MarBEF booklet summary

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Marine biodiversity

Marine biodiversity is an all-inclusive term to describe the total variation among living organisms in the marine environment, i.e., life in the seas and oceans. Marine systems have a series of characteristics which distinguish them from terrestrial systems, and marine organisms play a crucial role in almost all biogeochemical processes that sustain the biosphere. The organisms also provide a variety of goods and services which are essential to the well-being of mankind.[1]

MarBEF goal

One of the major consequences of the unsustainable use of the Earth’s resources is biodiversity loss. The aim in establishing a European network on marine biodiversity and ecosystem functioning (MarBEF) was to increase our understanding of large-scale, long-term changes in marine biodiversity.

MarBEF, an EU Network of Excellence, started with a new way of thinking, taking a bottom-up approach by bringing together over 700 scientists from around Europe to integrate their research. The skills and expertise of these scientists, who work in a wide variety of disciplines in the marine science sector, was combined to address the scientific challenges of the most topical marine biodiversity questions, and to provide new insights and answers at a scale of research never before attempted. This core strategic research programme consisted of three research themes[1]:

Data integration

The first challenge was to identify a baseline from which trends in marine biodiversity change could be detected at the relevant spatial and temporal scales. The integration of 251 datasets, provided by more than 100 scientists from 94 institutions in 17 countries, provided new insights into ecosystem processes and distribution patterns of life in the oceans. MarBEF captured 5,2 million distribution records of 17.000 species[1].

The research

MarBEF published 415 scientific articles, 82% of which are ‘open access’ since MarBEF joined the Open Archives Initiative. These papers include several describing new species. During the project, MarBEF added a total of 137 species new to science to the European Register of Marine Species (ERMS). Using recent advances in molecular technologies, MarBEF found that a single seawater sample may contain up to 10.000 different types of organisms, and MarBEF identified the key microbes that participate in biogeochemical cycling in different areas around Europe. This provided further crucial data for understanding the links between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning<ref name="ma">.


The project made many specific findings. For example, cold-water marine caves were shown by MarBEF scientists to exhibit strong faunal and ecological parallels with the deep sea and provide a refuge during episodes of warming. A study on deep-sea vents showed that the distribution of the assemblages on the surface of vents was related to the position of the fluid venting and the resulting temperature gradients[1].


MarBEF scientists applied the most advanced genetic technologies to study marine biodiversity and phylogeographic structures. Their results will be of use in improving the way fisheries are managed[1].

Chemical ecology

MarBEF scientists specialising in chemical ecology discovered that bacteria communicate at the molecular level; that some diatoms produce chemicals that induce abortions and birth defects in the copepods that graze on them; and that dinoflagellates produce potent neurotoxins that can be transferred up the marine food chain. All of these discoveries give us a better understanding of the role of secondary metabolites in maintaining marine biodiversity and driving ecosystem functioning[1].

Climate change

MarBEF scientists identified distinct, vulnerable marine populations that are now living on the edge of survival as a result of climate change. One of the findings made by the network was that, contrary to expectations, a warming climate could be leading to higher biodiversity in the Arctic and simultaneous food shortages for the top predators there. Concurrently, warming temperatures are contributing to an overall increase in fish species diversity in the North Sea, and initiating changes in phytoplankton assemblages in Mediterranean waters. Shifts in different elements of the deep sea-bed communities at the Porcupine Abyssal Plain are attributed to the North Atlantic Oscillation, a climatic phenomenon[1].

Human disturbances

Research into the evolutionary effects of fishing on fish biodiversity indicated that fish populations may be becoming more vulnerable (and less resilient) to perturbations including fishing, climate change and invasive alien species. Also, increased river inputs, due to climate change, may be altering food webs and thus fisheries. MarBEF scientists showed that alterations in the abundance of key species affect ecosystem functioning more than changes in species diversity, and that only some types of human disturbances have strong effects on the stability of rocky shore assemblages[1].

Valuation and ecosystem management

MarBEF scientists defined specific ecosystem goods and services provided by marine biodiversity and suggested that they have the capacity to play a fundamental role in the ecosystem approach to environmental management. Marine biological valuations in the form of maps developed by MarBEF could be used as baselines for future spatial planning in the marine environment. MarBEF also developed a demonstration prototype of a decision support system (MarDSS) for identifying and selecting alternative solutions for the protection of marine biodiversity[1].

The future

Future research issues

MarBEF identified and studied many critical marine biodiversity issues, which are now much clearer than before. It also identified areas where further work is essential and that will require concentrated effort, such as[1]:

The future of MarBEF

Because MarBEF members are of the opinion that multidisciplinary marine biodiversity research in Europe essentially needs long-term concentration and integration at large scale, MarBEF will continue after EC funding has ceased. MarBEF has reached the critical mass to promote, unite and represent marine biodiversity research at a global scale, with 95 institutes as members, all of which are active in marine biodiversity research. Therefore, it is beneficial to all if the network is kept alive and active. In preparation for such a lasting infrastructure, MarBEF is cooperating with MARS (the European Network of Marine Research Institutes and Stations) and Marine Genomics Europe to extend the network of institutes involved in marine biodiversity research in Europe and beyond[1].

Download of the MarBEF booklet: