I returned this weekend from the IBS 2017 meeting in Tucson. It was a great meeting. The organizers moved it on fairly short notice from Brazil to Tucson due to concerns about Zika. This resulted in a lot of extra work for the organizers, but it didn’t show. It was a well-run meeting. And it was my favorite type of a meeting a few hundred people organized around a fairly specific topic.
I’m not going to repeat individual talks – check out the twitter feed for many great talks (#ibstucson). As is usual with me, such meetings inspire big-picture musings. This one probably more than most, since the last time I was able to attend IBS was the inaugural meeting in Mesquite Nevada in 2003. I noticed a lot of differences in the 14 year gap.
Four quick observations of how things have changed since 2003:
- Collaborative data – biogeography is a wonderfully collaborative field when it comes to sharing data. I do not know of a field in ecology that is better at assembling large databases using data assembled by often dozens of scientists than biogeography. The sociology of data sharing (or not) fascinates me. It is obvious that some of this collaborative instinct exists because the nature of biogeography makes it hard to answer the questions without big datasets. But this is too glib. Fourteen years ago most of the data was either a few government sponsored datasets (e.g. Breeding Bird Survey which I believe my poster was on) or else data collected from a lot of natural history reports assembled by one person (I recall Dov Sax, now the president of IBS, then was a student with a poster next to me who had laboriously built a dataset of invasive species on islands) or else phylogenies based on careful sample collection and sequencing by one or a few individuals. By contrast, in 2017 there were huge public, multi-collaborator databases such as GloNAF, ReefLife, the compilation of animal and plant matrix data (Comadre & compadre) and dozens more. And that is not including all the new environmental data layers Iearned about (just e.g. hires down-scaled climate data, Chelsea, and SoilGrids1K). These are all freely shared data built by collections of researchers. Something good is happening in biogeography more than just the scale of the questions. Steve Jackson gave a hint in his wonderful introduction of Margaret Davis (winner of the Wallace prize for career achievement) when he described how open and collaborative she was and how this led to collaborations across a whole generation of palynologists. What ever is in the drinking water in biogeography should be shared.
- Computation – I’m not sure I saw a t-statistic or ANOVA in the entire conference! (a slight exaggeration but just barely). The level of statistics and analysis was incredibly complex. Many many statistics on phylogenies were used. Complex null models were used. And many computations on GIS raster layers were made. It may be hard to be a biogeographer in this day and age without strong computational skills. But as a longtime proponent of ecoinformatics, it was refreshing to see. There are oodles of up-and-coming highly capable informaticians.
- Community ecology – have ecologists banned the word community ecology from their vocabularies? I know it was passe in the 1990s and early 2000s. But with two books out on community ecology and a couple more coming, I thought we had got past that. But I saw a lot of talks that were asking basically community ecology questions but avoiding the words and intellectual legacy. I think this is unfortunate. Community ecology is one of the five or so core disciplines of ecology and disowning its rich past is not helpful.
- Climatic gradients – the one novel twist on community ecology that I saw, and it was a very good thing, was lots of studies with communities arrayed along an environmental gradient. For a long time community ecology was obsessed with single site studies of the endogenous dynamics (i.e. species interactions). That remains an important topic. But I personally think we won’t get far until we start doing what several people called to me “comparative community ecology”. This has ancient roots from the study of biomes and Whittaker’s elevational gradients and even Paine’s manipulated tide pools along a latitudinal gradient. But it seems to me ecology has finally embraced the gradient and that is a good thing.
And one contrast between biogeography and macroecology:
- Consensus question – I have blogged a couple of times about how macroecology is a little unsure of what defines the discipline with some resulting angst (here and here). Biogeography seems to have none of that. At the first IBS meeting in 2003 there seemed to me to be a clear divide between the evolutionists who were mostly tracing evolutionary histories using phylogenies and the ecologists. But that divide seemed gone in 2017 – community phylogenetics seems to have successfully bridged the gap. But even in the old (2003) days, nobody argued about what was or wasn’t biogeography. It has always had a clear organizing question: why do these species grow here but not there? or as I like to say, “what grows where, why?”. I think this organization around a central question is really beneficial. Even at the IBS meeting, one of the half day symposia was really about definition of macroecology (specifically what experimental macroecology would look like – Miguel Matias did a great job organizing it). As I noted in my talk, macroecology is really defined primarily by scale and by method (statistical) rather than a question. That doesn’t make it a poorly defined field. But it makes it a fuzzier field.
What did other people at IBS see or think? I would be curious to hear other’s perceptions.