I missed the first plenary today by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg as I was finalizing my own talk to be given immediatley after the plenary so I am giving a 2nd hand account. But by all accounts it was a great talk. It was on coral reefs and the doom they face. However, unlike many such talks it struck a positive note by pointing out you have to reach people’s hearts to get them to care about coral reefs and demoing an extension to google maps to achieve this that let you “virtual” dive on the coral reefs.
I was part of a session on “Reinvigorating macrecology with process based approaches”, giving the kick-off talk. I only attended this session today partly because I consider it polite to sit all the way through your own session and partly because there were lots of good talks I wanted to see. Which meant I missed talks in at least three other seesions I wanted to go to (its the conference version of Murphy’s law). Rob Colwell, John Harte and myself all gave a strong pitch for the important role of stochastic processes in macroecology (and of seeing them as mechanisms). Sean Connolly explicitly ruled out random placement of species ranges (which both Rob & I cited as an example of a process, albeit stochastic) as not being a process, but gave a nice talk built on Pueyo 2006 a paper which he, and I, would say has not been properly appreciated. It basically builds a Taylor-series like expansion around stochastic null models to increasing levels of complexity (literally higher order terms). Sean tested the framework on a bunch of datasets and showed you need to add the higher order terms (that lead to a lognormal) in most data.
One of the differences I’ve noted from ESA is that at ESA the symposia are all invited speakers with 30 minute slots. Here at INTECOL (or maybe it is a BES tradition) half the speakers are invited and the other half are selected from people who submitted abstracts to give a talk at an oral session and all but one speaker has only 15 minutes. I have mixed feelings about this. It is nice in that it gives early career people a chance to speak at the symposia. And to be exposed to new work instead of some of us (like me repeating old work). But for audience members it kind of reduces the distinction of attending a symposium – namely that a selection filter was applied for people who are mostly good speakers and who have 30 minutes to build their ideas more carefully leading to lots of good talks.
Regardless there were some excellent talks in my symposium (which spanned morning and afternoon). Julia Blanchard talked about work deriving the power distribution with a -2 exponent for body sizes using McKendrick-Von Forester type equations and extended this to show how the body size distribution changes under climate change and fishing pressure. Samraat Pawar presented his 2012 Nature paper deriving optimal foraging parameters from body size allometries (I’m biased having published a paper in this area, but I think this is a really cool, potentially ground breaking paper). Marius Somveille showed a nice study on what controls species diversity in migratory birds (high seasonality). Esther Sebastian-Gonzalez gave a talk on frugivore networks. my first thought was oh-no, not another network statistics talk (such talks are running rampant everywhere), but she actually went the next step and carefully tied traits of the birds and berries to their roles in networks (e.g specialist vs generalist) and examined network variation across latitude (which showed no pattern) which I thought was a great idea of where network theory should be going (i.e. connections to traits and geography). There were several other nice talks in my session, I really enjoyed them all, but space limits prevents more details. Overall, I found it a very heartening session. Although some see macroecology as a plug-and-chug regression then publish field, there is a lot of good deeper thinking going on.
The second symposium was by Nancy Grimm of the ASU sustainability group and the Phoenix Urban LTER speaking on themes near to my own heart. She emphasized that both climate change and the rapid rate of urbanization (we recently passed 50% of the world living in urban areas and may hit 90% by 2100) place increased pressure on water delivery and management. She suggested that the traditional approach of building hard grey infrastructure (lots of concrete) that was designed to make failure (e.g. flooding) rare, but was allowed to fail catastrophically when it failed (think Hurricane Sandy in New York as a recent example) needed to be replaced by a focus on resilience introduced by diversity and green infrastructure and gave some examples. She emphasized that ecologists have an important role in this and we need to start looking at the ecology of built infrastructure and working more closely with engineers. I found this theme inspiring.
The third plenary was Ilka Hanski. He gave a nice overview of the history of spatial ecology. Striking to me (especially given my recent post) was that prior to 2005 the two most highly cited papers on “spatial ecology” where Wiens and Levin’s papers on spatial scaling. The three most highly cited papers since 2005 were all on niche modelling. He then spoke about his recent work on evolution of dispersal in (what else) patchy metapopulations. In his final section he talked about how because metapopulations can collapse (go extinct) when the patch density is too low, the traditional species area law approach to estimating extinctions from lost area is an underestimate – additional species to those going extinct due to loss of area will go extinct due to fragmentation and loss of viable patch structure (too much distance and small patches).
This is another difference I have noticed from ESA. There are lots of plenary sessions – 2-3 every day. And these plenaries are all big name ecologists talking about their work. And everybody goes. My recollection (or more precisely revelation of my perception and behavior of what I attend at ESA) is that the MacArthur award winning lecture is about the only thing at ESA that matches this. There are plenaries for awards, plenaries for opening ceremonies, often with dignitaries, etc. But I really like the high number of plenaries are are basically just high-level departmental seminars. The are all (by definition) excellent, informative speakers, and it sort of ties the conference together (everybody went to the talk and has something to talk about).
One final theme that I see really emerging from this conference is that nobody is willing to squint their eyes and ignore curvilinearities in supposed power laws. If you plot data on a log-log plot you get a straight line if the data follows a power law – y=ax^b and these abound in ecology. But almost always there is a subtle curvilinearity in the data. Joel Cohen talked about them yesterday in his plenary on Taylor’s law. John Harte emphasized their existence in species area relationships. Marcus Viera gave a talk where he argued that mammal allometries should show a break at a body size of 100g due to the Brown-Marquet-Taper argument that this is the optimal body size for mammals. He took an allometry for distance travelled vs body size which had no data below 100 grams (I guess nobody radio collars mice) and went out and got data below 100 grams and show enough there was a clear change in slope (from negative to postive) in distance traveled vs. body size at 100g. Moral of the story – sweep the deviations from straight lines in power laws under the rug at your own risk!
PS – if you want to follow the conference on Twitter look for hashtag #int13