Monday at #ESA2012 – a ripper

Now that was a great opening day of the ESA conference in Portland!

OK, yesterday was the official opening, and I liked Jane Lubchenco’s talk, but this was the first full day. And it was perhaps the best conference day I can remember. The following things stood out: meeting old friends, meeting new people, meeting virtual buddies in person, meeting people whose work I admire, and listening to a bunch of really excellent presentations. So, here is a quick recap of my day…

Now, I’m not as fast a blogger as Joern Fisher (via, who posted his perspective on Jerry Franklin’s plenary in no time flat. Consequently, I’ll leave that to Joern, and move to the next event, the social media session run by @JacquelinGill and @sandramchung. It contained a nice mix of people with different levels of experience, and some different perspectives. As well as the content, I got to hear some people speak who I had only ever heard tweet and blog. And I got to meet a few people via Twitter who I have yet to meet in person. Check out the event on Twitter via #esasocial. For a copy of the slides go here.

I had to slip out before the end of the workshop, in order to prepare for the Conservation Ecology session. That session opened with Tim Wootton on a study of the influence of demographic and genetic factors on population persistence. The summary: he has a very cool experimental system. Previous experimental studies of extinction are rare, but they typically focus on laboratory systems. However, by using sea palms (a Postelsia species), which have exceedingly limited dispersal distances, he and his colleagues were able to establish experimental populations in the wild of different sizes and genetic composition. I’m right; it’s cool isn’t it? The upshot, at least for this study, was that population size had a much clearer effect on persistence than the genetic composition of the founding population. Personally, I think there is plenty of scope for more experimental work on extinction in systems with small spatial scales and relatively fast dynamics (in the lab and wild).

(* Edit: One talk I missed, but wanted to see, was another experimental study of extinction by Brett Melbourne. Jeremy Fox has a post about Monday in his blog, where he overviews Brett’s talk. Jeremy also links to other people’s perspectives on the meeting. I’ve covered the same posts here, except for Caroline Tucker’s. *)

As a bit of an aside, but speaking of experimental studies of extinction, keep an eye out for a paper by Christoper Clements (who came to say hi after my talk) and his colleagues that has been provisionally accepted in Journal of Animal Ecology. They used an experimental lab system to test an estimator of extinction time that is based on sighting records. It is Christopher’s first PhD paper. And it is a good’un! Watch out for it.

Next up was Cheryl Schultz. This is a combination of seeing an old friend (we were at NCEAS at the same time) and seeing a great talk. Cheryl looked at effects of grass-specific herbicides on butterflies. Well, it seems the herbicides are not 100% grass specific; they affect butterfly species too. The mechanisms for the effects are not 100% clear, but experimental studies showed reduced visitation times by adults in areas where herbicides had been sprayed (independent of effects of the herbicide on vegetation structure), and higher mortality of larvae. But at sites where herbicides reduced cover of competitive exotic grasses, there were higher densities of eggs being laid, so herbicides are not all bad news for butterflies. Cheryl showed that whether herbicide  spraying was beneficial or not to the butterfly population dynamics was uncertain because of uncertainty in this trade-off.

Whoa! Two experimental studies in the first two talks of the session. I’m loving it!

The next talk was by Timothy Bonebrake (@bonebraking), who works with Helen Regan at UC Riverside. Now, Helen is a colleague, so it was almost like meeting up with an old friend and hearing a nice talk at the same time. Timothy’s talk combined dynamic species distribution models with metapopulation dynamics to predict effects of urbanization, climate change and fire on a serotinous plant species. One nice aspect of the modelling, which aligns with a lot of the work in my lab and more broadly in CEED, is that it is possible to examine the relative effects of different management strategies on alleviating the impacts of these threats (via land conservation, translocation and fire management). So, the model doesn’t just help inform what the threats are, it can be used to determine the type and magnitude of management that might be required.

The next talk was cancelled, which left me sandwiched between a cancelled talk and the afternoon coffee break. So, a big THANK YOU to those who stayed for my talk. Here I talked about some work with Alana Moore, Jochen Krauss and John Morgan on developing and testing indices of extinction risk. The summary: indices are best developed with careful thought, and models are ideal for helping ensure this. One thing I forgot to mention in my talk was that by using models to develop the indices, the various assumptions can be tested, and data can be used to evaluate the indices and improve them. But enough from me; if you want more, check out previous rants about indices on my blog.

Miriam Goldstein, someone I follow on Twitter (@MiriamGoldste), talked about plastic in the North Pacific. Summary: there is lots of it, it is increasing, and it is mostly very small (“microplastic” <5 mm in width). And it could have large ecological effects (by providing large amounts of new substrate for egg deposition, and via consumption by some, although not all, invertebrate species). This was a really interesting talk – great content and really well presented. Another thing I liked about Miriam’s talk was that it highlighted to me why I like the Graduate Seminar class that I teach; because I first heard about this garbage dump of plastic in the Pacific Ocean when it was chosen as a topic to study by one of the students in my class last year. And then I get to hear more about it from one of the experts – nice!

Jessica Stanton then followed, describing a model of the extinction of passenger pigeons. This species, once more abundant than any other bird, went extinction over the course of a century through the combined effects of habitat loss, harvest, and disturbance by humans (particularly as a consequence of the hunting). Jessica was reconstructing the scene of the crime. Is that like CSI but with species extinction and population modelling? Should we pitch that to a TV exec?

By that stage I was flagging with jet lag, so I am sorry I missed the last two talks of the session by Carissa Wonkka and Leslie Bliss-Ketchum. Instead, I worked my way toward the poster session, chatting to a bunch of folks on the way there, including old friends and new.

Because I was flagging, I really only read one poster – about feminism and women in science. The poster is by Tysor and White (I can’t find them in the index of the program; and I’ve forgotten which of the authors I spoke with – my bad! Sorry – please say hi and remind me if you read this). Generally, we chatted about #womeninscience, a Twitter hashtag that @JacquelynGill started (something else I learned today). It was interesting, and reflected some discussions that have been occurring in QAEG – more on that in a future post or two.

Otherwise in the poster session, I had a couple of great chats with interesting people, while gazing wistfully at the long queue to the bar.

The evening was rounded off by having dinner with Luke Kelly (who talks on Friday at 10:30 on optimal fire management for biodiversity; get along to it if you can), meeting up with a couple of people on the way to dinner, and catching up with social media.

Thanks #ESA2012 for a great day! Tomorrow, I’m looking forward to the session run by Ben Bolker and Drew Tyre in the morning, and the talk by Laura Pollock at 2:50 on speciation and co-occurrence (and plenty of other talks too I’m sure, once I get to read the program).

But now it is time to post this, and then go to bed…

(* Edit: Actually, I forgot to mention the data management session that I went to in the morning. It was based around DataONE, which seems to have some useful tools for data management. One is a search engine that works across multiple data repositories. As Miriam Goldstein (@MiriamGoldste) noted in one of her tweets about this “#allyourdataisbelongtome”.  But the focus of the session was building a data management plan. That is something that is set to become a bigger issue in Australian research I think. *)


About Michael McCarthy

I conduct research on environmental decision making and quantitative ecology. My teaching is mainly at post-grad level at The University of Melbourne.
This entry was posted in Communication, Ecological indices, Ecological models, Women in science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Monday at #ESA2012 – a ripper

  1. Pingback: Q&A with an ecologist: Professor Mick McCarthy | Euan Ritchie

  2. Pingback: ESA 2012: other people’s Monday notes | Dynamic Ecology

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