Danube Delta: call for action!

The Danube River with a length of almost 3,000 km is the longest river in the European Union region. If we were lucky enough to travel along its riverbed, we would be amazed by the wonders we would find. However, the Danube River keeps one of its most breath-taking treasures for the end. The Danube flows into the Black Sea forming the Danube Delta, which is considered by the UNESCO the best-preserved river delta in Europe and since 1991 holds the distinction of UNESCO Word Heritage Site. 

We have made a video with a drone about the Danube Delta - click here 


Hypanis plicata, picture: Alberto Martinez Gandara.

The 600,000 Ha of the Danube Delta serves as refuge for an extraordinary fauna biodiversity represented by more than 4,000 species. Many of those species such as different species of sturgeon, are considered under threat by the IUCN and are protected by regulations at European and regional levels. A very important part of this fauna is what we define as Pontocaspian fauna. This extraordinary diverse fauna is the result of the highly dynamic geology and climate during the last 2.5 Ma in the Pontocaspian region, which includes the Black, Caspian and Aral Sea basins, and therefore the Danube Delta. Remarkable examples of the Pontocaspian biodiversity are the many endemic mollusc species that we can find in the Danube Delta and across the Pontocaspian region. This diverse group is of great importance for the eco-functioning of the aquatic system and serves as food for many species of fish and birds. Sadly, this endemic mollusc’s diversity is currently decreasing as a result of pollution, habitat loss, overfishing and invasive species. The endemic mollusc species have been replaced by a few invasive species causing a serious loss of biodiversity. This trend may increase the vulnerability of the ecosystems such as the Danube Delta to catastrophic events, because a non-diverse fauna is vulnerable for instance to diseases that can decimate an entire population leading the ecosystem to collapse. 

Ecrobia spalatiana, picture: Justine Vandendorpe.

PRIDE (Drivers of Biodiversity RIse and DEmise) is an EU funded project in which we study the evolution of the endemic Pontocaspian life forms and their evolution integrating climate, geology and biological approaches. We aim to understand the role and the importance of these biota in the ecosystems and to bring attention to the current adverse situation for these endemic species.

Matteo Lattuada and Alberto Martinez Gandara sampling for living molluscs on the Ukranian coast of the Black Sea.

Sabrina van de Velde identifying mollusc shells on the Caspian shore in Azerbijan.

As a part of the PRIDE outreach strategy, we want to involve local citizens interested in nature and conservation from the Danube Delta area, in both Romania and Ukraine, and raise awareness of the demise of Pontocaspian life forms and habitats and create conditions that support future conservation. We want to call for action to protect and conserve this diverse fauna and the precious ecosystem where occurs.

So, if you are interested in collaborating, do not hesitate to contact us!

  • Lea Rausch
  • Bucharest University
  • Faculty of Geology and Geophysics
  • Department of Geology
  • Balcescu Bd. 1
  • 010041 Bucharest
  • Romania
  • Manuel Sala Pérez
  • School of Geographical Sciences
  • University of Bristol
  • University Road
  • Bristol BS8 1SS



Save it to cherish or leave it to perish

As the saying goes, “Save it to cherish or leave it to perish”

If each scientist could keep track of one species, we would need 81 thousand scientists just for molluscs alone (that is more than double the size of the population of Monaco). One way to study diversity and to validate specimens collected is via modern DNA analyses. Every organism that belongs to the same species shares a number of genetic traits in their DNA that are unique from all other species. By comparing the DNA of known representatives of a species we can determine the status of undefined specimens based on these similarities. This can help, especially when morphological or anatomical characters are less informative or confusing to the eye.

DNA extraction at Justus Liebig University, Giessen.

Today ecologists and conservationists are beginning to recognise the importance of this tool, most especially in invertebrates (those small little guys at the bottom of the food chain nobody really cares about), which have seen far less historical interest compared to large mammals or birds. However, invertebrates provide an immense array of ecological services; bees pollinate (a service predicted to be worth 153 billion Euros a year), woodlice help process decaying matter, earthworms aerate soil (increasing its fertility), and aquatic snails, like the genus Theodoxus, help control harmful algae and provide a useful food source for many fish species. And while we notice the decline of the sturgeon or the wild salmon, we often fail to think about what is happening to their food.

A Theodoxus sp. from the Balkans foraging on algae.                                                          

Theodoxus species are small aquatic snails, traditionally common in fresh and brackish water ecosystems from Western Europe to the Near East, where they provide a valuable contribution to ecosystems. However, scientific reports are becoming rifer, suggesting their absence in once abundant areas and even showing localised extinctions in some places. Importantly, if fish can’t eat or waters get overgrown with algae or plants, then the fish die, and who knows what that would mean for us as humans. Conservation in Europe and the Near East remains challenging, let alone for snails. Pressure for land resources, agriculture and housing mean conservation efforts in this part of the world need to have robust strategies and conserve the most diversity in the least amount of space.

Various shell patterns of different Theodoxus spp.

Probably the most striking feature of Theodoxus is their intriguing shell. The range in patterns, shapes and colours have lead naturalist, even as famous as Lamarck, to describe species of Theodoxus. Unfortunately recent studies suggest shell patterns may be poor characters for distinguishing Theodoxus species as, even within species, there is a lot of variation. Basing a conservation strategy or a management plan simply on morphology, without the aid of a genetic perspective, may thus be poor for conserving diversity of this primary, but very important, group. As part of the EU project PRIDE program (European Union Horizon 2020 Innovative Training Network), in the Institute for Animal Ecology and Systematics at Justus Liebig University, Giessen, Germany, the questions are being investigated. By undertaking a broad scale genetic study, the diversity we have left in the genus is being unearthed, areas where multiple species of Theodoxus may be present are being identified and regions where species may have retreated to in the past are being discovered.

Collecting Theodoxus for DNA analyses in the Limans of Ukraine

The question still remains though, “why care about conserving the diversity rather than conserving the areas where the highest biomass occurs?”. The answer is quite a simple one; different species or even different genetic lineages have different characteristics. For example, one species may be able to process higher amounts of harmful algae than others, while another species may be able to handle a greater range in water temperatures (allowing it to survive in harsher environments), a third may be able to reproduce faster and be a better food source for fish. Unfortunately at this stage we just not that sure what is what, and till we know the potentials of each species it is important we conserve as much diversity as possible.

Stephan Covey once said about human ethnicity, “Strength lies not in our similarities, but in our differences.” This is no truer for humans as it is for nature in general and Theodoxus in particular.        

  • By: Arthur Sands   
  • PRIDE early stage researcher at the Justus Liebig University, Germany
  • Office: +49 6419935721
  • Email:







Meet our new researcher in Bucharest

The 14th of October 2016, Lea Rausch has started as new early stage researcher in the field of micropalaeontology. She has started at the University of Bucharest. Marius Stoica is her supervisor.

This is Lea at her desk in Bucharest.
These are Lea's drawings of ostracods and on the left side you can see a tray with sample material. 

PRIDE training event in Reading

From 28 August to 9 September 2016 we organized the 5th PRIDE training event at the University of Reading. We invited external speakers for the outreach training: Nataliia Gozak from WWF Ukraine, Simon Gardner of the Environment Agency UK (and one of the writers of the BiodivERsA stakeholder engagement handbook), and Yuri Matteman, head of educational development at Naturalis.

The external speakers advised us on our outreach plans. Furthermore the main topics of the training were: biodiversity modeling, hydro/lake modeling, Geographic Information Systems.

We combined the training event with the INQUA workshop for early career researchers (at the University of Reading). Theme was: using observations and modelling to understand past climate changes. Sifan Koriche won the best poster award, and Diksha Bista was second in the category for the best poster award.


Picture of the PRIDE researchers, supervisors and the external speakers.

The PRIDE researchers, supervisors and external speakers at the training event at the University of Reading.



PRIDE represented at the ESOF 2016 conference in Manchester

To actively practise outreach, our PRIDE researcher Sabrina van de Velde visited Manchester a few weeks ago. There the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) conference took place, which is the biggest interdisciplinary general science meeting in Europe. It is organised biennially and welcomes over 4,500 leading thinkers, innovators, policy makers, journalists and educators from over 85 countries to talk about research. She wanted to reach a wider public and show the scientific world of the existence and importance of PRIDE. With so many thinkers and researcher present, for sure it has been a succesful visit!


Job Opening: Early Stage Researcher micropalaeontology (PRIDE project)

Job Opening: Early Stage Researcher within the PRIDE project

For PRIDE we are seeking an Early Stage Researcher (ESR) in the field of micropalaeontology. Due to the leave of one of the ESRs we are seeking a new ESR for the period of 29 months.

You will be working on the project B2: palaeoenvironmental drivers of ostracod biodiversity change. You will be hosted at the University of Bucharest in Bucharest, Romania, for a period of 29 months.

Deadline for your application is August 12, 2016

See: News.



From now on the hashtag ‪#‎PRIDEscience‬ can be used in your messages to promote PRIDE research! Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, anywhere you like. Here you can find the webpage of all PRIDE related posts on Instagram: #PRIDEscience 

Instagram: PRIDE group all together during NTE04 in Azerbaijan #PRIDEscience 
Instagram: Processing Romanian core samples in the United Kingdom #PRIDEscience
Instagram: Romanian core analysis during NTE02 at Utrecht university


Outreach in Ukraine 6 - 18 June 2016

Aleksandre Gogaladze is in Kherson in Ukraine at the moment to liaise with stakeholders in the region. The purpose of his visit is to meet with the representatives of different institutions of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NASU), the University of Odessa and the Ministry of Ecology to talk about the PRIDE research, find out about the priorities and practices of the stakeholders and seek for common interests. Kherson is in Southern Ukraine and it is an important port on the Black Sea and Dnieper River. The city is located along the estuary of the Dnieper river in Dnieper-liman, that flows into the Black Sea 70km downstream.

This is a short blog of Aleksandre on his third day in Ukraine:

As I promised I will keep you updated about what is going on. On Monday I already met 2 stakeholders completely unexpectedly. After breakfast with Vitaliy Anistratenko, who is a professor in zoology, working at NASU and helping me a lot with planning the meetings with stakeholders, he said he was going to visit the Odessa National University. He needed to get an official signature on some papers from the Biological faculty, the Hydrobiology department. I decided to join him and we were lucky that we had a chance to meet the Dean of the faculty Prof. Veniamin V. Zamorov.

Picture 1. This is the picture at the Biological Faculty of the Odessa University. From left to right: the Dean, Vitaliy, me and Mikhail

We gave a talk. Vitaliy introduced the work of PRIDE and our biological research in Ukraine very nicely and finally introduced me to the Dean. We discussed many interesting topics with the Dean about common research interests. I think the meeting was very productive. During the talk with the Dean another researcher – Dr. Mikhail O. Son, joined us from the Institute of Marine Biology of the NASU and he was also very interested in PRIDE Research. Later he took us to meet the Director of Institute of Marine Biology – Prof. Borys Aleksandrov and again we had an interesting discussion about how we could work together in the future for the benefit of both the Institute and PRIDE.

Picture 2. This is a picture at the Institute of Marine Biology. From left to right: me, the Director, Vitaliy, Mikhail

Yesterday evening I arrived in Kherson from Odessa and today I spent the whole day at the Kherson Hydrobiology Station. The nature, the atmosphere, and the people were truly amazing. Thanks to the director of the Station Dr. Sergey Ovechko, and researchers who work there I learned about their practices, priorities and the limitations of their conservation efforts. They have been doing intensive research obtaining quantitative results on hydrology and biology of Dnieper South Bug Estuary regularly since 1963. Again the discussion about how PRIDE could link to the Station was very interesting and promising.

Picture 3. Here is the picture from the Kherson Hydrobiology Station

So until now things go quite well! Tomorrow I will go to Hola Prystan, a city in Kherson Oblast to meet to the representatives from the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve.   

Authors: Aleksandre Gogaladze

In search of the tiniest Pontocaspian plants in Romania

During the first PRIDE training meeting thirteen Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) gathered in Romania to learn about different field techniques and collect their first data. Among them Manuel, a Spanish biologist working at the Brunel University in London.

Manuel's goal during these two weeks was to collect information on the diversity of tiny (± 0.2 to 0.0005 cm) “plants” and seeds respectively called dinoflagellates and dinocysts. Dinoflagellates and its dinocysts are found living in open seas and lakes as a part of what is called phytoplankton. Phytoplankton is formed by mostly microscopic “plants” as dinoflagellates, freely floating in the water. Among many other services, they are important due to their production of oxygen, which we use to breath.

Picture 1 and 2: Dinoflagellates. Photos by Manuel Sala

Manuel: “We started in the Razim lake complex situated on the Romanian Black Sea coast. This set of lakes straddles the coast for 40 km from the Danube delta in the north to the city of Constanţa in the south. It is a very good place to start because different salinity gradients (from fresh to brackish water) within the complex create different environments for these organisms.” We collected the dinoflagellates by towing a phytoplankton net horizontally behind the boat for two minutes. We captured the dinoflagellates within the net and transferred them to plastic bottles.

Besides filtering the water with a net, we checked the sediment of the lake floor for the presence of dinocysts. We collected sand and clay using a tool called Van Veen grab, which works as if two metal hands ‘grab’ the top layer of the lake floor. Once the sediments were pulled up on the boat we could scrap off the top layer and collect this in small plastic bags (pictures below).

After the successful data collection on the smaller lakes, it was time to do similar work on a bigger scale. While thick grey clouds packed together above the Black Sea, the huge research vessel Mare Nigrum was waiting in the harbor of Constanţa for the scientists to board. From there the ship would navigate to different sampling locations on the Black Sea, so each of the researchers could collect his or her data.

Pictures 3 and 4: Van Veen grab (left) and Manuel collecting sediment samples (right). Photos by Anouk D’Hont

Unfortunately for Manuel, there were no phytoplankton nets available on the ship, but they did have a fancy apparatus called CTD bottle water sampler offering a solution. This device takes water samples at different depths in the sea. These water samples were filtered by Manuel to concentrate the dinoflagellates in a smaller volume and kept in plastic tubes the next day in the lab. Here we also took sediment samples using a bigger version of the Van Veen grab, and another special tool called multicorer. The multicorer is a man-high device containing four Plexiglas tubes which are pushed into the seafloor sediment giving us four cores. With these cores we can look at life in the seafloor but also study its recent history.

Picture 5: The multicorer (left) and a CTD bottle water sampler (right) on board of the Mare Nigrum. Photo by Sabrina van de Velde

After two weeks in Romania, we returned to London with a beautiful sample set. In the future we will report results and much more about these tiny but hugely interesting “plants”!

RIMG5024.JPG (4608×3456)

Authors: Anouk D’Hont, Sabrina van de Velde, Manuel Sala Pérez

PRIDE - coming together in Bucharest

How trilling to finally meet everyone of the PRIDE program - all the colleagues, supervisors and partners from associated institutions in Romania. We – Aleksandre Gogaladze, Justine Vandendorpe, Liesbeth Jorissen, and Sifan Koriche are glad to share some impressions of our first two weeks together.

Our Romanian adventure consisted of two weeks of hard work in the field and evening classes. We learned about geology and biology but also engaged with each other and had great fun. The first week was about understanding the rocks which was tough for the non-geologists. On the second week the roles reversed, now geology students had new experiences. They learned about different biological sampling techniques. The overall atmosphere was strongly positive, students were constantly encouraging one another, supervisors always ready to answer questions and everyone was enthusiastic and joyful. One does not always have luxury to be part of the boat excursions in Razelm lake complex and the Black Sea international waters.

Picture 1. The PRIDE Team on the stairs of the University of Bucharest. Sheree Nandi and Yavar Moshirfar are not in the picture but they are part of the team (Photo PRIDE photographer)

Picture 2. Learning to understand rocks. A river valley in Buzau area (Photo L. Jorissen).

Picture 3.  Learning about biological sampling techniques in Lake Razelm complex (Photo A. Gogaladze).

In between two weeks of field training we gathered with everyone involved in PRIDE to meet and share our thoughts and passion. This was a two days conference in Bucharest. During the conference we learned about the Pontocaspian lake system evolution. Also, we got familiar with the benefits of multidisciplinary approaches in research, where geology/biology/climatology/hydrology can in combination disentangle questions of high complexity. We felt very special and were happy to be part of this all.

Authors: Aleksandre Gogaladze, Justine Vandendorpe, Liesbeth Jorissen, Sifan Koriche

Social media

As part of our social media outreach we have a facebook page “Drivers of Pontocaspian Rise and Demise” 

The facebook page is for everyone interested in geology, climate and biodiversity of the Pontocaspian region and the work of researchers there, including of our own programme. Feel free to join and share with us your stories and observations!

Author: Frank Wesselingh

A new paper on the Denizli Basin

I am proud of a paper just in from Hülya and Cihat Alҫiҫek and myself about Plio-Pleistocene lake environments and biota of the Denzili Basin, Turkey.

One day in 2005 I received a mail from an unknown colleague in Turkey with some photographs of shells. Working with fossils in a museum delivers more often inquiries about fossils, shells and stones. I opened the mail to find very nice pictures of fossil bivalves that looked very familiar to me. Could they be Didacna? But why then from Turkey, and as the mail suggested a Miocene age? After all the origin of Didacna is very unclear, it was not present in the Caspian basin before the Pleistocene and its origin in the Black Sea basin is enigmatic too.

 The mail triggered an intense communication with the sender, Hülya Alҫiҫek, who is a sedimentologist from the Pamukkale University in Denizli. In the years after we studied together the fauna, engaged with a Hungarian colleague Imre Magyar, in order to see if we were looking at a very early, possibly the earliest, occurrence of a genus that characterizes the Pontocaspian faunas up to today. In 2008 we published the fauna in Geobios (Wesselingh et al., 2008). We concluded that it indeed concerns the oldest known occurrence of the Pontocaspian genus Didacna, although uncertainties over the exact stratigraphic age remain. Furthermore some palaeontologist question our attribution although to date no counter-arguments for doing so have been published.

The paper triggered a whole set of new research lines in the region that underlay part of the PRIDE programme. The southwestern Anatolian basins do harbor Pontocaspian biota in various Neogene and Quaternary time intervals and their role as satellite basins for the possible origin and maintenance of these biota will be subject of research in PRIDE by for example ESR Arthur Sands in Giessen.

Impressions from the Tosunlar section, its fossils and the palaeonvironmental settings – photo Frank Wesseling; graphic Hülya Alçiçek


The new paper is about a very nice section in the northern Denizli Basin, the Tosunlar section. A succession of lake margin-deltaic environments rich in fossils is documented. Sedimentary facies and isotope geochemistry show lake level variations, yet the composition of the endemic fauna remains remarkably constant. Again, the stratigraphic age is not well constrained and already next month we will have a fieldwork targeting the succession with paleomagnetism and other approaches through the project of Sergey Lazarev from Utrecht.

A beautiful paper that I hope will initiate further discussion and insights into the beautiful geology of the Denilzi Basin.

Hülya Alçiçek, Frank P Wesselingh, Mehmet Cihat Alçiçek, 2015. Paleoenvironmental evolution of the late Pliocene-early Pleistocene fluvio-deltaic sequence of the Denizli Basin (SW Turkey). Palaeogeography. Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 437: 98-116.

Author: Frank Wesselingh