Wednesday at #ESA2012

I began my Wednesday at ESA2012 in Damien Fordham’s talk on the stochastic trophic metapopulation dynamics of Iberian lynx, rabbits and two diseases (rabbit hemorrhagic disease and myxomatosis ) in the presence of climate change. Whoa – that is a detailed model! It was used to assess the vulnerability of lynx to climate change and the effects of management to reduce risks of decline. The summary: the model predicts extinction of the Iberian lynx within a few decades (I think, I couldn’t read the x-axis labels), but that captive breeding and release can lead to an increasing population. There are some details that I would like to chat with Damien about if we get a chance later this week.

Oh dear… I was looking forward to the next talk by Oo on conservation prioritization in Myanmar, but it was cancelled.

But it is a good thing I stayed in the session, because I loved the next talk by Paulette Bierzychudek on feeding ecology of the larvae of Oregon silverspot butterflies. The population size has remained low at Cascade Head following adverse weather several years ago, especially if one discounts the benefits of the substantial releases of captive butterflies. The larvae are specific to Viola adunca, but they have a hard time finding these plants. Only once the larvae touch a plant and taste it do they know it is a host plant. That suggests host density will be important, confirmed by an experiment in which development and survival of larvae increased with host plant density. They then built a simulation model of the chance of larvae finding a host, which was parameterised by tracking wild larvae that were dusted pink (nice!). Larvae movement closely approximated a correlated random walk, and the model predicted how larvae success would be related to violet density and spatial arrangement. Resulting recommendations for planting particular densities and arrangements of Viola adunca have now been implemented by the management agencies. We wait to see the effects.

Lea Randall was next up, talking about applying occupancy-detection models to northern leopard frogs. These frogs “are really hard to find”, with detection depending on factors such as weather and vegetation. The analysis seemed a nice application of occupancy-detection models. It prompted me – I should email Lea about some of our work on growling grass frog metapopulation dynamics (in press; we’ll blog about that soon), detection, and toe clipping of frogs.

Sarah Freed discussed how coral reef health is related to management and environmental variables in the Comoros. She compared two forms of management: co-management, which involved collaboration with the community, scientists, NGOs, and government; and community-based management, which was essentially the community operating their own show. Unfortunately, the comparison of management was confounded by geography, so it is hard to be sure if the differences are simply due to different locations or whether they are driven by the different styles of management. However, more intensive fishing methods (netting and poison) were restricted to the areas of community management. Hence, the health of the reef, as measured by hard coral cover, could quite conceivably be linked mechanistically to the form of management. Regardless of the type of management, strong community involvement was important for robust governance of the reefs.

Samuel Veloz investigated spatial prioritization of tidal marsh vegetation in the San Francisco estuary in the face of sea level rise and sediment deposition. The objective was to manage bird abundances that recover in restored areas. How the effect on the focal species of sea level rise is uncertain. There could be increases or decreases in tidal march areas depending on the degree of sea level rise and the degree of sediment accretion. Also, responses of birds are variable among species, and not just a function of marsh elevation. Samuel used Atte Moilanen’s Zonation package to prioritize restoration, weighting the mean and uncertainty in the responses of the species. He then examined how robust different prioritizations were to the different assumed future scenarios for sea level rise and sediment accretion. I’d be keen to hear more about this, and I wonder how it compares with more analytical solutions for dealing with uncertain management outcomes.

Carolyn Kurle examined marine-derived contamination in Californian condors. Condors once fed on marine mammal carcasses, and the central Californian birds seem to still be doing that. Which is great – who wants smelly rotting whales lying on the beach hey? Those condors can clean up a carcass in no time flat! They must be hungry! There’s some ecosystem services right there.

The only hitch is that marine mammals are some of the greatest bio-accumulators of toxins on the planet. And that is a big hitch, because condor populations cannot afford to suffer from consumption of heavy metals and organic pollutants. Based on studies of stable isotope analysis (using SIAR) it is clear that the central Californian condors are consuming marine mammals, making up about 25% of their diet. This seems to result in high mercury concentration within the central Californian flock, and likely high concentrations of other pollutants, which is a topic for further study.

My afternoon was spent mainly in the 21st century ecology session. Not surprisingly, this session was packed with tweeps (those who use Twitter). Jen Davison (@JenEDavison) did a great job of tweeting this session, so perhaps you can check out some of the details from her tweets, and those of others in that session. Here is a quick summary of the talks I saw.

Josh Tewksbury documented a decline of natural history in biology. Across US universities, the median number of required natural history subjects in undergraduate biology degrees is zero. There is also evidence of a decline in natural history in institutions (e.g., museums and herbaria). Interestingly, the School of Botany (where I work), is seeking to establish an endowed research fellowship in plant systematics, hopefully to offset some of this decline.

Randy Olson, author of “Don’t be such a scientist”, gave a great talk in which he argued that scientists need to use stories to better communicate with the public about the importance of science and its significance for society. I will have to get his book. I hear it is a good read.

Peter Kareiva urged ecologists to engage with businesses to help have a positive impact on sustainability of the planet. He presented similar themes at the inaugural conference of our ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, which we held at The University of Melbourne late last year. This was another rousing talk.

Mary Ruckelshaus seemingly had a hard act to follow after such a great opening. She did it beautifully, providing some examples where partners have worked together in an attempt to improve sustainability. Mary’s major point was that we should reach out to unlikely partners in research and engagement, because unlikely alliances can achieve great things.

Terry Chapin described some ways in which the ESA is reaching out to other sciences, other academic disciplines and other members of society to improve the impact and use of ecology. The aim is to help set the planet on a more sustainable trajectory.

Jarrett Byrnes’ (@jebyrnes) take home message was “Engaging with colleagues using online tools will improve your science.” For a fact, online tools can be a time sink if not managed appropriately. But they can be extremely valuable. Jarrett finished with: Get onto Twitter. Follow blogs. Write your own blog. If you are reading this, you probably don’t need to hear any more. His slides are here.

I can’t really add anything of substance to Jarrett’s talk, but I’ll try something about irrelevance, an accusation launched at social media by some people. In my opinion, saying things like “Twitter is a time sink because it is mostly full of irrelevant tweets” is like saying “A library is a waste because it is full of books that are mostly irrelevant to me”. I liked that so much, I had to tweet it. The trick with Twitter and other online communication tools, just like a library, is to know how to find information that you are looking for. There are ways to do that, and they are not hard to learn. But again, if you are reading this, you don’t need me to tell you that.

Nyeema Harris began by recounting her experiences of studying wildlife ecology as an undergraduate. Coming to a university where she wasn’t male, white, from a rural community or a carnivore, she clearly felt different. Nyeema gave a great talk. Using only a single slide (late in her talk), she had the audience listening to every word. That slide showed racial changes and projections in the USA, indicating a need for ecology to engage with a broader cross-section of society. A comparison with the composition of the ESA membership suggested a “crippling demographic disparity”. The thrust of her talk was that change in the demographic profile of ecologists was required for ecology to move with the 21st century.

I missed the last few talks in that session, heading over to Menna Jones’ talk. She updated the Tasmanian devil decline due to Devil Facial Tumour Disease, and presented information on changes in abundance of prey and meso-predators that were associated with declines of devils.

Oh, actually, I should have mentioned one other event – the 5 km fun run that commenced early in the morning. The men’s winner was Andy Allstadt (15:51), and the women’s winner was Elizabeth Forbes (18:06). Nice running everyone, especially the winners.

This was another excellent day. The blog post for Thursday will be a little different, and a lot shorter…


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.
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