The American ecological society has just finished its annual meeting in Sacramento, California, and the BES was well represented. For those of you who missed it, let me summarize my impressions.
Sacramento has a gleaming modern core, surrounded by genteel Victorian suburbs, surrounded by millions of acres of dry billiard-table flat agricultural land. The population shows a typically Californian ethnic diversity, with every Pacific-rim culture well represented. When you interact with them, however, they all seem to speak the same relaxed Californian version of English (anyone with a foreign accent is likely to be from the meeting). The modern city exudes environmental consciousness: Every street is lined with large shade trees; street design encourages safe driving; a light rail system whisks you efficiently around town; police ride bicycles not cars; and all fountains have been turned off to conserve water in the draught.
The meeting was BIG, with ca. 3500 attendees (organizers tell me this is actually a small meeting compared with previous years). People streamed in and out of the Convention Center and nearby hotels like an underground station at rush hour. Graduate students were strongly represented (two of my own students presented). By my unsystematic reckoning, the age distribution was bimodal with a large peak at ca. 28 years and a smaller one at ca. 58. Both genders seemed equally represented. I was constantly avoiding baby buggies. Is a meeting dominated by graduate students and young parents a good thing? Yes! Notwithstanding a degree of hubris and naiveté, the standard of presentations seemed quite high. I come away with a strong impression of youthful energy and enthusiasm.
With more than 300 thematic sessions, scheduling your time becomes a serious dilemma. Hallways, foyers, and lounges were lined with people closely studying their printed programs and mapping out their day. Should one politely settle in a single session and hear out all the talks on a particular topic, or should one rush from session to session to catch particularly attractive individual talks? I began the week resolved to devote my whole gracious and dignified attention to entire sessions, but soon began scooting in and out as individual talks varied so widely. At least in the sessions I attended, talks did not fit the themes closely, e.g. a talk on dynamic landscape models followed one on transitions between physiological dormancy states – both aspects of biological invasion (one of which I presented). One can’t fault the organizers for the weak transitions, however. Considering the number and variety of submissions, it’s a wonder that sessions were as unified as they were!
Enough social observation – what direction of ecological science was revealed at the meeting? A tally of oral and poster sessions gives a crude idea of direction. Among 300+ sessions (ca. 8 contributions per session), the winner was clearly Climate Change, appearing in the title of 33 sessions. Invasion (16 sessions) and Disturbance Responses (13) were also popular topics. The ecology of disease (8 sessions) and urban ecosystems (7 ) look like rising stars. And there were many curious one-off sessions, including “interaction with religion” and “skin microflora”. My choice for the animal- and plant-of-the-meeting awards would be white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum), respectively. Both are serious management concerns in the eastern United States, and both appeared in many talks.
A large number of presentations used GIS to generalize local observations to entire landscapes and regions for management purposes (frequently tied to climate change). Conversely, many population-level studies used deterministic projection methods to extrapolate local behavior over large areas and long time frames (the authors would do well to consult the literature on landscape heterogeneity). The terms “local” and “spatial” were particularly slippery, applied at every scale from the neighborhood of an individual plant to sections of entire continents. One of the most important benefits I derive from these meetings is acquaintance with new methods. The trendy new statistical method is clearly “Integral Projection Modeling” with “Maximum Entropy Modeling” in a close second place. Bayesian methods, zero-inflated regression, and PERMANOVA (previous favorites) have become rather ordinary. I now have a list which will guide my bed-time reading for several months at least!
Is a mega-meeting such as this one really worth the effort or would we be better served by smaller, more focused meetings? Although I enjoyed connecting with old friends, and serendipity revealed some fascinating new ideas, the enormity of the meeting caused me to miss many interesting discussions and somehow impeded personal interaction. For the moment, however, I set the question aside. I need to write follow-up emails to the many new friends I met in Sacramento!
The California Correspondent
Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology
From plant-soil feedbacks to rhizosphere ecology to soil community diversity and aboveground interactions, the talks I attended at ESA 2014 indicate that a great deal of interest exists concerning the black box that is the soil. Without a doubt we need a better understanding of the mechanisms by which the soil microbial communities influence aboveground plant and community dynamics. To say that aboveground plant communities are an epiphenomenon of belowground processes is not an exaggeration and ecologists often are guilty of ascribing causation to aboveground treatments without an understanding of how plant responses to those treatments are mediated by interactions belowground. Invasive species ecology is one of those areas where our ability to understand spread is hampered by our lack of knowledge of interactions between non-native plant species and belowground biota. In particular, new studies are emphasizing the importance of genotype interactions, changes in the intensity of pathogen loads over time, the potential advantages of intraspecific competition over interspecific competition, and even that the invasive characters of some species may be emergent properties in the invaded range. Needless to say, experiments that take into account a greater number of the growing list of potentially importance variables are few and difficult at the very least, but some very good work is being done nonetheless.
Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology