#INT13 by Honor Prentice

Just got back from my holiday. Two weeks on the Baltic island of Öland with its old cultural landscape, incredible “alvar” grasslands and brilliant birding. Talk about biodiversity!

I dived into the INTECOL programme, with the aim of starting by trying to identify talks that I really don’t want to miss. I’ve picked out some “musts”, but have begun to remember that point of meetings like INTECOL is to relax, meet new people (and drink beer with them) and to be entertained by talks on all kinds of topics (especially by those that have little to do with what one is supposed to be interested in). I will try and apply the smörgåsbord technique:  small portions of many different dishes, eat slowly, and go back for more …. and more.

I can’t say I have got to the point of having a proper overview of what is on offer at INTECOL (the congress app doesn’t work the same way as my brain). But I see that there’s going to be a great choice of talks on biodiversity and conservation ecology, and plenty on citizen science. Which brings me on to the topic of “species-skills”. By species-skills, I don’t mean taxonomy, but competence in identifying organisms. Academic ecologists have never had it so good. We have free access to state-of-the-art statistical software, and we have phylogenies, smart phones and GIS. We have molecular tools that belonged in the realm of fantasy less than a decade ago. But what about the species-data that underlie studies on biodiversity, conservation biology … and, of course, basic ecology?

It’s getting harder and harder (at least in Sweden) to convince universities that courses on species-identification should have a central place in undergraduate biology education. Increasing emphasis is placed on an education that provides skills that will lead to employment. Yet, while there is a growing demand for field-competent biologists who are capable of carrying out inventories (as well as analysing data on distributions and habitats), we are failing to deliver the appropriate identification skills as part of an education in biology. Within ecological research, if you want to address a particular field-based question, you have to start by deciding on an appropriate design for your study (including details of replication, scale and how to deal with spatial issues). That means that you will then have to collect new data … and will need good species-skills if you want meaningful results. A good knowledge of the group/s of organisms that one works with in the field also feeds back into better definition of ecological questions and hypotheses for future studies.

For many organism groups, it is already clear that the people with species-skills are no longer professional biologists. The challenge is to find ways of avoiding a situation where academic ecologists understand how to identify relevant questions, design research projects and analyse data (but are unable to identify species) and expert amateurs are able to identify and record species (but lack skills in sampling design and data analysis). A lot of bridge-building is called for, and the BES is one of the organizations that will play a central role in this process.

Honor Prentice
Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology

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