I. Vanderschuerenprijs 2020: Biological and environmental drivers in mangrove propagule dispersal and recruitment: a field and modeling approach

Project Details


Mangroves are among the most productive ecosystems on Earth. Although they represent only 0.5% of the global coastal area, mangroves have been recognized for their role in coastal protection, sustaining fisheries, and their
disproportionately large role in the marine and global carbon cycles. As a result, United Nations has incorporated mangroves as “natural climate solutions” into their guidelines for greenhouse gas inventories. Unfortunately, mangroves are also among Earth’s most threatened ecosystems. Experts worldwide are warning for the consequences of overexploitation and show that mangrove forests are shifting geographically in response to climate change. Shifts in mangrove forests may impact local and global economies, and influence climate feedbacks via altered carbon budgets. But, how do mangroves shift geographically? What are the processes that determine these shifts and what are the driving

These and other questions were at the heart of my PhD research, targeting the ambitious goal to construct the first global-scale integrated model of mangrove dispersal. Such a model is an important first step towards understanding mangrove forest dynamics under future climate scenarios (current work, Marie Curie fellowship). The challenge of this project lies in its pronounced interdisciplinarity and the vast spatial scale involved: mangrove seeds are transported via ocean currents across the world’s oceans, escaping direct observation. To tackle this challenge, a solid multi-faceted methodology was considered:

An initial step consisted of an in-depth meta-analysis and provided a first global-scale image of factors that determine the spatial distribution of mangroves. An integrated conceptual framework was proposed that allows formulating new hypotheses and determining international research agenda’s. The mechanism of mangrove dispersal, which was largely unknown, was studied experimentally. Simulations were conducted at the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ, The Netherlands), combining controlled water flow conditions with a wind-generator and a reconstructed mangrove forest. Findings revealed the importance of wind (in addition to water) and the role of physical barriers during dispersal. These aspects were also studied during a field campaign, in the reality of a Kenyan mangrove system. There, a citizen science project was also initiated in collaboration with local fishermen, yielding a unique two-year dataset of dispersing mangrove seeds in the open sea.

Finally, a first mangrove dispersal model was constructed in collaboration with researchers at the NASA Jet propulsion Laboratory/California Institute of Technology (VS). Previous knowledge was combined with state-of-the art ocean current data from MIT and NASA’s high-end computing facilities to realize the first global-scale estimate of mangrove dispersal to date. This collaboration consolidated for future projects, including new partners.
Effective start/end date1/10/2030/09/23


  • mangroves

Flemish discipline codes

  • Ecosystem services