The Metatron: an experimental system to study dispersal and metaecosystems for terrestrial organisms

Journal name:
Nature Methods
Year published:
Published online


Dispersal of organisms generates gene flow between populations. Identifying factors that influence dispersal will help predict how species will cope with rapid environmental change. We developed an innovative infrastructure, the Metatron, composed of 48 interconnected patches, designed for the study of terrestrial organism movement as a model for dispersal. Corridors between patches can be flexibly open or closed. Temperature, humidity and illuminance can be independently controlled within each patch. The modularity and adaptability of the Metatron provide the opportunity for robust experimental design for the study of 'meta-systems'. We describe a pilot experiment on populations of the butterfly Pieris brassicae and the lizard Zootoca vivipara in the Metatron. Both species survived and showed both disperser and resident phenotypes. The Metatron offers the opportunity to test theoretical models in spatial ecology.

At a glance


  1. Layout of the Metatron.
    Figure 1: Layout of the Metatron.

    (a) Spatial arrangement of the Metatron. Two sets of 24 patches installed in a 6 × 4 configuration (1–24 and 25–48) have been constructed on a 4-ha parcel. (b) Aerial photograph of the Metatron. On the right, shutters are closed on the top of 17 patches. (c) Example of experimental design with three factors (1–3) with binary states (such as presence/absence) in three replicates. The eight possible combinations are in different colors. Spatial arrangement of replicates is random. (d) Examples of simultaneous complex experimental designs. White, two-dimensional stepping stones; blue, two replicates of linear stepping stones; black and gray, two replicates of three connected patches in which individuals of the central population have the choice to disperse into empty patches (gray), into one occupied and one empty patch, or into two occupied patches (black); red, starlike configuration in which individuals of the central population have the choice to disperse in all directions into empty patches (pale red).

  2. Description of patches and corridors.
    Figure 2: Description of patches and corridors.

    (a) Layout of four patches of the Metatron. Sprinklers and sensors recording temperature (T), humidity (H) and illuminance (I) are at the centers of the patches. The lower-right patch is represented with total enclosure of its roof. Dimensions are in meters. (b) Corridor entries showing the twin system. The left corridor is opened to favor flying-animal crossings; the right corridor is opened to favor nonflying-animal crossings. (c) Schematic showing trap configuration in twin corridors (these may be pitfall traps or insect or bird nets, depending on the needs of the experiment). Arrows indicate the release of trapped individuals in the arrival patch. (d) Interior of a corridor showing the beginning of the central elbow. (e) Interior of a patch. Artificial elements (flower pots, thermoregulation sites in wood and rocks) provide microhabitat heterogeneity and can be designed to provide resources mimicking the natural habitat. The sensors and sprinkler are protected with plastic and labeled with the patch identification number.

  3. Measurement and control of climate parameters.
    Figure 3: Measurement and control of climate parameters.

    (a) Representation of the network allowing data acquisition and parameter control via the TAC Vista application. (b) Representation of the user interface of the TAC Vista application. Parameters of each patch are represented in a single white box. Dmd Shade parameter means 'demand for shade'. Twelve patches are shown here. (c) Representation of the instructions for a target patch.

  4. Temperature within patches.
    Figure 4: Temperature within patches.

    The graph shows mean daily temperature over 24 patches of the Metatron from July to December 2010 (red) with confidence intervals (gray). The black curve represents outside mean temperature. Records were not available at some time points (between October and November) because of technical maintenance.

  5. Impact of the shutter and sprinkler systems on climactic conditions within patches.
    Figure 5: Impact of the shutter and sprinkler systems on climactic conditions within patches.

    Four different conditions were applied in test patches for 2 h on 28 August 2011: total enclosure of the shutter, sprinkler activation, total enclosure of the shutter plus sprinkler activation, and no treatment. (ac) The records of temperature (a), humidity (b) and illuminance (c) over 7 h are shown. The time interval of treatments is indicated in each case.


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Author information

  1. These authors contributed equally to this work.

    • Olivier Guillaume &
    • Michel Baguette


  1. Station d'Ecologie Expérimentale du CNRS à Moulis (SEEM), Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), USR 2936, Moulis, France.

    • Delphine Legrand,
    • Olivier Guillaume,
    • Michel Baguette,
    • Audrey Trochet,
    • Olivier Calvez,
    • Susanne Zajitschek,
    • Felix Zajitschek &
    • Jean Clobert
  2. Département Ecologie et Gestion de la Biodiversité, Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France.

    • Delphine Legrand &
    • Michel Baguette
  3. Laboratoire Evolution et Diversité Biologique (EDB), CNRS, UMR 5174, Toulouse, France.

    • Julien Cote
  4. Laboratoire EDB, Université de Toulouse, Toulouse, France.

    • Julien Cote
  5. Department of Evolutionary Biology, Evolutionary Biology Centre, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden.

    • Susanne Zajitschek
  6. Department of Animal Ecology, Ageing Research Group, Evolutionary Biology Centre, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden.

    • Felix Zajitschek
  7. Université Paris-Sud 11, UMR 8079, Orsay, France.

    • Jane Lecomte
  8. CNRS, UMR 8079, Orsay, France.

    • Jane Lecomte
  9. AgroParisTech, Paris, France.

    • Jane Lecomte
  10. Délégation Midi-Pyrénées, CNRS, Toulouse, France.

    • Quentin Bénard
  11. Centre de Recherche en Ecologie Expérimentale et Prédictive (CEREEP)–Ecotron IleDeFrance, CNRS and Ecole Normale Supérieure, UMS 3194, St-Pierre-lès-Nemours, France.

    • Jean-François Le Galliard
  12. Laboratoire Ecologie et Evolution, CNRS and Ecole Normale Supérieure, UMS 3194, St-Pierre-lès-Nemours, France.

    • Jean-François Le Galliard


J. Clobert had the initial idea and managed the fund acquisition for the construction of the Metatron. J. Clobert, J.L., J.-F.L.G., O.G., Q.B. and M.B. participated in the final conception of the system, and J. Clobert, O.G. and Q.B. solved all the technical issues. D.L., A.T., O.C. and M.B. collected butterfly data. J. Cote, F.Z., S.Z., O.C. and J. Clobert collected lizard data. D.L. and A.T. analyzed the butterfly data. J. Cote analyzed the lizard data. D.L., O.G., M.B., J. Cote, J.-F.L.G. and J. Clobert wrote the paper. All authors commented on and approved the final version of the paper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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