Mass Extinction Conference - 30.05.2024




Today more than 42,100 species are threatened with extinction (IUCN) and more than 150,300 species are on the IUCN Red List including 41% of amphibians, 37% of sharks and rays, 36% of reef building corals, 34% of conifers, 27% of mammals, 16% of selected insects, and 13% of birds. Meanwhile, marked and abrupt anthropogenic perturbations of the cycles of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and various metals together with new chemical compounds are characterizing the ‘Anthropocene’ leading to changing climate, atmosphere and marine oxygenation. It is a firm reminder of the fragility and subtle equilibrium of the environment we are living in and of which we are part. Previous mass extinctions can help us better understand and estimate the level of change, the rapidity and relations between sub-environments. Clearly, there is urgency for joining our efforts to find solutions, to profoundly rethink our use of natural resources and the way to go for the protection and restoration of our environment, planet Earth.


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Welcome word General Director Dr Michel Van Camp
Word from the Chairman of the board of Directors BELSPO, Arnaud Vajda


Keynotes Part I


Understanding extinctions: Lessons from the geological past to address the Anthropocene Biodiversity Crisis.

Dr Frank P. Wesselingh - Molluscan paleontologist - Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, The Netherlands.

The sixth extinction: fact, fiction or speculation?
Dr Benoît Fontaine - Conservation Biologist - Centre d’Écologie et des Sciences de la Conservation (CESCO), France.
Coffee break (VIP Room)


Keynotes Part II


Eocene Thermal Maxima: impact on (terrestrial) biodiversity and comparison with present-day global warming

Dr Thierry Smith - Paleontologist - Institute of Natural Sciences

The ethics of species extinctions

Dr Anna Wienhues - Environmental philosopher - University of Oslo, Norway & KULeuven, Belgium

Lunch (VIP room)


Communication on the role of natural history museums

Dr Patrick Semal – Head of Heritage Service - Institute of Natural Sciences




Moderators : Kelle Moreau - Institute of Natural Sciences & Petra Manderscheid - JPI Climate BELSPO

Participants: Dr Frank P. Wesselingh, Dr Benoît Fontaine, Dr Thierry Smith, Dr Anna Wienhues, Dr Luc Janssens de Bisthoven - CEBioS, Institute of Natural Sciences.

Questions to be tackled:

- Does the current biodiversity loss qualify as a mass extinction? What is the role of Humans in it?

- What are the most urgent measures to take to tackle the current biodiversity loss? In the climate change debate, it is rather clear that we need to invest in mitigation and adaptation. But what in the case of biodiversity loss? Which sectors should be targeted, and how can citizens contribute to the general effort?

- What ambition do we need to aim at? Again, in the climate change issue, a clear 1.5°C increase maximum is identified. But what is the target we need to set regarding biodiversity loss? And how can we best explain the reasons Why this is important? How can we go forward, and make policymakers take the good decisions regarding Nature restoration, cf. also the European Green Deal?


Coffee break
End of Conference


































A lifelong naturalist and agricultural engineer by training, Benoît Fontaine is a conservation biologist. He first worked on great apes in Gabon before joining the malacology laboratory at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, where he did his PhD thesis. His subject was how to take into account unknown and little-known species in conservation strategies, with a focus on terrestrial molluscs. He now works at the Centre d’Ecologie et des Sciences de la Conservation (Centre for Ecology and Conservation Sciences) at the Paris Museum, where he studies the impact of global change on common species, using citizen science tools. At the same time, he is interested in assessing the extinction crisis through the prism of invertebrates.


Thierry Smith is a senior researcher in vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. He holds a master’s degree in zoology and a PhD degree in geology and mineralogy from UCLouvain. He was a research fellow at the Fund for Scientific Research and prize-winner of the Royal Academy of Belgium for his PhD thesis. Today, he is the head of the Paleontology service (renamed Research Program Paleobiosphere Evolution), which is one of the three research units of the Operational Directorate Earth and History of Life. He is a guest professor at the University of Namur, where he teaches the main paleontology course, and a fellow member of the Royal Academy for Overseas Sciences. Thierry’s research includes the origin, evolution, paleobiodiversity, paleobiogeography and biostratigraphy of early modern vertebrates, as well as the reconstruction and paleoclimate of early Paleogene continental ecosystems. His expertise is particularly focused on the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum, one of the fastest and most intense global warming events since the dinosaurs disappeared 66 million years ago. This event, which happened 56 million years ago, seems to be at the origin of the rapid dispersal of the first main groups of modern mammals (primates, ungulates, rodents, cetaceans, bats...) via land bridges, notably in Greenland and the Bering Strait. Thierry is author or co-author of more than 150 full papers in international scientific journals. He is also an editor for different scientific journals and an advisor for exhibitions in Belgium and France. He leaded more than 40 international field expeditions, mainly in India, China, Romania and Wyoming.


Frank Wesselingh is an interdisciplinary researcher who uses fossil shells, micropaleontological, sedimentary and isotope proxies to explore landscape and ecosystem evolution and drivers of biodiversity change in past and present in order to understand and mitigate Anthropocene trajectories. He has been researching the rise and fall of Neogene Amazonian aquatic ecosystems and the rise and demise of the unique biota and ecosystems of the Caspian-Black Sea region. Today he is constructing time series of biodiversity change in the North Sea Basin Pliocene and Pleistocene to understand how biota responded in the past to sudden and adverse climatic shifts. The fossil time series provide understanding of triggers and thresholds of regime shifts and identify risks and trajectories under Anthropocene scenarios. Engaging with stakeholders and the pubic has become an essential part of his work to ensure that the lessons from the past are used to shape the sustainable seas of the future together. Dr Wesselingh completed a MSc Earth Sciences Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 1994 (Stratigraphy & Palaeontology), a PhD at the University Turku, 2009 (with honors and winning best PhD thesis award 2009) – He is currently curator, researcher and senior researcher at Naturalis Leiden.


Anna Wienhues is an assistant professor for environmental philosophy at KU Leuven. Previously she was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oslo and the University of Zurich, and she holds a PhD in political theory from the University of Manchester. Her research focuses on two interrelated research fields within the domain of philosophy. The first constitutes environmental ethics with an emphasis on different themes within non-anthropocentric conservation philosophy. The second field constitutes green political theory with a focus on questions of interspecies and environmental justice and what this implies for sustainability and just conservation. She is the author of Ecological Justice and the Extinction Crisis: Giving Living Beings their Due (Bristol University Press 2020).


Luc Janssens de Bisthoven is a biologist, PhD (KU Leuven, Belgium), specialised in aquatic ecology and ecotoxicology, biomonitoring with macro-invertebrates and wetlands. He did several post-docs in Sweden, South Africa and Portugal, two years teaching at Kenyatta University in Kenya, and 10 years consultancy bureau in Germany, He then became program officer at the Flemish Inter-University Council for Development Cooperation (VLIR-UOS, Brussels), where he managed university projects for Suriname, Ethiopia, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya. Since 2013 he is coordinator of the CEBioS program at the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences in Brussels, Belgium. With an administrative and scientific staff of 10 persons, CEBioS supports policy and capacity building on biodiversity issues in Benin, Burundi, DR Congo, Vietnam and several Sahel countries. It is funded by the Belgian Directorate General for Development Cooperation (DGD). Luc was also in 2017-2019 promoter of the EVAMAB project, funded by the Belgian Science Policy administration BELSPO. EVAMAB supports the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere program, by focusing on the valuation of ecosystem services in four MAB sites, located in Benin, Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia. Luc published over 50 peer reviewed articles on aquatic biomonitoring, and issues related to capacity building, biodiversity and participative stakeholder engagement related to conservation. In his free time Luc likes writing, is a fervent photographer and is curious of the world through his travels.

Luc Janssens de Bisthoven – The Conversation 


Patrick Semal is paleoanthropologist and curator of the collection of Anthropology and Prehistory at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. As curator of the fossil hominids collection, he participated in several international research projects about the Neandertal-Anatomical Modern Human transition in Europe. As curator of the bio anthropological collection, he is also interested in the ethical issues of the ownership aspects as well as the problematic of the scientific analysis on such collections. He is since 2014 the head of the Scientific Service of Heritage of the RBINS.  His other research interests lie in the digitisation of Natural History collections using high resolution 3D workflows. He is involved in developing collaborative digital platforms based on Open Source Technology, as well as the integration of multimedia data in internet databases and coordinated the digitisation efforts of RBINS.