America Trip: ESA in Baltimore

Ecological Society of America centennial conference

It was my first time attending ESA (America) and this year it was in Baltimore. The conference itself was an experience; they really turned it on for the centenary. There was a personal message from President Obama, a celebratory/promotional video, an animated version of Dan Simberloff’s work on island biogeography and an incredibly depressing performance which combined a string quartet, narration and images to paint a bleak picture of our impact on the environment.

There was content between 8:30 and 5 with around 20 concurrent sessions at any given time plus poster sessions and trade displays and workshops. There was no lunch break and the whole thing was very fully on because they wanted to fit the most possible content into the days they had available.

All that aside, the talks I went to were fantastic and covered everything from education to community engagement to nutrient cycling. I went to so many fantastic talks that I couldn’t possibly describe them all I’ll detail a few of my favourites below.


How basic ecology has and will continue to shape conservation science

Each speaker in the symposium discussed how a basic research has impacted conservation – something I’m particularly interested in. A few of the talks that most interested me in this symposium were

Joshua Lawler discussed how niche theory relates to species distribution models which are now extensively used in conservation, particularly in reserve design

James Estes discussed how studying food webs gives us insights into species interactions and the nature of top down and bottom up control. This was all related to the classic Sea Otter, Urchin, Kelp problem.

Lenore Fahrig talked about how we have been misinterpreting the concept of habitat fragmentation. Habitat fragmentation literature often confounds the amount and fragmentation of the habitat (looking at patch size or distance to nearest patch etc). In fact, when you look at fragmentation independent of the amount of habitat available the effect is usually either neutral or beneficial.

Beyond Invasional Meltdown: Implications and Impacts of Co-Occurring Invasive Species and Assessing Future Research Needs

The speakers here were focussing on Dan Simberloff’s concept of invasional meltdown and more broadly how invasive species interact with eachother and native species

Dan Simberloff opened the proceedings by discussing the original concept of invasional meltdown and how it has been used/misused since its inception. The original concept of invasional meltdown was of a system where invasive species facilitated the spread of other invasives.

Carla di Antonio talked about how removing one invader in a Hawaiian system just made room for another invader to become more prevalent- it didn’t result in any improvements for the native species community.

Sara Kuebbing looked at how frequently different types of interactions occurred with invasive species and talked about how we can avoid the ‘invasion treadmill’ where one invasive species is replaces with another as Carla discussed.

Individual talks

Jane Catford is actually also part of the QAECO lab but only spends about a third of her time there and the rest in Canberra or Minnesota. Somehow, without collaborating, we have ended up working on very similar questions. Jane presented her work on the term ‘invasive species’ and the different interpretations of that term. She showed that there most classifications rely on some combination of four biogeographic criteria (local abundance, geographic range size, environmental range size, spread rate), plus impact. These can be combined to create 15 different ways of being invasive, all of which are used in the invasive literature.

Joshua Drew talked about how the density of human habitation (and consequent pollution and erosion) and fishing pressure was influencing fish assemblages in Papua New Guinea. Most of his work was using a space for time substitution, looking at areas with different human populations and relating this to their fish diversity. However, he did some nice stuff with historical data to verify that increasing human density (rather than other factors) caused the reduction of biodiversity.

Emily Farrer looked at how anthropogenic factors influence the invasion of species into suitable and marginal habitat. Road density was (unsurprisingly) very important and helped invasive species access and persist in marginal habitats. I found this particularly interesting because of the difficulty of defining what a marginal vs suitable habitat was. I believe she did this using SDM methods and calling areas with over 50% likelihood of occurrence ‘suitable’ and those with a lower likelihood ‘unsuitable’ but if these terms are widely used I suspect they are defined very differently in different studies.

Fantastic people I met

Our lab was underrepresented this year (possibly because ICCB was in such an idyllic location) so I attended on my own which was uncomfortable but ultimately probably very beneficial. Because I didn’t know anyone, it was a case of make friends or be lonely and as a result I met many more people and got to know those people much better than if I had have attended in a group of people – though there were also a few lonely times. I met so many fantastic people at ESA that I couldn’t describe them all so I’ll just tell you about the people I got to know the best

Joshua Drew

Josh (@Drew_Lab) is a lecturer at Columbia University studying biogeography and fish. He knows my supervisor Mick McCarthy (@mickresearch) through twitter. Mick recommended that we meet up at ESA and I really enjoyed hearing all about Josh’s research and teaching experiences. It sounds like he’d be a great person to study under because he puts a lot of thought and effort into his students.

Pamela Reynolds and Marissa Lee

Marissa presented in the same session as me about some work that she and Pamela (and colleagues) have been working on. They’d done a systematic review on how people are researching functional diversity. They found that most people who study functional traits collect their own information rather than using trait databases which is likely to be because people treat and measure traits very differently – so there isn’t much trust in the consistency of the trait databases. This has some strong similarities to my work on woodland birds and they use a very similar method to what I used to form the foundation for my research on woodland birds so it was interesting to hear about the pitfalls they faced during the process.

Laura Ferguson

Laura is a Masters student at Oregon State University and presented a talk about scientist-stakeholder engagement in the “Climate Change and Water Sustainability – Willamette Water 2100” project. She showed that having a facilitator, sharing a common goal and including diverse opinions in discussions resulted in more successful science-driven stakeholder engagement. Hey work is primarily in watery systems rather than terrestrial ones but she’s most interested in improving science and management through stakeholder collaboration. I think she’d be a great fit for CEED or CEBRA if she would be willing to move to Australia.

Chanda Littles

I organised to share a room with Chanda (who I’d never met before) through the ESA roomshare website and it was the best decision I could have made. She’s a really great woman who does very interesting work and hopefully will be a friend for life. She works on Manatee behaviour and deals with some fairly sophisticated modelling techniques. She presented her work on the tradeoff Manatees in her system make between feeding in the cold waters of the bay (where they need to expend extra energy to stay warm) and resting in the estuary which is fed by thermal springs. Her interest is in understanding how complex ecological and behavioural mechanisms are influencing the persistence of threatened species.

Bianca Reo/Charbonneau

Bianca studies dunes: their morphology, ecology, stability and erosion and how all of these things influenced the destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy. Natural sand dunes were able to very successfully mitigate storm damage but they tend to be under-rated. Bianca has just written an article after my own heart on dune terminology. It turns out there is disagreement about what terms like ‘blow out’ mean which is impeding communication between researchers and with the public. That article will come out some time next month and you should all read it: A REVIEW OF DUNES IN TODAY’S SOCIETY

Dan Simberloff

Dan Simberloff is a pretty famous ecologist. So much so that his paper on island biogeography (where he killed all the insects on mangrove ‘islands’ and monitored how they recolonised) was turned into a cartoon for ESA – not by his request. I’ve admired his work for years. He was at the conference presenting work on invasional meltdown where (among other things) he touched on how inconsistently the term was being used. I contacted him before the conference and he agreed to meet with me and discuss my ideas about terminological consistency! He turned out to be a lovely, humble, soft spoken man who gave me a lot of time and consideration. He heard out my ideas and thought they were interesting though he doesn’t believe that it is possible to change the way people use terms. As much as I would like to prove him wrong, I think he’s probably right (at least in most circumstances)

Lenore Fahrig

I have admired Lenore’s work for a long time too. Her research focuses on the effects of habitat fragmentation but from time to time she has published an article commenting on the use of terms in that field such as ‘fragmentation’ and ‘connectivity. She was at ESA presenting her recent review of the fragmentation literature where she found (much to her horror I imagine) that, in cases where habitat fragmentation had a significant impact on diversity, it usually increased diversity (rather than decreasing it as expected and proposed in many of her own papers). I always admire someone who finds results that contradict their previous assertions and publishes and publicises them. It shows a high level of scientific integrity. I managed to organise to meet Lenore during ESA and found her to be an excellent and insightful conversationalist. Despite my nerves she was able to draw out details of my work and we found a lot of common ground in talking about inconsistencies in terminology. Like Dan, she is dubious about the possibility of changing the way people use terms like ‘fragmentation’ because the field includes so many researchers and it would be very hard to reach and convince them all. However, she thought there might be hope for my Australian ‘woodland bird’ example because it’s a smaller, more contained system. So I’ve got my fingers crossed that she’s right.

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1 Response to America Trip: ESA in Baltimore

  1. Pingback: My Epic Trip to America | Hannah Fraser Research

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