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Life and death of a virtual copepod in turbulence

Project description

Uncovering the sensory process of copepods

Tiny crustaceans known as copepods abound in marine habitats despite ocean currents and turbulence. Their antennas are sensitive to mechanical and chemical information that enable them to locate food, predators and mates. Using applications of reinforcement learning, the EU-funded C0PEP0D project aims to determine how the copepods process mechano- and chemo-sensory information in a turbulent marine environment. This will be achieved by creating a virtual learning model with hydrodynamic signalling, experimenting with live specimens in simulated environments and developing novel reinforcement learning algorithms mimicking copepod evolution and learning. Ultimately, the project will give insight into the evolution of marine species and could inspire future innovations in biomimetic engineering.


Life is tough for planktonic copepods, constantly washed by turbulent flows. Yet, these millimetric crustaceans dominate the oceans in numbers. What have made them so successful? Copepod antennae are covered with hydrodynamic and chemical sensing hairs that allow copepods to detect preys, predators and mates, although they are blind. How do copepods process this sensing information? How do they extract a meaningful signal from turbulence noise? Today, we do not know.

C0PEP0D hypothesises that reinforcement learning tools can decipher how copepod process hydrodynamic and chemical sensing. Copepods face a problem similar to speech recognition or object detection, two common applications of reinforcement learning. However, copepods only have 1000 neurons, much less than in most artificial neural networks. To approach the simple brain of copepods, we will use Darwinian evolution together with reinforcement learning, with the goal of finding minimal neural networks able to learn.

If we are to build a learning virtual copepod, challenging problems are ahead: we need fast methods to simulate turbulence and animal-flow interactions, new models of hydrodynamic signalling at finite Reynolds number, innovative reinforcement learning algorithms that embrace evolution and experiments with real copepods in turbulence. With these theoretical, numerical and experimental tools, we will address three questions:

Q1: Mating. How do male copepods follow the pheromone trail left by females?

Q2: Finding. How do copepods use hydrodynamic signals to ‘see’?

Q3: Feeding. What are the best feeding strategies in turbulent flow?

C0PEP0D will decipher how copepods process sensing information, but not only that. Because evolution is explicitly considered, it will offer a new perspective on marine ecology and evolution that could inspire artificial sensors. The evolutionary approach of reinforcement learning also offers a promising tool to tackle complex problems in biology and engineering.



Net EU contribution
€ 2 215 794,00
Rue frederic joliot curie 38 technopole chateau gombert
13383 Marseille cedex 13

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Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur Bouches-du-Rhône
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Other funding
€ 0,00

Beneficiaries (1)