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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.