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Drivers of Pontocaspian biodiversity RIse and DEmise

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PRIDE (Drivers of Pontocaspian biodiversity RIse and DEmise)

Reporting period: 2015-03-01 to 2017-02-28

Discovering drivers of past and modern biodiversity crises in the Black Sea – Caspian Sea region: integrating climate, geosciences and biological sciences across borders.

In the Caspian-Black Sea region (“the Pontocaspian”) many unique aquatic species occur that have evolved to inhabit the unusual brackish conditions. Yet, over the past half century these species have suffered a major biodiversity crisis, with a rapid decline in numbers and even extinction of some species. Over hundreds of thousands of years, these Pontocaspian faunas have developed strategies to deal with high amplitude environmental change. They have experienced several severe biodiversity challenges over the past two million years, but have always recovered. However, the current biodiversity crisis which results from a variety of impacts including environmental degradation caused by human activity and the arrival of immigrant species, appears to affect the Pontocaspian fauna much more profoundly than previous natural biodiversity crises.

The Pontocaspian system is preserved in a very good fossil record. We therefore can compare drivers of natural biodiversity crises in the past with the man-made biodiversity crisis of today. Our findings will help to improve understanding of the resilience and vulnerability of lake ecosystems and marine life to human activities.

Our overall aims are to identify how lakes and seas in the Pontocaspian region evolved and how the unique species responded to environmental change in the past. For that we use climate models and geology to understand the past dynamics of these lakes (the Black Sea has been a lake most of the past two million years). At the same time we look at the pressures that nowadays drive deterioration of the Pontocaspian faunas and floras. We predict future impacts on biodiversity under a range of climate change, invasive and environmental scenarios. Together with stakeholders from the Pontocaspian region we aim to increase understanding of the value of these unique species and to seek follow-up actions for conservation.
The three disciplinary areas - biology, geology and climatology - are linked through ‘joint projects’ that will result in a number of publications.

The Razelm project, a coastal lake system on the south side of the Danube Delta (Romania), studies the response of Pontocaspian faunas to natural and man-made environmental change over the past 1500 years.

The Pontocaspian Origins project is a study of the emergence of Pontocaspian communities in the Pliocene-Pleistocene of SW Anatolia, Turkey.

The Early Pleistocene trans-Caucasus compares time intervals in the Caspian and Black Sea Basin to study (timing and drivers of) environmental and biotic evolution as well as connection/isolation phases between basins.

The South Caspian biodiversity initiative will target two potential refuges for the remaining endemic fauna in the middle/southern Caspian Basin, namely foreshore sandy environments and deeper shelf areas (c 50-100 m below lake surface).

In the North Caspian Core project, with cores from the Moscow State University, we aim to test whether severe cold intervals as well as strong drops in lake level are driving a turn-over (biodiversity-crises) in natural settings, during the Late Pleistocene and Holocene.

In the developed system PC-Tax, Pontocaspian Taxonomic platform, the taxonomic descriptions and occurrences of Pontocaspian fauna, including including bivalves, gastropods, ostracods and dinoflagellates, can be registered.

The PontoCaspian Information System (PC-IS) is now being built. PC-IS serves as a) spatial data storehouse, and b) a map viewer for outputs developed by the ESR projects. PC-IS integrates data on the spatial distribution of species stored in PC-TAX with spatial data.

Finally, PRIDE runs an Outreach project in which all ESRs are now involved in outreach activities of their own and a group of ESRs is developing outreach materials for coastal target groups of the Danube Delta in both Romania (EU country) and Ukraine (non-EU).

We are two years into the program and have organized seven Network Training Events where all our young researchers have been trained in very diverse disciplines. More than ten field expeditions have been organized where PRIDE teams together with our regional partners have collected material and data for our research. The ESRs have undertaken and will continue to undertake secondments.

Our main findings so far are:
• The current biodiversity crisis is worse than anticipated. In many places along the Black Sea coast it has become very difficult to find Pontocaspian species that flourished there a decade or so ago.
• The severe decline in the Caspian Sea has been known for some time. However, we have identified so called “refugia” within the Caspian Sea, places were several of the unique species appear to survive.
• The origin of the unique Pontocaspian faunas is more complex then we knew before. Several species and genera originated outside the Pontocaspian region.
• We have obtained so-called ‘time-series’, that are successions of deposits and faunas, from cores and outcrops in the region. These contain past episodes of environmental change and disturbance and show how faunas responded in the past.
• Finally we are getting data in from our climate and lake basin modellers that show how little change in climate-driven precipitation/evaporation balances is needed to cause strong lake level variations in the Caspian Sea.
In general the PRIDE program is well under way to demonstrating the expected impacts as proposed in the Description of Action:

• Cross-disciplinary training improves ESR career perspectives. Our progress results from crossing borders, between disciplines, lake basins and the different countries. We can only understand and address the Pontocaspian biodiversity crises if we thoroughly integrate scientific understandings across disciplines.

• Throughout the programme ESRs are engaged in collaborations. They participate in joint field work, and joint projects. This will lead and contribute to collaborative papers with other ESRs as well as the programme’s experts.

• By actively engaging with institutes and researchers from the Pontocaspian region through our partners, we are establishing a strong regional network. This network spans from West to Eastern Europe and beyond, to include Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Azerbaijan. This (1) makes our projects and results more widely and better supported, (2) will lead to more follow up projects and programmes and (3) will hence increase the future career prospects of our ESRs, (4) wil let all involved benefit from this network now and in the (far) future.

• We are developing an outreach program that will involve stakeholders to assist us in our research and to increase their understanding and appreciation of the unique Pontocaspian nature. Our research will lead to follow up recommendations for conservation of species and mitigation of threats. Our research enables us to communicate an even clearer picture of the severity of the crisis to relevant stakeholders in the region.

• Data and associated software produced in PRIDE will be accessible after publication of the results in peer reviewed journals, and will be made accessible through the PRIDE website, PC-TAX, PC-IS and general systems like GBIF, NCBI's GenBank, Pangea and the IUCN Red list.
Mollusks at the Caspian sea shore in Azerbaijan
Geological field work in Azerbaijan
Geological field work in Azerbaijan
PRIDE group in Reading 2016
Various shell patterns of different Theodoxus spp.
Biological field work