My take-home impressions from #ESA100:
- I’ve been expecting and hoping for this for a couple of years, and this is the year it finally happened: modern coexistence theory, as developed by Peter Chesson and collaborators, is going mainstream. I’ll even go out on a limb and predict that it’s the next big thing in community ecology. Deborah Goldberg stood up in front of a huge Ignite session crowd and named it as one of the two most important ideas in community ecology right now. A number of people besides the usual suspects gave talks on it, including about how to apply it to new problems. Steve Ellner has invented a new statistical approach that should make estimates of the temporal storage effect (a particularly important component of modern coexistence theory) both easier to do and more accurate. And Peter Chesson presented what may be a major extension of the theory. I’m planning to do my part to get this bandwagon rolling–and help steer it clear of pitfalls–by writing a series of posts explaining modern coexistence theory with minimal (but not zero) math. The emphasis will be on giving you the gist, but in a more precise way than is possible if you just avoid math entirely or rely entirely on illustrative examples. I did the first few a while back, so while you wait for me to write the rest now would be a good time to review the old ones (or read them for the first time).
- Variance partitioning as a way to infer the processes driving metacommunity structure is dead. At least it should be, in my view. It’s now failed three major attempts to validate it using simulated data generated by known processes–Gilbert & Bennett 2010, Smith & Lundholm 2010, and now Eric Sokol’s very good talk at this meeting. And the reasons it fails probably aren’t fixable. Others would disagree, of course. And Eric himself thinks it might be possible to use other statistical approaches to infer process from pattern here, but personally I’ll believe it when I see it. Variance partitioning as a way to infer the processes driving metacommunity structure was a creative idea worth trying out. But we’ve tried it out, and it doesn’t work, not well enough to be useful at any rate. We should stop doing it. And before you say it, no, the fact that we’ve got lots of data sitting around that it would be really nice to make use of is not a good reason to keep on keepin’ on. If an approach doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, no matter how great it would be if the approach actually did work. And no, the purported lack of alternative approaches to accomplish the same goal isn’t a good reason to keep on keepin’ on either. If an approach doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, even if there aren’t any other approaches that would work. Plus, there actually are plenty of alternative ways to study the processes generating metacommunity structure–you can do all sorts of different experiments, you can collect all sorts of other data, you can do all sorts of other analyses, you can do theoretical modeling… (UPDATE: my comments on variance partitioning aren’t as clear as they should’ve been. What’s dead, in my view, is one popular use of variance partitioning–as a diagnostic tool for metacommunity structure. See the comments and this post for more on this.)
- A few other talks I really enjoyed: Michael Cortez has a wonderfully simple, elegant idea for how to partition the stability of eco-evolutionary systems. His approach lets us address questions like whether evolution stabilizes or destabilizes the ecological dynamics (and vice-versa). Brett Melbourne showed tightly-linked models and experiments on how well a species in a changing environment will track the shifting environmental conditions to which it is best-adapted. Always cool to see someone develop a simple model that totally nails what’s going on. The alarming upshot is that standard “niche modeling” approaches for predicting species’ range shifts in response to climate change are likely to fail especially badly for precisely those species we’re most concerned about. Even in the absence of more familiar complications like interspecific interactions and barriers to dispersal. Lauren Shoemaker’s talk on how demographic and environmental stochasticity can alter the strength of spatial coexistence mechanisms was very good too. (Note: I saw lots of other very good talks, and I’m sure I missed many as well. Please don’t read anything into it if I didn’t list your talk here, even if you saw me in the audience.)
- Biggest ESA meeting ever, or very close to it, from what I hear. More sessions than Portland a few years ago, which would seem to imply at least as many attendees.
- The quality of Ignite talks is more variable than that of regular talks, I think for various reasons.
- Thanks again to Ulli Hain and Emma Young for the guest posts on where to eat and drink. Those posts got a lot of views, and I heard from a lot of people who followed their advice and were glad they did. I followed several of their suggestions and can confirm that, yeah, the crab cakes at Faidley’s are amazing, and Pitango’s gelato is so good it should be illegal. 🙂
- My one quibble with the organization this year: I didn’t like having big plenary lectures–including Mercedes Pascual’s MacArthur Award lecture–scheduled at noon. I don’t like forcing attendees to choose between lunch and the MacArthur Award lecture (or between a late lunch and the first half of the afternoon sessions). A big reason people come to ESA is to see their colleagues and friends, which they do over meals.
- I think the over/under on attendance in Ft. Lauderdale next year is 2500. With a big meeting this year, and a popular location (Portland) coming up in 2017, I suspect attendance in Ft. Lauderdale is going to be limited to folks who never miss an ESA meeting. That’s not a criticism of the choice of location–there are good reasons why the meeting needs to move around the country, and why it’s usually held in hot places. It’s just the reality–the meeting isn’t going to be equally huge every year.
Finally, a big thank you to the organizers, who have a big difficult job and who do it very well. I love the ESA meeting, and this year was no exception!
p.s. I’m on holiday until Aug. 21. Posting will remain light and comment moderation may be slow.