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Background information

Drivers of Pontocaspian biodiversity Rise and Demise: an integrated climate, geology and biology training network

In the past two million years, the region of the Black Sea Basin, Caspian Basin and adjacent Anatolia and the Balkans were the stage of the evolution of a unique fauna, the so-called Pontocaspian fauna. The fauna contains many endemics, species only living in that region, and is very well adapted to the unusual salinity regimes of the lakes and seas there. The Pontocaspian biota contains fish, snails, bivalves, ostracods and many more groups. Many species have limited distributions, yet others have developed in highly invasive species, such as the Zebra mussels that have completely overtaken lakes and rivers in western Europe and North America.

The stormy development of the Pontocaspian fauna is the result of the very dynamic nature of the lakes (the Caspian Sea is technically a lake) and seas in that region in the past two million years. In most times the various lake basins were isolated (like today), but in other episodes connections existed. Episodic connections existed between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Sometimes the lakes were icy. In parts of the region lakes became dry at times (think of Lake Aral today). In the Pontocaspian lakes successive episodes of rapid diversification and extinctions resulted in the unique Pontocaspian fauna.

Over the past 80 years however, the Pontocaspian faunas have been thrashed. In the coastal zones of the northern Black Sea the lakes and estuaries became silted up, polluted or were converted into land. Lake systems in the Balkans and Anatolia have greatly suffered from development and nutrient imput. In the Caspian Sea the introduction of some five marine species has resulted in a collapse of the Pontocaspians there.

The program will run from 2015 until 2018. Throughout Europe 15 Early Stage Researchers (PhD students), nine universities, three academy of sciences, 3 natural history museums and 2 companies are involved. We want to learn from the past (geological) ups and downs of the Pontocaspian faunas in respect to the current biodiversity crisis. What processes drove the development of the unique Pontocaspian faunas in the past and how severe is the current crisis? Can the fauna still recover and how could we help to do so?

Ahead of us lies a beautiful and complex program. Complex because of the completely different disciplines involved (climate science, geology, biology and conservation). But also complex due to the turbulent political situation in the region. Nevertheless, the program will provide us with a great opportunity to get a better understanding of the resilience of habitats, ecosystems and their biota and to understand the severity of human impact.

PRIDE will comprise three workpackages. The first workpackage is Lake System Evolution. Combined climate and lake basin modelling for the Quaternary will shed light on the drivers of lake basin evolution through time. The model results will be constrained by studies of geochemical and biological (palynological) proxies in the geological record and constrained in time by a stratigraphic project. The second workpackage is about Quaternary biodiversity change. Key sections and their molluscs and ostracods from the core region as well as from the sattelite regions (Anatolia) will be studied, the environmental context of past turnover events will be documented and we also will use modern taxa to look back in time for diversification events through molecular approaches. The third work package will be about the Anthropocene Pontocaspian biodiversity crisis. It will contain biodiversity modelling exercises, the study of Holocene cores in the Caspian and western Black Sea, it will look at exploring standardised ways of biodiversity assesments also incluing yet poorly known planktonic groups.