey (KULeuven), Erik Verheyen (RBINS) and Didier Van den Spiegel (Royal Museum for Central Africa), the team will map the epidemiological potential of zoonotic viruses in the African tropics. More specifically, the project will focus on the variability in capacity to host viruses between different mammal groups. They will also investigate whether certain viruses have a higher potential to infect multiple animal species. The project will result in valuable new knowledge on the relative likelihood that viruses will emerge in new host species, such as humans. After two years of Covid-19, we all realize the relevance of such information.

In the ECOBE research group, the research project of Stijn Temmerman was financed. It will focus on coastal marshes: these ecosystems are among the most efficient ecosystems for soil carbon storage worldwide. Climate change however is severely affecting coastal marshes, e.g. through the impact of sea level rise. This results in quite some uncertainty regarding the future of the carbon stored in marsh soils and sediments. Stijn Temmerman will investigate how increased flooding of coastal marshes will affect the accumulation of different forms of organic carbon. More specifically, the project will compare organic-rich and mineral-rich coastal marshes. The results are essential to quantify the potential changes in coastal marshes' carbon storage as sea level rises, both at a local and global scale.

Frederik Van de Perre wins Henri Schouteden award

Frederik Van de Perre, who did his Phd research at the research group Evolutionary Ecology (Global Change Ecology Centre) has won the Award Henri Schouteden, a bi-annual price of KVAB. He won the award for his research on the relation between biodiversity and carbon storage in tropical rainforest. More specifically, he focused on the Congolese rainforest, the second largest rainforest in the world. It is one of the most biodiverse regions worldwide. The Congolese rainforest experienced strong changes in climate throughout its geological history. In his PhD research, Frederik found a strong impact of geological climate changes on the local biodiversity. This is relevant in our understanding of the impact of current, ongoing climate change.

But tropical forests are not only merely impacted by climate change: they also play an essential role in Earth’s climate regulation themselves, as they take up and store large amounts of atmospheric carbon. Preserving and restoring these carbon stores is essential in the challenge of keeping climate warming within acceptable limits.

Yet, the relation between carbon storage and biodiversity in the African rainforest has received relatively little attention from scientists. Often it is simply assumed that both go hand in hand, and that more biodiversity also means higher carbon storage. During his PhD, Frederik investigated this in more detail. He came to surprising conclusions. He did find that tree biodiversity and carbon storage usually correlate. However, for multiple other plant and animal species this was not the case. Often, forests with large biodiversity do not have the highest carbon storage. This means that when restoring or preserving rainforest, one needs to consider both. One cannot simply assume that by focusing on optimizing one, the other will just co-vary.

Agriculture and biodiversity conservation objectives do not have to be at odds

Crop and livestock production are among the main drivers of biodiversity loss globally. Due to the ever-increasing demand of land for food production, reverting global biodiversity decline and feeding the world is one of the greatest challenges of our time. A new study finds that integrating food production and biodiversity conservation within a careful single spatial planning framework can make this seemingly impossible challenge possible.

One in four species are currently at risk of extinction, mostly because of our current unsustainable way of life. In response to this crisis, the Convention on Biological Diversity is drafting a comprehensive strategy aimed at first slowing down and then reverting biodiversity trends. They aim to achieve this through a set of 20 targets designed to address the drivers of biodiversity loss in both land and water systems.

What makes implementing such targets difficult, is the fact that allocating areas for conservation cannot be done without accounting for aspects of rural development and the increasing demand for farmland products. Treating conservation and agriculture objectives separately in independent planning processes leads to higher conflicts and poorer outcomes, either for biodiversity or for local livelihoods, depending on which aspect is given more importance. In a new study, multiple authors, including Constance Fastré (Global Change Ecology, Research group Evolutionary Ecology and Institute of Zoology, London) propose a new planning method to reconcile both.

‘What makes implementing biodiversity targets difficult, is the fact that allocating areas for conservation cannot be done without accounting for aspects of rural development and the increasing demand for farmland products.’

“The traditional paradigm in conservation planning has always been to identify areas important for conservation. When considered at all, socioeconomic factors are typically accounted for as either costs or constraints to conservation actions,” explains IIASA Biodiversity, Ecology, and Conservation Research Group Leader Piero Visconti.

“Similarly, research studies investigating rural development often treat areas of biodiversity value, such as areas with high species richness, as spatial constraints to agricultural activities.” This typical process, where in both case achieving one objective is considered as being hampered by the other, is highly in-efficient in achieving synergies.

Researchers now propose a single planning process to plan for both agricultural activities and biodiversity conservation, aiming to achieve both sets of objectives at once. For example, the researchers actually found that careful integration of both allows to implement major biodiversity improvements on agricultural land, with biodiversity increasing 5-fold for carefully planned agriculture compared to agriculture planned without considering biodiversity. “We thus find that it is quite realistic to dedicate at least 60% of land to biodiversity conservation by protecting or restoring areas that are of highest value to species conservation without compromising food production. This contrasts to earlier socioeconomic studies which raised alarm about the huge agricultural costs for ambitious conservation goals. The big difference here is that we do not pre-assume that areas dedicated for biodiversity conservation cannot at all be used for food production,” says lead author Constance Fastré.

The study lends strong support for the Convention on Biological Diversity Global Biodiversity Framework’s post-2020 Target 1: "Ensure that all land and sea areas globally are under integrated biodiversity-inclusive spatial planning addressing land- and sea-use change, retaining existing intact and wilderness area". It is however crucial that these targets are pursued in tandem, as only then, can biodiversity conservation objectives be achieved at no expense to the livelihoods of farmland communities through integrated planning.

“It is realistic to dedicate at least 60% of land to biodiversity conservation by protecting or restoring areas that are of highest value to species conservation without compromising food production. This contrasts to earlier socioeconomic studies which raised alarm about the huge agricultural costs for ambitious conservation goals.”

“Conservation organizations at all levels need to work with the primary sector to avoid being in conflict with forestry, mining, farming, and other extractive and productive industries. As this study and others in the marine system have shown, rather than fighting bad planning decisions, it is possible to meet primary socioeconomic needs and biodiversity objectives together through joint spatial planning processes,” Visconti concludes.

TURQUOISE - Blue-Green strategies for climate change adaptation

Droughts and water scarcity will become “the new normal” in Flanders. In recent years a lot of efforts went into different measures, but quite often their effectiveness has not been quantified. The Turquoise project will focus on measures that have a high potential for upscaling.

Recent summers have been the driest of the last decades. There is ample evidence that similar or intense droughts and water scarcity will become “the new normal” in the future in Flanders. In addition, climate change increases rainfall extremes, which results in more floods. To achieve a future-proof water landscape, a combined management of periods of ‘too much water’ and ‘too little water’ is crucial. We need to sustainably and safely preserve water when it is available, and use it to overcome periods of water scarcity.

With the Blue Deal, Flemish policy is rapidly evolving towards such integrated water management. Still, current practices do not succeed in significantly reducing the risks. This is where the new Turquoise project comes in. Turquoise is a new FWO-SBO funded research project, that aims to address the key challenges of the water management through effective blue-green adaptation.

Maps for implementation

Jan Staes (UAntwerpen, coordinator of the project): “Typical blue-green solutions such as infiltration ponds, wetland restoration, swales, buffer strips, mulching or re-meandering are claimed to be effective against droughts and floods. But for many of these measures, their “effectiveness” has not been quantified. It appears that a lot of the effectiveness, really depends on where they are implemented. So we will develop guidelines and maps for implementation. The second big question is whether such measures will be able to prevent that a meteorological drought (lack of rain) develops into a hydrological droughts (low groundwater levels and river flow).”

The past years, a lot of effort was put in the development of an “assessment framework for priority water use”. That framework was developed to make more objective decisions during hydrological droughts and helps to better  allocate water resources to minimize ecological, social and economic damage. This project focusses on the solutions to prevent such harsh decisions. We cannot control the weather, but we can make better use of precipitation surplus by storing this in soils, aquifers and wetlands.

Fragmented visions

Jan Staes: “There is scarce knowledge on how to optimally combine all these measures on a larger scale. Within TURQUOISE we will focus on measures that have a high potential for upscaling.”

Additionally, most initiatives are currently driven from a single sectoral viewpoint, leading to missed synergies and opportunities. This results in fragmented visions and implementations, and ultimately a non-resilient water landscape. If the Blue Deal wants to achieve optimal implementation, we need to improve the design of blue-green adaptation strategies, but also facilitate the planning and implementation process.

Jeroen De Waegemaker (ILVO, project partner): “That is why we explicitly also address a socio-economic component to quantify investment needs, costs and benefits. TURQUOISE will thus be able to assess how we can achieve a multi-level governance integration, endorsed by all stakeholders.”

Various pilot cases

Patrick Willems (KULEUVEN, project partner): “There are two crucial questions to be answered. “How long will the retained and infiltrated water remain available within the water system? And obviously, the next question is “how much of such measures we really need to prevent hydrological droughts”? How can we really make a difference at the catchment scale? For that we need hydrological models that can incorporate these measures. While this may sound trivial, it is not. It is a huge challenge to implement such small-scale measures within catchment models.”

Jan Cools, research manager at IMDO (UAntwerpen): “Various pilot cases were identified during the proposal preparation, covering different subsystems of the water landscape and involving different sectors. At the same time, the stakeholder landscape was consulted, ensuring eagerness to collaborate. This will be crucial to achieve scientifically sound methodologies that are also societally achievable.”

There is a high level of support and engagement from various organizations. They were asked to propose pilot cases during the preparation stage. The next step is to select the most promising pilots.

Turquoise is financed through the FWO-SBO project scheme, and will run from 2021-2024. The partnership is composed of:

-Jan Staes and Patrick Meire (Ecosystem Management Research Group, Global Change Ecology Center, UAntwerpen)

-Steven Van Passel (Environmental Economics research team)

-Jan Cools (Institute for sustainable development, UAntwerpen)

-Patrick Willems & Vincent Wolfs  (Hydraulics and Geotechnics Unit, KULeuven)

Jan Vanderborght is professor for soil physics and soil remediation at the division of soil and water management of the department of earth and environmental sciences at the KU Leuven.

-Sarah Garré, Els Belmans and Jeroen De Waegemaker (Social Sciences Unit, ILVO)

Population of Eastern Chimpanzees Discovered in Remote Congolese Mountain Forests

A Belgian-Congolese research team has discovered and documented a community of eastern chimpanzees in three small mountain forests in eastern Congo, near Lake Albert. They counted 283 chimpanzee nests in 18 km2 of forest, and estimate that there are 4,6 chimpanzees per km2. The eastern chimpanzee is endangered. More and more forest is turned into agricultural land. The researchers propose authorities to protect these relict mountain forests in the Albertine Rift and involving local communities from the start.

In East-Congo, in the Province of Ituri, near Lake Albert, lies a mosaic of 20 small montane forests fragments, comprising a total surface of 70 km2. This patchwork of forests is called the RAFALE landscape (Relict Altitude Forests Fragments of the Albert Lake Escarpment). In three selected forest fragments, 18 km2 in total, a Belgian and Congolese research team (including Erik Verheyen, researcher Evolutionary Ecology, Global Change Ecology Centre) discovered and documented a surviving community of eastern chimpanzees. The eastern chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) is an endangered subspecies.

Touching Discovery

In 2015 biologist Anne Laudisoit (University of Antwerp and now EcoHealth Alliance) was doing research on infectious diseases in the area, when she and local guide Otis Kpanyogo heard chimpanzee cries in a very small patch of forest. In the two following years she led several multinational expedition teams to observe the chimpanzee population. With camera traps the researchers documented 42 weaned chimpanzees and 10 infants. They walked transects - routes along which observations are made - and counted the chimpanzee nests: 283 in 18 km2. In this way they could estimate the chimpanzee density in those three isolated forests: about 4,6 chimpanzees per km2. That’s more than in comparable forest patches in other regions.‘Having these unknown and undocumented chimpanzees in front of you, and on camera, was just an incredible discovery, and touched every team member’, says Anne Laudisoit, who – together with photojournalist Caroline Thirion – produced a documentary about the chimpanzee community, entitled: Mbudha, in the chimpanzees footsteps.

Protecting Chimpanzees

This RAFALE chimpanzee community, including the Mbudha community in the three forests investigated, is endangered as more and more forest is turned into agricultural land – by slash-and-burn – to grow cassava, groundnuts, beans, maize and sorghum and feed the densely populated communities in the area. The authors of this study hope that authorities will recognize the RAFALE landscape as a new Chimpanzee Conservation Unit. They would like to see local communities assisted in the design of a sustainable conservation plan for the benefit of both people and wildlife. ‘These small forests are sacks full of life’, says biologist Erik Verheyen (University of Antwerp and Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences). ‘The protection of this area would also help the conservation of the vulnerable Oustalet’s red colobus monkey and the endangered pangolins as well as 26 other mammal species we recorded in this area.’

The study of the Mbudha chimpanzees and their habitat has only just begun. This Spring 2021, Laudisoit (funded by a National Geographic Grant to pursue the explorations) and a team of biologists are undertaking a new expedition to the area and already observed another 15 chimpanzees. One of the goals is to understand how the Mbudha population is genetically connected to or isolated from others in the region.The Congolese and Belgian researchers involved in this study published their results in the journal Conservation Science and Practice. The team consisted of biologists from Kisangani University (UNIKIS), Centre de Surveillance de la Biodiversité (CSB), Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), University of Antwerp (UAntwerp), Antwerp Zoo Centre for Research and Conservation (CRC), Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) and EcoHealth Alliance.

Firefly tourism takes flight, sparking wonder and concern

Firefly beetles rank among the world’s most charismatic creatures, with luminous courtship displays that have now turned them into a popular attraction for wildlife tourists. In a new review, Tufts University biologist Sara Lewis and her colleagues reveal that an estimated 1 million people travel each year to witness bioluminescent performances starring some two dozen different firefly species around the world.

Writing in Conservation Science and Practice, the authors point out that this unique, insect-based tourism can bring economic, social, and psychological benefits to local communities and tourists alike. But without adequate protections in place, this burgeoning recreational activity threatens to extinguish some local firefly populations. In recent years, the number of tourists has skyrocketed at several sites in Mexico, India, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and the United States. “In Mexico, the rapid growth of firefly tourism over the past decade is thrilling but also alarming” says co-author Raphael De Cock (Global Change Ecology Centre, UAntwerpen, Research Group Evolutionary Ecology). “We’re glad people can experience one of the world’s greatest natural wonders. But we also want to make sure the fireflies are still around for future generations to enjoy.”

Working as part of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Firefly Specialist Group, the authors provide the first comprehensive review to illuminate this growing global phenomenon. Especially popular are displays created by several kinds of synchronous fireflies found in Southeast Asia and North America, where hundreds or thousands of firefly males captivate females – and tourists, too – by all flashing their lights together in unison. According to Thai researcher Dr. Anchana Thancharoen, “With such mesmerizing lights, the firefly display trees make tourists fall in love at first sight.”

Aimed at site managers, tour guides, and tourists, the report highlights the need to recognize ecological requirements across all firefly life stages. To promote the breeding success of firefly adults, sites should minimize light pollution: bright lights from buildings, vehicles, flashlights, and even cell phones can disrupt firefly courtship rituals.

Diaphanes lampyroides firefly display at a tourist site in Chiayi County, Taiwan. Photo Credit: Hua-Te Fang

Protection of nearby habitat also plays an essential role. Fireflies spend most of their life cycle in a juvenile, larval stage. These juveniles require several months or even years to develop into their adult form and, depending on the species, spend this time living belowground, in leaf litter or sometimes underwater. The authors describe former firefly sites along mangrove rivers where commercial development and excessive motorboat traffic have degraded riverbank habitat that had been essential for supporting firefly larvae. At other sites, firefly populations are threatened by too many tourists inadvertently trampling females and degrading larval habitats. Whether managed by governments or run by commercial enterprises, well-managed tourism should educate tourists to become allies in protecting firefly populations. “People get so caught up in watching the show, they don’t realize that by walking around they might be tromping on the next firefly generation” explains co-author Lynn Faust.

Fireflies can also be a gateway bug to get tourists interested in conserving many other insects, which are essential building blocks for healthy ecosystems. By providing practical guidelines for sustainable tourism, the authors remain optimistic that this activity can promote economic and social well-being within local communities while also protecting firefly populations. As co-author Dr. Wan F.A. Jusoh concludes, “Local communities are the guardians of fireflies, and their stories and local knowledge carry the power to help protect them.”

Tourism threatens many stages in the firefly life cycle.

New data platform for bird population research launched

UAntwerpen played essential role in building the data platforms, that brings together ecological data for more than 1 million individual birds.

Long data time-series are invaluable for ecological research. But to achieve this value, they need to be easy to find and easy to access. The Dutch research institute NIOO recently launched a new data platform for bird research, which was presented in The Journal of Animal Ecology. The research group Evolutionary Ecology (EVECO, Global Change Ecology Centre) played an essential role in the creation of the new biology tool.

The platform hosts data of 19 bird species and more than 1.5 million individual birds, and it is growing fast. Erik Matthysen (EVECO): “Population research by the tagging of birds and the tracking of their nesting ecology is done in multiple institutes, resulting in a treasure of comparable data. However, real value becomes available if we go beyond the usual practice, where every researcher uses their own data system, own data codes and own data definitions. The unique aspect of this new database is that it brings together all these data in a ready-to-use, compatible format, making it also easy for researchers to enter their data.”

This provides good opportunities to better study and understand geographical patterns, or to link population trends to climate change or urbanisation, comparing multiple bird species. In one of the first studies,  part of the data was used to show that multiple bird species cannot adapt quickly enough to changes in seasonality. The new, large database will be a strong catalyser for more in depth research.

Measurement towers contribute to climate research in Europe and worldwide

In November 2020, the Plants and Ecosystems research group (part of the Global Change Ecology Centre) was rewarded for five years of hard work. PLECO is operating three “flux towers”, measurement towers that continuously measure the greenhouse gas exchange between the atmosphere and ecosystems. In November 2020 the three flux towers were officially certified by ICOS, the Integrated Carbon Observation System.

In 2015 Belgium joined ICOS, a European measurement network monitoring the greenhouse gas concentrations and exchanges in Europe. The data collected by the network are used to study how climate change effects ecosystems, and vice versa how climate change is being influenced by nature. Ecosystems have the capacity to absorb a large part of the CO2 emitted by human activities, and are therefore important allies in our fight against climate change.

In 2018, for example, ICOS conducted a large scale study to assess the effects of the extreme dry and hot summer of 2018 on ecosystem functioning. The results were quite alarming. While normally forests absorb CO2, forming a buffer against climate change, they actually emitted CO2 in the summer of 2018, thereby becoming CO2 sources.

Similarly the ICOS data were used last spring in another study looking into the effects of the first Covid-19 lockdown on  greenhouse gas emissions. From March 2020 until the end of April the emissions were significantly reduced, proving that changes in  mobility and behaviour have an immediate effect on emission levels and in the long term on climate change itself (see Figure 1). The knowledge generated by such studies is key to formulating effective policies, aimed at slowing and stopping the impact of climate change worldwide.

Average daily emissions of CO2 from February 5th to May 6th 2020 (red area) and average of the previous years during the same period (grey area). The dark-orange horizontal bars cover the periods of official lockdowns while the light-orange bars indicate periods of partial lockdown or general restrictions (e.g. schools closed, personal contact reductions, mobility constraints).

The data collected by the ICOS measurement network are “open source”: this means that they can be used for free by anyone in the world. By doing so, ICOS aims to become a catalyst for climate research. The data are standardised and certified. The researchers operating the flux towers must pass a complex procedure of selection, standardisation and quality control before they are admitted to the network. PLECO upgraded two existing flux towers, located in a poplar plantation in Lochristi and an urban forest in Brasschaat respectively, and constructed a third and brand new measurement station in National Park de Hoge Kempen in Maasmechelen. The towers have to generate continuous and reliable data in all weather circumstances and at the most challenging locations.

In November and after many technical and logistical challenges, the General Assembly of ICOS finally approved the certification and accession of the Brasschaat flux tower to ICOS. In the spring of 2020 the towers of Lochristi and Maasmechelen were certified in the same way. All three stations of PLECO have now officially become part of the ICOS measurement network and will actively contribute to the worldwide research and fight against climate change.

This is a huge milestone for the ICOS team of PLECO: this accomplishment confirms the role of the University of Antwerp as a leading partner within ICOS.

Six new FWO fellowships at Global Change Ecology

​In the last call of the FWO PhD fellowships, the research groups of GCE were awarded six fellowships. Here we shortly present the new fellows and their research. Stay tuned for more information and news as their research develops.

Ignace Pelckmans (ECOBE, PhD Fellowship Fundamental Research)

“During my PhD, I will use a combination of field study and modelling to understand whether spatial planning of mangroves and shrimp farms can prevent the flooding of nearby cities. From past research, we know that mangroves can act as a protective sponge, buffering coastal communities against incoming floods. However, we expect that not all patches of mangrove forest are equally important. I will investigate which locations and shapes of mangrove patches can protect river deltas best against incoming coastal floods.”

Pali Felice Gelsomini (ECOBE, PhD Fellowship Strategic Basic Research)

“In order to develop a more low impact waterway management in the Scheldt Estuary, I will do research aiming to formulate precise recommendations as to location and timing of dredging and channel discharge management. I will study high frequency interactions between dredging activity, turbidity, water flow and primary production. I will use a combination of continuous high-frequency monitoring, satellite imagery and detailed analysis of monthly water samples.”

Simon Reynaert (PLECO, PhD Fellowship Strategic Basic Research)

“The goal of my PhD project is to investigate the consequences of more persistent rainfall patterns for agricultural grasslands.  By subjecting experimental grasslands to different climate and soil scenarios, we will test the effectiveness of novel cultivars and soil organic matter to buffer agricultural grasslands against increasingly persistent precipitation.  Our findings will enable more sustainable grassland management and aid in maximizing productivity and minimizing economic losses in light of global change.”

Matthieu Chastel (EVECO, PhD Fellowship Strategic Basic Research)

“In my PhD project, I will ‘provide sheep with wolf's clothing’. My project aims to benefit human-wildlife coexistence through a better understanding of wild predator behaviour. Specifically, I intend to establish if and how we can teach wild wolves to avoid livestock via three approaches. One consists of teaching wolves a phobic reaction toward a stimulus, a second consists of causing disgust in wolves toward eating sheep, and a third consists of protecting sheep with a light but toxic cover inspired from aposematic signalling. I aim to develop sustainable and easily up-scaleable tools to enable farmers and wildlife managers to conciliate predators conservation goals and livestock farming needs.”

Wouter Hendrycks (EVECO, PhD Fellowship Fundamental Research)

"The main goal of my project is to unravel the role of insect plasticity and microbiome in the use of conventional and novel host plants in oligophagous (=eating only a few specific foods) cucurbit feeding tephritid fruit flies. In particular, I want to to identify changes (1) in microbiome assemblages, (2) fly and microbial gene expression profiles of tephritids attacking conventional and novel host plants and (3) test the impact of microbiome disruption on the fitness of tephritids attacking conventional and novel host plants."

Luna Geerts (ECOBE, PhD Fellowship Strategic Basic Research)

In my PhD project, I will investigate how we can apply negative emission techniques, that actively sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, in coastal areas. I will focus specifically on enhanced silicate weathering (ESW). During ESW, we supply and spread silicate minerals throughout the coastal zone, in order to speed up silicate weathering, a natural process that consumes CO2. However, challenges and uncertainties remain, especially e.g. detailed CO2 consumption rates and the potential release of trace metals. I will develop a quantitative model to accurately describe the processes associated with ESW.