Tethys Research Institute

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Tethys Research Institute
Logo Tethys Research Institute.jpg
Established1986; 37 years ago (1986)
PresidentSimone Panigada
Viale G.B. Gadio, 2
, ,

The Tethys Research Institute (official name: Istituto Tethys ONLUS) is a non-profit research organisation founded in 1986 to support marine conservation through science and public awareness. The institute has its headquarters at the Civic Aquarium of Milan, Italy. Tethys' activities are mainly carried out in the Mediterranean Sea, although research programmes have been conducted also in the Black Sea, the North Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean as well as in the Red Sea and Antarctica. The results of these activities have been presented in scientific publications as well as in meetings, workshops and conferences.

Mission statement[edit]

Tethys’ mission is the conservation of the marine environment and its biodiversity, by supporting national and international marine conservation policies and processes with robust scientific knowledge, as well as by developing, promoting and implementing public awareness and education activities.


The Tethys Research Institute was founded in Milan, Italy on 31 January 1986 by marine ecologist Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara[1] and Egidio Gavazzi, who was at the time the publisher of AQVA magazine. The organisation's name was inspired to the sea goddess Tethys, a figure of Greek mythology, daughter of Uranus and Gaia and wife of Oceanus. The Mediterranean Sea is the modern remnant of the prehistoric Tethys Ocean, which was named after the Greek goddess. Since 1995 the institute's headquarters have been established in the premises of the Civic Aquarium of Milan, on the basis of an agreement with the City Council.

Since its foundation, Tethys has promoted research activities on marine mammals, focussing on cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal, although investigations have also extended to devil rays and sea turtles. Over almost three decades of work, Tethys has generated one of the largest datasets on Mediterranean cetaceans, and its sighting data are freely available through the OBIS SEAMAP platform (Ocean Biogeographic Information System Spatial Ecological Analysis of Megavertebrate Populations).

Research methods include population abundance studies based on distance sampling surveys (both from aircraft and vessels) and long-term photo-identification capture-recapture programmes; habitat and distribution time-series studies inclusive of the collection of remotely sensed environmental covariates; bioacoustics; behavioural sampling; remote biopsy sampling for genetic and toxicological analyses; passive tracking techniques, as well as radio and satellite telemetry.

Research programmes[edit]

Since 1987 Tethys has engaged in surveys of the cetacean fauna in the waters surrounding Italy and adjacent countries. Early boat-based surveys generated the first overview of cetacean relative abundance throughout the central Mediterranean Sea, and emphasized the overwhelming importance for cetaceans of the Ligurian Sea, in comparison to other sectors in the region.[2] This was the first indication of the need for the establishment of a cetacean protected area in the Ligurian Sea, leading to the proposition of an international sanctuary there, the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals. Since 2009, Tethys has carried out a series of seasonal aerial surveys funded by the Italian Ministry of the Environment and Protection of Land and Sea (MATTM), in cooperation with the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA), to estimate the density and abundance and monitoring the distribution of cetaceans and other marine megavertebrates in the seas around Italy. The surveyed areas included the Ligurian Sea, the Central and Southern Tyrrhenian Sea, portions of the Seas of Corsica and Sardinia, as well as the Ionian Sea and the Gulf of Taranto.[3]

Tethys has also implemented long-term research programmes on Mediterranean cetaceans. The oldest of these, the Adriatic Dolphin Project (ADP), based on the island of Lošinj (Croatia) and adjacent waters, was run by Tethys from 1987 to 1999, and produced a large body of substantive ecological knowledge on the local population of common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus).[4][5] Concern for the survival of this dolphin population, threatened mainly by a very high level of small vessel traffic during the summer, prompted Tethys to propose the establishment of a local dolphin protected area. Upon the decision by Tethys to terminate the ADP in 1999, the baton of the scientific and conservation work on the local dolphins was passed by Tethys to former ADP researchers, founders and co-founders Blue World, a Croatian NGO.

The Cetacean Sanctuary Research (CSR) project, established in 1990, is carried out in the Ligurian Sea, north-western Mediterranean, within the waters of the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals. This ongoing project focuses on the ecology and conservation of the cetacean fauna occurring in the area, which includes the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), the long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas), the Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus), the Cuvier's beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris), the striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba), the common bottlenose dolphin and, to a lesser extent, the short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis). The study area extends over about 24,000 km2 encompassing coastal, slope and deep pelagic waters between continental Italy, France and the Island of Corsica. One of the most ecologically productive and diverse areas of the entire Mediterranean Sea, the Pelagos Sanctuary is also significantly impacted by human activities, such as heavy maritime traffic, chemical pollution and fishing, which threaten cetacean populations in many ways. Research revealed that the different cetacean species inhabiting the Pelagos Sanctuary have definite habitat preferences[6] and this evidence enabled predictions of their presence probability.[7] By enabling vulnerability assessments of marine areas with respect to the existing human pressures, information on cetacean habitats is critical for management, and can be used as basis for the evaluation of the environmental quality of marine ecosystems, as required by the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive.[8]

Research on cetaceans in the Pelagos Sanctuary also revealed an unexpected genetic separation between Ligurian Sea fin whales and their North Atlantic conspecifics,[9] and the surprising diving capabilities of fin whales and long-finned pilot whales. Both species, equipped with time-depth recorders, revealed to be able to dive, respectively, to depths >470m[10] and >820m,[11] unsuspected feats until that time.

A satellite telemetry research programme, funded by the Italian Ministry of the environment and carried out in collaboration with the IWC, the University of Siena, ISPRA, and the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, Seattle (USA), investigated fine-scale habitat use, movements and migration patterns of fin whales in the Pelagos Sanctuary in September 2012.[12] Results indicate that tagged fin whales remained in the Pelagos Sanctuary summer feeding grounds until late autumn, much longer than expected, most likely due to the unusual climate conditions triggering prolonged productivity and whale feeding activity. Satellite tracking also revealed that the feeding habitat of fin whales extends substantially to the west of the Pelagos Sanctuary’s boundaries, well into the Gulf of Lion and into Spanish waters. Fine scale associations with oceanographic features and potential feeding habitats within the Sanctuary were also observed.

Since 1991 Tethys has been committed to cetacean research and conservation in Ionian Greece through the implementation of the Ionian Dolphin Project (IDP). The IDP was conducted first from a research vessel (1991-1994), then based on the island of Ithaca (1995), and subsequently transferred to the island of Kalamos (1996-2008). The project field base is currently located in Vonitsa (2006 – present), on the southern shore of the Ambracian Gulf. IDP studies focused on a population of endangered short-beaked common dolphins living in the Inner Ionian Archipelago,[13][14] and a population of common bottlenose dolphins residing in the semi-enclosed Ambracian Gulf.[15] Research on Ionian dolphins in Greece allowed to document the almost total disappearance of short-beaked common dolphins from the area, attributed to reckless overfishing of the dolphins’ main prey, sardines and anchovies,[16] and the precarious state of conservation of the small, genetically distinct common bottlenose dolphin population confined in the highly degraded Gulf of Ambracia.[17][18]

Conservation actions[edit]

In addition to making the results of its research projects available to marine conservation and management activities, Tethys’ members are actively participating in the international conservation process in collaboration with many intergovernmental organisations, including the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean, the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS), the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Society for Marine Mammalogy, and the European Cetacean Society. As members of the IUCN Red List Authority for cetaceans, and in collaboration with the Red List Secretariat, Tethys' experts have contributed to the inclusion in the Red List of Threatened Species of a number of Mediterranean taxa, including the regional sub-populations of fin whales, short-beaked common dolphins, sperm whales, and common bottlenose dolphins, and the giant devilray, Mobula mobular.

In terms of practical conservation on the ground, based on the results of its research cruises in 1987-89 Tethys first conceived and proposed the creation of an iconic protected area, the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals, the world’s first marine protected area established beyond national jurisdiction.[19] With the support of the European Association Rotary for the Environment, and in collaboration with Europe Conservation (an NGO), on 2 March 1991 Tethys presented the "Pelagos Sanctuary" idea to H.S.H. the Prince Rainier III of Monaco. This event originated a long process whereby three nations (France, Italy and the Principality of Monaco), with the intervening support by many environmental NGOs in France and Italy, were able to finally agree on an international treaty signed in Rome on 25 November 1999. Tethys was also the first proponent of a Dolphin Reserve off the island of Lošinj (Croatia), which however no longer exists. Having been established by Croatia in 2006, the reserve was met with such a strong opposition by local stakeholders that its confirmation was torpedoed in 2009.

Tethys is also contributing to the conservation of the Critically Endangered Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus). Having catalysed the support to the plight of the Mediterranean pinniped by the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, Tethys joined efforts with WWF Greece in a long-term project, CYCLADES LIFE+, co-financed by the European Commission, the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, the BlueMarine Foundation, and the Ensemble Foundation. The project envisages the involvement of the local communities of the islands of Syros and Andros (Greece) in the co-management and participation in the protection of the local marine biodiversity, particularly on and around the uninhabited island of Gyaros, which hosts the Mediterranean's largest surviving colony of monk seals, as well as important colonies of threatened marine birds. Tethys' expertise has also contributed to the formulation of a national strategy and action plan for the conservation of the Mediterranean monk seal in Greece,[20] and to the Regional Strategy for the conservation of monk seals in the Mediterranean,[21] adopted by the Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention during their 18th Ordinary Meeting in Istanbul in 2013.

Awareness and education[edit]

A fundamental aspect of Tethys’ contribution to marine conservation is public awareness, achieved through the institute’s presence on the social media and public television, articles, lectures, conferences, shows, museum installations as well as through the involvement, as research volunteers, of thousands of people from across the world in its citizen science programmes. In fact Tethys’ involvement of volunteers in its long-term research projects (CSR and IDP) is amongst the world’s longest standing programmes of citizen science. Tethys was also involved as a participant in a project named "Thalassa Campaign: Learn, Act, Protect - Awareness, Educational and Participation Campaign for Marine Mammals in Greece", financed by the European Commission. The project, which ended in 2013, integrated public awareness, environmental education campaigns and numerous participatory actions in order to engage the Greek public in an effort to actively protect marine mammals and their natural environment in Greek waters.

Organisation structure[edit]

The formal structure of the Tethys Research Institute is that of an association incorporated within the Italian law. The main governing body is the Assembly of Members, which elects the board of directors and the President. The work of Tethys is based on the collaboration of approximately 30 associates and assistants. Funding to Tethys derives from government grants, private donors, European Commission programmes, and contributions from research volunteers.


  1. ^ Notarbartolo; Sciara, G (2012). "Historical perspectives. Ancient waves, recent concerns: the budding of marine mammal conservation science in Italy". Aquatic Mammals. 38 (4): 441–455. doi:10.1578/AM.38.4.2012.441.
  2. ^ Notarbartolo di Sciara G., Venturino M.C., Zanardelli M., Bearzi G., Borsani F.J., Cavalloni B. 1993. Cetaceans in the central Mediterranean Sea: distribution and sighting frequencies. Bollettino di Zoologia (Italian Journal of Zoology) 60:131-138.
  3. ^ Panigada, S.; Lauriano, G.; Burt, L.; Pierantonio, N.; Donovan, G. (2011). "Monitoring winter and summer abundance of cetaceans in the Pelagos Sanctuary (Northwestern Mediterranean Sea) through aerial surveys". PLOS ONE. 6 (7): e22878. Bibcode:2011PLoSO...622878P. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022878. PMC 3146501. PMID 21829544.
  4. ^ Bearzi, G.; Notarbartolo; Sciara, G.; Politi, E. (1997). "Social ecology of bottlenose dolphins in the Kvarneric (northern Adriatic Sea)". Marine Mammal Science. 13 (4): 650–668. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.1997.tb00089.x.
  5. ^ Bearzi, G.; Politi, E.; Notarbartolo; Sciara, G. (1999). "Diurnal behavior of free-ranging bottlenose dolphins in the Kvarneric (northern Adriatic Sea)". Marine Mammal Science. 15 (4): 1065–1097. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.1999.tb00878.x.
  6. ^ Azzellino, A.; Airoldi, S.; Gaspari, S.; Nani, B. (2008). "Habitat use of cetaceans along the continental slope and adjacent waters in the Western Ligurian Sea". Deep-Sea Research Part I. 55: 296–323. doi:10.1016/j.dsr.2007.11.006.
  7. ^ Azzellino, A.; Panigada, S.; Lanfredi, C.; Zanardelli, M.; Airoldi, S.; Notarbartolo; Sciara, G. (2012). "Predictive habitat models for managing marine areas: spatial and temporal distribution of marine mammals within the Pelagos Sanctuary (Northwestern Mediterranean Sea)". Ocean and Coastal Management. 67: 63–74. doi:10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2012.05.024.
  8. ^ Azzellino, A.; Fossi, M.C.; Gaspari, S.; Lanfredi, C.; Lauriano, G.; Marsili, L.; Panigada, S.; Podestà, M. (2014). "An index based on the biodiversity of cetacean species to assess the environmental status of marine ecosystems". Marine Environmental Research. 100: 94–111. doi:10.1016/j.marenvres.2014.06.003. hdl:11311/946164. PMID 25016937.
  9. ^ Bérubé, M.; Aguilar, A.; Dendanto, D.; Larsen, F.; Notarbartolo; Sciara, G.; Sears, R.; Sigurjonsson, J.; Urban, J.; Palsbøll, P.J. (1998). "Population genetic structure of North Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea and Sea of Cortez fin whales, Balaenoptera physalus (Linnaeus 1758) analysis of mitochondrial and nuclear loci". Molecular Ecology. 7 (5): 585–599. doi:10.1046/j.1365-294x.1998.00359.x. PMID 9633102. S2CID 21081827.
  10. ^ Panigada, S.; Zanardelli, M.; Canese, S.; Jahoda, M. (1999). "How deep can baleen whales dive?". Marine Ecology Progress Series. 187: 309–311. Bibcode:1999MEPS..187..309P. doi:10.3354/meps187309.
  11. ^ Baird, R.W.; Borsani, J.F.; Bradley Hanson, M.; Tyack, P.L. (2002). "Diving and night-time behavior of long-finned pilot whales in the Ligurian Sea". Marine Ecology Progress Series. 237: 301–305. Bibcode:2002MEPS..237..301B. doi:10.3354/meps237301.
  12. ^ Notarbartolo di Sciara G., Panigada S., Agardy T. 2013. Is the Pelagos Sanctuary sufficiently large for the cetacean populations it is intended to protect? Rapports de la Commission intérnationale pour la Mer Méditerranée 40:623.
  13. ^ Bearzi, G.; Politi, E.; Agazzi, S.; Bruno, S.; Costa, M.; Bonizzoni, S. (2005). "Occurrence and present status of coastal dolphins (Delphinus delphis and Tursiops truncatus) in the eastern Ionian Sea". Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. 15 (3): 243–257. doi:10.1002/aqc.667.
  14. ^ Piroddi, C.; Bearzi, G.; Gonzalvo, J.; Christensen, V. (2011). "From common to rare: the case of the Mediterranean common dolphin". Biological Conservation. 144 (10): 2490–2498. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2011.07.003.
  15. ^ Bearzi, G.; Agazzi, S.; Bonizzoni, S.; Costa, M.; Azzellino, A. (2008). "Dolphins in a bottle: abundance, residency patterns and conservation of bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus in the semi-closed eutrophic Amvrakikos Gulf, Greece". Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. 18 (2): 130–146. doi:10.1002/aqc.843.
  16. ^ Bearzi, G.; Agazzi, S.; Gonzalvo, J.; Bonizzoni, S.; Costa, M.; Petroselli, A. (2010). "Biomass removal by dolphins and fisheries in a Mediterranean Sea coastal area: do dolphins have an ecological impact on fisheries?". Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. 20 (5): 549–559. doi:10.1002/aqc.1123.
  17. ^ Gonzalvo, J.; Giovos, I.; Moutopoulos, D.K. (2014). "Fishermen perceptions in support of sustainability of small-scale fisheries and dolphin conservation in two increasingly fragile coastal ecosystems in Western Greece". Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. 25 (1): 91–106. doi:10.1002/aqc.2444.
  18. ^ Gonzalvo, J.; Giovos, I.; Mazzariol, S. (2015). "Prevalence of epidermal conditions in common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in the Gulf of Ambracia, western Greece". Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. 463: 32–38. doi:10.1016/j.jembe.2014.11.004.
  19. ^ Notarbartolo; Sciara, G.; Agardy, T.; Hyrenbach, D.; Scovazzi, T.; Van Klaveren, P. (2008). "The Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean marine mammals". Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. 18 (4): 367–391. doi:10.1002/aqc.855.
  20. ^ Notarbartolo di Sciara G., Adamantopoulou S., Androukaki E., Dendrinos P., Karamanlidis A.A., Paravas V., Kotomatas S. 2009. National strategy and action plan for the conservation of the Mediterranean monk seal in Greece, 2009 - 2015. Report on evaluating the past and structuring the future. Publication prepared as part of the LIFE-Nature Project: MOFI: Monk Seal and Fisheries: mitigating the conflict in Greek Seas. Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Mediterranean monk seal (MOm), Athens. 71 p.
  21. ^ Notarbartolo di Sciara G. 2013. Draft Regional Strategy for the conservation of monk seals in the Mediterranean (2013-2019). UNEP(DEPI)/MED WG.382/9 Rev.1. 37 p.

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