A short history of the CEBC

On February 26, 1951, the present location of the Chizé Centre for Biological Studies was proposed by the French government to be made available to the Americans within the framework of NATO agreements. In December 1953 the construction of the camp began, and was completed six months later. Half of the Chizé forest massif is enclosed and 200 ammunition storage sheds are distributed along asphalt roads. The trees act as a screen in case of bombing. It was the Cold War. 450 American soldiers guarded them and are based at the entrance to today’s buildings. In 1966, General de Gaulle’s France left NATO and the American soldiers packed their bags.

The site did not interest the French army but seemed ideal to Professor Grassé, the dean of French biology at the time, to study the evolution of animals. Professor Grassé was opposed to Darwinian concepts, and wanted to develop a new theory of evolution. His vision was nonetheless avant-garde: interdisciplinary, long-term field research. Strong markers of what the CEBC is still today. One of the approaches was to track by radio tracking the wild animals in the 2600 ha enclosed by the Americans and thus protected, whereas they had practically disappeared outside the enclosed area. This area then became the Hunting and Wildlife Reserve, and later the Integral Biological Reserve.

Professor Grassé persuaded the CNRS to convert the buildings into a pilot field station with laboratories, offices, conference room and restaurant. On 22 February 1968, the Centre d’Etudes Biologiques des Animaux Sauvages (CEBAS) was officially created and has since become the Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé (CEBC). Its purpose is to study the biology of deer, wild boar, martens, martens, genets, badgers, foxes and reptiles. The direction of CEBAS is entrusted to René Canivenc and ultramodern installations for the time are set up: a network of antennas for radio tracking and remote-controlled cameras connected to screens in the laboratory for the study of behaviour are deployed in the forest. The ORTF and the CNRS filmed a first documentary on CEBAS, a pioneer in France in the study of wildlife by radio-telemetry. During the first few years, researchers were busy implementing the new technology, but significant discoveries in ecology were too rare for the CNRS. The two axes of the theme were reversed, to give priority to physiology over ecology; transmitters were deployed to study the physiology of animals in their natural environment (temperature, electrocardiogram, etc.). The management of CEBAS is entrusted to Jean Boissin, but over the years, the funds needed for this high technology and for the development of advanced animal physiology research, which would require very large on-site investments, have not been sufficient. In consultation with CNRS management, researchers wishing to pursue research in physiology are redeployed to other research laboratories. In 1985, when Pierre Jouventin took over the management of the unit, there were only 4 researchers left. In the meantime, the two axes of the theme have been reversed again, to give priority to ecology over physiology. As the posts promised to revive the dynamics cannot be allocated, the CNRS is wondering about the closure of CEBAS

The new director, Pierre Jouventin, has arrived from Montpellier with his wife Line, a research engineer, Henri Weimerskirsch and a team of young students working on the behavioural ecology of birds and marine mammals of the French Southern and Antarctic Territories (TAAF). A relative paradox has just been born, that of the study of emperor penguins, howling albatrosses, killer whales, elephant seals… from the depths of the Chizé forest, and it still appeals to our visitors today!

Moreover, the demographic monitoring carried out in the field over several decades on tens of thousands of individuals of twenty species did not impress the CNRS Life Sciences Department or even the experts of the scientific community in ecology. They found them repetitive and not very innovative… It took the intervention of Ségolène Royal, then Member of Parliament for Deux-Sèvres, with François Mitterrand’s scientific adviser for the Life Sciences Department to realize that the number and quality of scientific publications had clearly improved with articles in the largest international journals.

For 13 years, Pierre Jouventin has been working hard to revitalize the CEBC: bridges have been built between behavioural ecology and ecophysiology. Little by little, young CNRS researchers were recruited, most of them from newly arrived PhD students. In the surplus buildings, rooms are created by the laboratory technicians to house the many naturalist and enthusiastic students who are beginning their training in ecology while living year-round at the CEBC. Qualified as the fifth base of the TAAF, the laboratory then has a farmyard whose roosters come to crow under the director’s window while he talks with the CNRS management.

The electroshock caused by the announcement of the possible closure mobilized the local authorities: the only research laboratory in the Deux-Sèvres department almost disappeared. The Departmental Council is investing to renovate the laboratory’s aging infrastructure and is funding teaching positions, running university internships for students from all over France. The long-term demographic series, decried a few years earlier, are proving to be a veritable “gold mine” for studying questions of fundamental ecology or for assessing the effects of global changes of which we are then fully aware.

Today’s CEBC retains the imprint of its initial orientations. Our laboratory remains a national and international leader in the study of animal behaviour through biotelemetry and biologging (recorders equipped with miniaturised sensors attached to animals for recording data on their movements, behaviour, physiology and/or their environment). The world’s first successful installation of an Argos beacon on a bird, the great albatross, was carried out in 1990 by researchers from the laboratory. More recently, the laboratory is involved in the development of new generations of beacons that are deployed on seals to sample oceanographic parameters while studying their behaviour or to use large albatrosses as coastguards to spot illegal fishing vessels. A second legacy is the hormonal and biological analysis laboratory with unique know-how in the world for measuring pituitary hormones from tiny blood samples. Pr Grassé’s vision comes true.

1999, another hard blow! 40% of the laboratory roofs are blown off during the December storm! It will take all the will of the new director, Patrick Duncan, and the support of the CNRS, Bernard Pau and Bernard Delay, to refurbish the laboratory and transform this “disaster” into an opportunity to modernize it: new biochemistry laboratory, creation of rooms to accommodate 40 students, creation of a new library. Europe and local authorities are once again mobilising with the CNRS. The roofs are changing, the grey is abandoned in favour of red !

What has now become the Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé is diversifying its research activities, particularly on biodiversity in local ecosystems (forests, hedgerows, marshes) and with the establishment of the Zone-Atelier du Val de Sèvre. The laboratory is opening up even more internationally. Three research teams have been set up with the following central themes: study of the dynamics of biodiversity in agricultural systems (Agripop), adaptation and ecophysiological responses to environmental stresses (Ecophy), and study of the ecology of marine predators (Marine Predators). In addition, programmes aimed at ensuring the conservation of environments and species and deriving directly from the research conducted at the CEBC are increasing in number. Numerous documentaries, reports and books present the studies carried out by the laboratory’s researchers. Vincent Bretagnolle, Xavier Bonnet and Christophe Guinet are successively in charge of the CEBC. Henri Weimerskirch receives the silver medal from the CNRS for his work on the ecology of seabirds. Charline Parenteau, head of the biological analysis laboratory, is awarded the CNRS Cristal Prize for her creativity, the excellence of her work and her contribution alongside researchers.

On 1 January 2014, the CEBC, which is then the last CNRS clean unit dependent on the Institute Ecology Environment (INEE), will join forces with the University of La Rochelle. With this marriage, the CEBC formally integrates itself into the French university fabric by welcoming teacher-researchers. This association allows the emergence of major centres of expertise for the study of the ecology of birds and marine mammals and for the measurement of the effects of contaminants on wild animals. Over the years, the reputation of the laboratory has continued to grow both nationally and internationally. Today, the CEBC is considered by assessment authorities as an exceptional laboratory in the field of ecology.