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Doctoral students in portrait: Estève Boutaud – Scrabbling ahead

2019-02-25 The French ecologist wanted to do his doctorate with one of the world's leading ground beetle experts. That is what motivated him to drive from the Atlantic coast to the Leuphana in his old Peugeot.

Stacks of sample-tube boxes almost reach the ceiling. The shelves are overflowing with display cases containing beetles, identification literature and preparation tools; all this surrounded by the sour waft of preservative solution. Small plastic containers marked: “Semi-open corridors”, “BEF China”, or “Ecocult” contain insects from various projects. Estève Boutaud has worked on all of them and is currently studying them. The doctoral student has already co-authored around ten scientific publications and more are in the pipeline. That is why the ecologist spends a lot of time in the lab. Bent down, he sits at one of the large work tables, and peers through the stereo microscope at a Petri dish containing beetles. Boutaud sorts and identifies insects for data collection. These animals captured in the Lüneburg Heath are all ground beetles – the Frenchman’s passion. It is this group of species, which motivated Boutaud to send an application to Prof. Dr. Thorsten Aßmann after studying ecology at Orleans University. The animal ecologist is one of the leading beetle experts worldwide. “Aßmann scientific pursuit is not limited to purely ecological research; he also works on taxonomy. Typically, museums have the task of describing and systematising new species. This scientific diversity appealed to me,” explains Boutaud.

Rare, but all the more sought-after species

He also possesses an extensive species knowledge and therefore belongs to a rare, but all the more sought-after species. The great diversity of nature awakened his spirit of discovery in early childhood. Boutaud grew up in a small village near Poitiers. All he had to do was walk out his front door and he was standing in the middle of meadows, woods or close to a small river. At that time, he explored the area with a school friend who was very interested in bird watching. “Her enthusiasm impacted on me,” recalls Boutaud. He soon knew all the bird species in the area. Then he identified trees and herbs. He was even more fascinated by what crawled on leaves, branches and the ground: beetles. “They form the most species-rich group within insects. Their biology is very diverse: some species are predators, others herbivores or decomposers. Beetles live everywhere; some species even dwell in water. In winter, nature still harbours some beetles, which is not the case with many other insect groups” explains Boutaud. As a teenager, he borrowed books about beetles and other insects from the village library to learn more about the animal world. Today, he publishes as a researcher himself.
Most recently, research results, to which he contributed, were included in the Federal Network Agency's evaluation of the nationwide extra-high voltage power lines. The construction project involves laying underground cables throughout Germany. The route will also lead through the Lüneburg Heath where it could fragment habitats. “This could be a problem, especially for species with a low dispersal power,” explains Boutaud. Semi-open corridors could help these animals to dispers. The corridors’ objective is to connect natural forest/ open land habitats by serving as a transition areas between them. The experiment showed that unwinged ground beetles use these corridors. These scientific results indicate the importance of semi-open corridors in the nature reserve Lüneburg Heath, as Boutaud reports.
The current research project “Ecocult” leads the entomologist back to the Lüneburg Heath. There, an interdisciplinary team of researchers is working on questions concerning the safeguard of ecosystem services and biodiversity of sustainably managed cultivated landscapes. Boutaud tests, for example, how ground beetles react to various types of heathland habitat managements. Ground beetles are particularly suitable for nature conservation questions, as this group of species is very diverse: in Germany alone, there are around 550 ground beetle species. They differ not only in size and shape, but also in their habitat specialisation and their dispersal potential. Some species can fly, others are flightless.

Rats in the kitchen

Boutaud prefers to observe beetles in nature. Rain, heat or even cold leave him unfazed. The entomologist loves field work in all weathers. He carried out part of his research activity in Chinese subtropics where he was involved in the DFG project “BEF China” on the diversity of forest ecosystems. In the research building next to the areas earmarked for investigation, a rat sometimes scuttled through the kitchen and he protected himself from mosquitoes which are potentially disease carrier with a strong repellent. Boutaud likes challenges. He often burns the midnight oil at home gazing into his own microscope, preparing beetles, identifying rare species or browsing through the latest research literature. Sometimes, he does this only to support fellow students in their research. Boutaud never gets enough of insects and science.


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Estève Boutaud
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Author: Marietta Hülsmann