Mussel patterns discussed at Vara’s Vroege Vogels

This Sunday morning I was interviewed at the radio show Vroege Vogels (early birds), talking with Menno Bentveld about the importance of spatial patterns in mussel beds.

See the Vroege Vogels website (in Dutch):

My interview appears at 1:48:50-1:51:00 and at 2:31:16-2:42:28.


Spatial Patterns: A Blueprint for Ecosystem Resilience

How to make a sturdy ecosystem? It might be a good idea to design it with a nice regular pattern. Helene de Paoli and Aniek van der Berg showed it makes all the difference when restoring a mussel bed. Their work was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Link to the paper:

Link to the NIOZ press release (in Dutch):

Mussels crucial for recovery US marshes

New research together with colleagues from the US shows that the humble mussel and marsh grass form an intimate interaction that is critical to helping these ecosystems bounce back from die-off triggered by extreme climatic events such as drought. We published that in the latest issue of Nature Communication.

See the Dutch and English press release at the NIOZ website.

The original paper can be found here.


An aggregation of Elk

Phase separation: a new mechanism for ecological patterns

Have you ever wondered what a clump of mussels, a herd of grazers, or a spot of bacteria under the microscope have in common? All these aggregations follow from similar physical movement process, where organisms move a lot when alone, but move less when in aggregation.

We outline this new principle in a paper that just appeared online in Physics of Life Reviews, The paper was a collaboration with first author Quan-Xing Liu (a former PhD student of mine) Max Rietkerk, Peter Herman, John Fryxell, and Theunis Piersma.


Pdf: Link to Liu’s Researchgate.

(Elk photo is from:

Planting Marsh Grass in Clumps Doubles Salt Marsh Recovery Rate

Planting marsh grass in clumps may contribute considerably to the recovery of salt meadows and marshes. This is one of the results of a joint research project by Duke University in the US and the NIOZ Royal Dutch Institute for Sea Research, which was published in the leading scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

See the press release: link to the NIOZ Website.

The publication: Link to PNAS.

The strength of complexity

Whether you look at a square centimeter or at a square kilometer, nature always reveals the most interesting patterns. It is this complexity at all spatial scales that makes nature different from many if not all human creations. Our latest research on mussel beds reveals that this many-scale complexity actually makes ecosystems very strong and resilient. Read more about it in the (Dutch) press release or in the actual paper!

Theory of Albert Einstein confirmed with … mussels!

Do ecologists have to read the work of Einstein? Yes, it appears! Einstein’s theory with which he explained Brownian motion in molecules is equally valid for animals. This is the result of the work of Monique de Jager, one of my PhD students, and has just appeared in the Proceedings of Royal Society B.

See here a direct link:

Mussels confirm theory Albert Einstein

Mussels in dense mussel beds move in a similar fashion as molecules. Hereby, they confirm the theory for Brownian motion proposed by Albert Einstein in 1905. Monique de Jager of the NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute of Sea Research explains the movements of mussels in mussel beds in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published today.

Albert Einstein theorized in 1905 that the movements of dust particles suspended in water was the result of collisions with water molecules. Research by Monique de Jager shows that the movements of individual mussels in mussel beds is similarly caused by collisions with conspecifics. Interactions with other mussels limit the freedom of movement of mussels and make mussels in dense mussel beds move in a similar fashion as molecules. These results emphasize the generality of Einstein’s theory and provide a new, different view on animal movement in their natural habitats.

“Many animals seem to move differently in dense environments than when they are alone,” says Monique de Jager, first author of the paper. “Mussels, for example, use a so-called ‘Lévy walk’, where long moves are alternated with small steps, mostly when they are alone. Mussels in dense mussel beds, however, behave totally different: they tumble around in the little space that they have left. This type of movement is very similar to ‘Brownian motion’ as found for instance in dissolved dust particles. Our research shows that this difference in movement pattern is not because mussels use a different movement strategy in different environments, but because of collisions with other mussels.”

“The mechanisms behind Brownian motion was a big scientific mystery in the 19th century,” says Johan van de Koppel, supervisor of Monique de Jager and honorary professor at the University of Groningen. “Why did the pollen particles that Robert Brown was trying to examine under the microscope shake so much? Einstein solved this puzzle in 1905 by showing that the pollen’s movements were caused by collisions with water molecules. Our research demonstrates that the Brownian movements of mussels are similarly the consequence of collisions, this time with other mussels.”

Also for other animals
The results of this study emphasize that ecologists have in the past ignored an important mechanism affecting the movement and dispersal of organisms. In most ecological studies, an observed movement pattern is believed to be an animal’s basic movement strategy.

The research led by Monique de Jager shows that interactions between organisms, such as collisions with conspecifics or interactions with predators, can be an important factor influencing the observed movement patterns. These interactions, rather than the intrinsic search and movement strategy of the organisms themselves, explain Brownian movement that we observe in many species.

Our mussel study therefore explains the change in movement that we observe when Tuna move from the open ocean to the continental shelf. It also clarifies why travelling to work is more time-consuming in New York or Tokyo than in a small village. Einstein’s theory on Brownian motion provides a universal explanation for all these phenomena.