Metatron, a nature in cages

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The Metatron is a unique instrument in the world. It is a CNRS experimental ecology station located in Moulis (Commune of Caumont) in the Ariège region of France, which allows the study of the evolution of species in the face of climate change. Jean Clobert, its director, and various researchers who work there, explain the experiments currently being carried out in this research centre.

Photo credit: © Q. Bénard

Installed on four hectares, the Métatron consists of 48 cages of 100m2, linked together by 76 corridors (to allow the movement of species from one to the other). 220 butterflies and 350 lizards have taken up residence there from the very beginning of the experiment, proving the acuity of the concept. The climate of each cage is remotely controlled by a software program that allows to change the temperature, the hygrometry rate or the solar radiation by throwing a shade or watering. This sophisticated device makes it possible, through the study of animal models such as lizards and butterflies, to observe the effects of climatic variations on these species and the adaptation strategies they adopt in the face of these changes.

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A unique concept to measure the impact of global warming on biodiversity

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With a team of researchers, technicians and students, evolutionary ecology is concerned with "the impact of global changes on individuals and populations: climate change, population fragmentation, alteration and destruction of habitats". And, through a total overhaul of the Moulisian environment, the site is equipped with laboratories for genetics, molecular biology, physiology, cell and phenotype biology, an aviary, etc. The laboratories are also equipped with a laboratory for the study of the environment and the development of new technologies. of 520 m² include 48 identical aviaries of 1m² inside and 4m² outside, plus 12 other aviaries offering up to 12m² outside. The indoor parts will be equipped with an automatic data acquisition system using cameras and sensors.
From 750 m2 greenhouses for native species are organized in 12 identical cells but whose climate control can be programmed independently. 

One of the most important challenges that awaits us in the coming decades is to promote the happy development of mankind in a sustainable perspective," recalls Carine Desaulty, press relations officer at the CNRS. Sustainability can only be achieved through a harmonious relationship with our physical and biological environment. Hence the need to study the impacts linked to man's economic and societal imperatives. A need to be developed in the near future and which already brings together, around common objectives, the State, the Midi-Pyrénées Region, the General Council of Ariège, the community of communes of Saint-Girons and the CNRS, through the ambitious "Gestion du territoire".

Species that function in "metapopulation"...

A study, published in the journal Nature Methodswas carried out on 220 butterflies Pieris brassicae and 350 lizards Zootoca vivipara. Constraints included habitat fragmentation due to cages and variations in the characteristics of the living environment (changing parameters such as temperature, humidity and light). Butterflies and lizards then functioned in a so-called "metapopulation" mode, i.e. these species essentially colonized some cages and totally disappeared from others. In this way, the species adopted exactly the behaviour predicted by scientists.

As a member of the research team, Delphine Legrand explains: "We are trying to understand the factors that influence these migrations. We are trying to understand what will induce a change of environment". For her, the results thus represent "a major step forward for Métatron because it has been officially validated by the scientific community after two years of work". However, she remains cautious: "it is still too early to draw conclusions in relation to the natural environment. But this will be the next step.

This work makes sense when we know that, according to some scientists, 50% of living species could be extinct by 2100.

Watch the video on the CNRS website

(Source: CNRS March 2013)

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